What’s in a theme? Getting to the heart of Aravena’s Biennale

The theme for this year’s Venice Biennale ‘Reporting from the Front’ has drawn a wide variety of responses from the international architecture community.

Accused of worthiness by some, lauded as purposeful and humanitarian by others, the show, directed by Javier Bardem lookalike Alejandro Aravena, offers the usual mix of playful, cerebral, experimental, dramatic and introspective takes on a unifying theme. The theme itself has been explored via subjects as wide ranging as immigration, national identity, dementia, worker exploitation, education, earthquakes and erm… swimming pools.

It’s a vast box of tricks and depending on the heat, the comfort of your footwear and whether or not you have managed to score some lunch, you may find your patience tried by tiny text, badly lit or signed exhibits and jargon.

Design goes where it is needed – there should be no hierarchy of world problems to be resolved. However, amongst the national pavilions in the Giardini, Germany’s seems particularly relevant and topical focusing as it does on solutions to the mass movement of people in Europe.

Here the walls have been symbolically removed and the space opened up to exhibit photo-illustrated strategies designed to welcome and quickly integrate new immigrants. Pragmatic steps, including a flexible approach to business regulations and urban designs which are accessible and animated at street level, encourage participation and assimilation.

The brick Arsenale offers a more contemplative experience in its sequence of spaces. Sometimes the quieter works are the most engaging. For example, nine beautifully detailed timber models of schools built in Thailand following the 2014 earthquake in Chiang Rai, which stand firm in a waist-high field of rods planted in a sprung floor that mirrors nature’s challenge to stability or permanence. Kinetic and hypnotic.

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South Africa Schools Project

Also, a determinedly upbeat graphic narrative recounts the achievement of the design and construction of 50 schools in rural South Africa within a two-year period, in the most challenging of conditions. A useful reminder that for some, noteworthy architecture is defined by its ability to provide the basics, rather than its first-world application to high-profile vanity projects.

Romanian practice ADNBA offers Hilariopolis, a highly instagram-able, and beautifully lit construct of lyrical miniatures exploring urban living.

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Nek Chand’s Rock Garden

Nek Chand who died last year is remembered with an installation celebrating his fantastical sculpture garden at Chandigarh, in India – the inspired creation of a public space built completely of industrial and domestic waste and way ahead of its time.

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Tadao Ando’s sketches of the Punta della Dogana

A huge model of Venice’s Punta della Dogana is the centerpiece of the architects’ fable offered to us by Tadao Ando – a painstaking account including sketches, models and construction shots, of the long term commitment required to champion and actually deliver a project. In the midst of this Biennale full of theory and invention and wonder, Ando’s postcard from the edge of his profession simply reminds us ‘how difficult it is to get things done’.

The Venice Biennale runs until 27 November 2016.