The Nordics are at the forefront at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale
After being postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the much-anticipated 17th edition of the international architectural fair sees 112 participants from 46 countries from all over the world — including a strong Nordic lineup.
24 Jun 2021

This edition of Biennale Architettura is curated by Hashim Sarkis — an architect, scholar and founder of the Hashim Sarkis Studios. Sarkis is also the dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s been entitled How will we live together? — a question that will be discussed through different talks, panels, and meetings with scholars, professionals, and architects. All under the curation of Sarkis, who has the theme close to heart.

— The current global pandemic has no doubt made the question that this Biennale Architettura is asking all the more relevant and timely, even if somehow ironic, given the imposed isolation. It may indeed be a coincidence that the theme was proposed a few months before the pandemic. However, many of the reasons that initially led us to ask this question – the intensifying climate crisis, massive population displacements, political instabilities around the world, and growing racial, social, and economic inequalities, among others – have led us to this pandemic and have become all the more relevant, he explains.

Among the participants, we find several Nordic contributions that all have their unique take and answer to the fair’s theme.

Con-nect-ed-ness explores the connection between humans and nature — with the visitor in the centre

Danish architectural firm Lundgaard & Tranberg, together with curator Marianne Krogh, presents the exhibition Con-nect-ed-ness in the Danish Pavilion. It’s demonstrating the connection that exists between humans and nature through a sensory experience where the visitor is in the centre. 

The concept and idea are to invite people to discover their position in the world and how everything in some sense is intertwined. 

— It is very important to say that this idea of connectedness is not a romantic idea. It is more a question-posing that; shouldn’t we start feeling this connectedness in order to feel our position in the world in another way? And realizing that connectedness also comes with a lot of pain. If you realize that the actions you take on one side of the planet, have consequences on the other side, that could be very painful. But this is something we don’t realize when we are living our very comfortable lives, especially in Scandinavia, says Marianne Krogh.

The connection, thus the connectedness, is achieved in the pavilion through one vital element; water. Water tanks are situated outside the pavilion collecting rainwater from the roofs, which are then, with an architectural approach, circulated through the pavilion. 

— Even though water plays a big part in the exhibition it is more about the idea of connectedness. The background of the exhibition is that we think that for a very long time, for centuries, there has been a very distinct distance between humans and their surroundings. This has of course happened through our inventions, education and life, which is not a bad thing in itself, but it has created this distance and we believe that this is one of the reasons why the world is in such a bad condition, says Krogh, continuing,

— In a way water is an element that connects everything. The water we have on the planet has always been here, it is the same water that just circulates. The Danish Pavilion taps into and becomes part of this global system.

The exhibition invites visitors to be part of the system, rather than just observing it and it is possible to have a full sensory experience in several ways. One example is the local herbs that are planted and growing out of the water from the cyclic system. They can be touched, scented, picked, and brewed into a fully drinkable cup of tea. In this way, visitors could fully immerse themselves in the exhibition. Something that, according to Marianne Krogh, is an important part of the experience.

— Reflection occurs through the sensual experience. It is also important that we don’t try to manipulate or control peoples feelings, but I think it’s important to realize that we are nature too. We are bodies, we are not intellectual entities. I think this is why we have to connect through our bodies.

The exhibition comes with the anthology Connectedness – An incomplete encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, edited by Krogh. The book includes contributions from anthropologists, architects, philosophers, and artists, discussing how we are supposed to live in the geological epoch that is called Anthropocene.

”We really have to rethink the way we do things — by designing as a part of nature, rather than just being apart from it”

Danish architectural firm EFFEKT is part of a section of the Biennale focusing on communities. In Venice, the firm is showcasing its installation called Ego to Eco. A project proposing new ways of building communities while being part of and contributing to nature, rather than just consuming it. A proposal they are exhibiting by creating a living ecosystem.

The ecosystem is built upon what the firm is calling the ”growing table”. It is a table where 1 400 seedlings of trees have been planted. These will grow during the whole Biennale thanks to a hydroponic system that are being controlled from Copenhagen and a growing lamp. After the exhibition, the trees will then be transported back to Denmark where they will be planted in an afforestation project by EFFEKT, called Naturbyen.

— It is a crazy experiment which nobody has done before. People have been saying it can’t be done. But we have done it. Just during the first two weeks some have been growing around five centimetres, so they are already flourishing, explains Tue Foged, partner and architect at EFFEKT Architects.

Ego to Eco

On the table, within the little forest, EFFEKT is presenting seven research- and design projects, on a scale of 1:100, they have done in recent years. All the projects are in some sense proposing questions on how people could be able to live in interplay with nature.

— All the projects we are presenting have different topics. One is for example asking; ’How can we design regenerative communities with local production of food and energy?’. Rather than depleting the environment, it is part of it is regenerating it, Foged explains, continuing,

— Another project is this huge tower we built in Denmark. Which are dealing with the issue of how we can give people access to nature without destroying the very thing they are coming to see. Because building resorts or tourism parks, they are often destroying a lot of the natural environment. 

— We have also, together with Ikea, developed a project called Urban Villages. It is circular building systems, made only out of wood. They can be disassembled, rebuilt, and reused, so they are circular.

By presenting their forward-thinking projects together with the miniature forest, EFFEKT and Foged are hoping to inspire others to have a new approach when designing.

— We are trying to help a paradigm shift of humans designing for themselves, to a world where we are part of the ecosystem that are around us. So rather than just designing for humankind, we are proposing this idea of designing for all the ecosystems that are around us.  

— When we design, we need to think of our designs being a part of ecosystems, rather than this silo-based thinking where you are designing for just somebody or some purpose. We really have to rethink the way we do things. By designing as a part of nature, rather than just being apart from it. That is really what we hope people can take away from this exhibition, Foged concludes.

An overlooked architectural phenomenon gets the spotlight

Finland is a country with a rich heritage of architecture — after all, the pavilion itself is made and named by Alvar Aalto — and presents something quite different for the Biennale. Instead of focusing on contemporary architecture and showcasing new buildings, visitors will be met by the historical exhibition entitled New Standards, curated by Laura Berger, Kristo Vesikansa, and Philip Tidwell.

The exhibition explores a piece of finish architectural history that has been overlooked, even though it might be the one most widespread all over the world. New Standards is centered around the pre-built housing made possible by the company Puutalo Oy (Timber Houses Ltd.), which was founded in the 1940s. A time in Finland when 420.000 people were displaced because of the war. What Puutalo Oy did, was to create a new model of factory-built housing that modernized Finland’s construction industry. The company quickly gained momentum and in less than a decade they were one of the largest manufacturers of prefabricated wooden buildings in the world.

The houses, of which many are still being used today, have undergone different modifications and adjustments to fullfil personal and cultural preferences. A development and history New Standards is documenting through drawings, photographs, videos, and advertisements.

Why is this exhibition important?

— Because it reminds us that ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ are directly part of larger forces from material culture and trade politics to labour and economics. The challenging question posed by Hashim Sarkis will not be answered only by form, it requires that we see architecture in this larger context, explains curator Philip Tidwell, and continues,

— One interesting perspective to think about are the connections between the Nordic countries in regard to prefabricated wooden buildings: namely, how ideas, technology and actual buildings were exchanged between the countries. The know-how acquired from Sweden, for instance, was crucial in starting the timber house industry in Finland during the early 1940s. Finland then exported hundreds of buildings to Denmark and Norway in the late 1940s to help with their postwar reconstruction. Later, buildings went to Sweden during the ’Million Program’ (ed. Swedish public housing program) of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1950s, the Norwegian Selvag system (named after the architect Olav Selvag) inspired Finnish manufacturers to strive for affordable construction methods.

The co-housing model that proposes a new way of living

The Nordic Pavilion is co-owned between Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and the countries are taking turns in arranging the exhibition. This year, Norway is in charge and the exhibition is commissioned by the National Museum of Norway. In the pavilion, architectural firm Helen & Hard is proposing a socially sustainable way of living, by transforming it into a full-scale co-housing project entitled What We Share.

The project is inspired and made possible thanks to an earlier project by Helen & Hard, called Vindmøllebakken. It is a residential housing-project, in Stavanger, that is centered around a co-living model where residents have their own apartment, but also access to a shared space of 500m² that is enabling and inviting social interaction. Among the spaces are communal kitchens, guest rooms, playgrounds, and more.

— We learned from Vindmøllebakken that user participation is key to building functioning co-housing communities. We challenged eight inhabitants from Vindmøllebakken on how the model can be improved. Vindmøllebakken has a central space with private units organized around it. In the Biennale project, we developed a buffer zone, a sharing layer in between the central space and the private unit. We also developed the timber system. In Vindmøllebakken we used clued plates, but now we use smaller elements that consist of solid wood. This solution is more environmentally friendly and can be used for self-building, explains Reinhard Kroft, co-founding partner of Helen & Hard Architects.

Besides responding to environmental issues, What We Share is a project that wants to show how residential projects can improve life quality and communities in general. But also how it can make a positive impact on an individual level.

— The theme ’How will we live together’ was an opportunity to share and discuss alternative housing models that can tackle some of the societal and environmental challenges we face today. We think our featured co-housing model — which is based on the Nordic housing model — can contribute to this discussion, says Kroft, adding,

— Loneliness and segregation are the largest health challenges in Scandinavia. The Nordic co-housing model encourages self-owned apartments and therefore a stable neighbourhood to live in. It is based on the inclusion and participation of the inhabitants.

The Norwegian firm that turns abandoned buildings into meaningful spaces 

OPAFORM is an architectural firm located on the Norwegian west coast, nestled in between mountains and fjords. For the Biennale, they are presenting their project Make a Space for My Body in the Corderie-salon, a historic part of the main Arsenale-salon.

Their proposal is a display of how abandoned or unused spaces could get the attention they deserve by being repurposed, given new functions and therefore be used in new contemporary ways.

— From the beginning, architecture has been about sheltering the basic needs of the body — from the rain, sun, wind and threats posed by others. The exhibition ’Make a space for my body’ deals with creating space and shelters for bodies and our built society that is changing. Our main strategy is to make use of abandoned buildings. Structures that, for several reasons, over time have been rendered useless and consequently been left to decay. Many of the buildings that have lost their function today, still offer value, both historically but also in a more basic way as sheltering construction, says Espen Folgerø, architect at OPAFORM and associate professor at Bergen School of Architecture.

The installations that are being presented, are not just architectural components. They could also be seen from an artistic point of view and visitors have the chance to engage with them in different ways.

— Our exhibition works on several levels; For visitors just passing through it displays well-choreographed sculpturesque installations that are in a dialogue with the existing Corderie-space; both reflecting and abstracting the old brick walls, the beautiful window and the more than human-scaled interior. If you are stopping by the installations and entering, it offers a different kind of spatial quality, with the body-scale as a guideline they have been given form according to typical needs such as solitude and community.

— And if you are studying all the elements within the projects displayed in the installations it offers a wider perspective on real-life projects that OPAFORM have built in Norway. There is the barn that became a host for an additional autonomous wooden module and now offers tourists a memorable night in a comfortable hotel room in an authentic traditional barn. There’s the old forgotten boathouse that has been given a new purpose to life through the added wooden module that now is the scene for a writers office, says Folgerø.

Sustainability is of great importance for OPAFORM and the upcycling of already existing buildings could, according to him, be one answer to the overall theme for the Biennale. 

— Much of our cities of tomorrow are already built. In looking for ways on how we will live together we have to make use of existing structures in meaningful and sustainable ways.