16.08.2015 Jakob Schoof

Effective architecture: Alejandro Aravena appointed Director of 2016 La Biennale

Alejandro Aravena. Photograph: Cristobal Palma

Better late than never: On 18 July, the Board of la Biennale di Venezia announced its nomination of Alejandro Aravena of Chile to curate the 2016 International Architecture Exhibition. Intensive work awaits the architect in the coming months; his predecessor, Rem Koolhaas, knew about his appointment back in January 2013, giving him six more months than Aravena to prepare the most important architecture exhibition in the world. 

In a statement issued by the Biennale, Aravena says,  "There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people's quality of life". This may sound confrontational, but the basic message is that Aravena wants to focus discussion on concrete success stories, i.e. projects that, despite all obstacles, make a tangible difference, both for their inhabitants and society as a whole. 

Biennale chairman Paolo Baratta describes the reasons for the choice of director fairly explicitly:   after the more retrospective approach of the 2014 International Architecture Exhibition themed "Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014" and directed by Rem Koolhaas, the intention now is to highlight the "vitality of architecture" and "show architecture that engages in  providing specific responses to specific demands." As Baratta continues, "This Biennale intends to react once again to the gap between architecture and civil society, which in recent decades has transformed architecture into a spectacle on the one hand, yet made it dispensable on the other.  Among architects of the new generation, Alejandro Aravena is, in our opinion, the one who can best describe this reality and highlight its vitality."

As in 2014, the 2016 iteration is to last a full six months – from 28 May until 27 November. This decision is not least due to the event's growing visitor numbers, with attendance particularly increasing on the part of universities from all over the world. The Biennale has been catering to this latter clientele since 2012 with special guided tours and the workshops in its Biennale Sessions, meeting, as Baratta says, with a very positive response.

The search for quick profits meets social interests: The work of Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena is not unknown in Venice. He not only exhibited at the International Architecture Exhibition in   2008 and 2012, but also studied in the lagoon city in 1993 shortly after graduating from the Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago.  He established Alejandro Aravena Architects in 1994, but is mainly known for his second architectural office, Elemental, which he founded with engineer Andres Iacobelli during a guest professorship at Harvard University (2000-2005).

Aravena describes Elemental as a "for profit company with social interest"– in other words, as a profit-oriented planning office that cooperates with his alma mater and the Chilean oil company COPEC to implement projects in the fields of housing construction, local public transport, infrastructure and public open space. However, in all this, social value creation is always the primary focus of Elemental's work. This approach makes the office representative of one of the core questions the 2016 International Architecture Exhibition will have to address: How can architecture display social relevance while ensuring the livelihood of its originators at the same time?
After Kazuyo Sejima's nomination as Biennale Director in 2010, Aravena's appointment is the next logical step towards greater cultural plurality in what was once a fairly European- and North American-centric architectural event. The Chilean architect is the first Biennale director to come from a developing country. It can be expected that his exhibition will take up where the globally-spanning and (socially oriented) show curated by the Briton Richard Burdett left off in 2006. It will be interesting to see which examples of architecture that make a positive social difference Aravena will be bringing together from highly differing cultural circles. The official motto of the 2016 International Architecture Exhibition is still not known, but Alejandro Aravena's appointment is a clear pointer for the selection committees that will be naming the commissioners for national contributions in the weeks to come.
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