Venice Biennale 2023

WAX Design director Warwick Keates shares his experiences and insights after attending this years Venice Biennale.


18th Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

By Warwick Keates

In May, I was lucky enough to visit the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale. This year’s Biennale was centred around Lesley Lokko’s provocative challenge to create a laboratory of the future where projects explore the potency of the imagination – to create a better world, it must first be imagined.  The Laboratory of the Future set the idea of imagination as a new paradigm, one which acknowledges and celebrates Africa and the African Diaspora and the imperatives of decolonisation and decarbonisation.

The curation of the Biennale provides a glimpse into a new creative framework in which to base future practices, engagement, creativity and ways of being within the world.

Walking through the Giardini and the Arsenale complex, exhibits focused on the decolonisation and deletion of Western architectural philosophies, displacing them with broader ethno-architectural responses and the growing influence of other cultures and diaspora from across the globe.

For me, the messaging was clear, it is no longer acceptable for architectural and design practice to simply take from, build on, be inspired by or create from existing colonial constructs of endless growth, resource theft, displacement, and appropriation within the current cultural and climate crisis facing the planet and humanity.

There must be a stop, an unwinding, an undoing, a relearning, and even a reckoning. In order for us to meet the future, we must think in new ways, to imagine differently. This new thinking was evident in the language used across many of the exhibitions. Unlearning, unbuilding, decolonisation, deconstruction, and decarbonisation became statements of intent.  Each word a powerful provocation for a complete change of thinking. The idea that design needs to be based in the ‘un’ and the ‘de’.

The potential of the ‘un’ and ‘de’ is expressed in the exhibits through the unapologetic tactics of creation, inclusion, and care. The curated responses from the global exhibitors are crafted, light, human, and created with the natural environment as a foundation. Not in a normative sense of building upon-the-ground, but as the basis for all architectural responses.

Landscape, country, and the natural world seemed to underpin, inspire or envelop most of the works. Landscape becomes the centrepiece of architecture. For me, at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, the landscape was the hero.  Then again, I might be biased.

This tension and potential reconciliation of architecture and landscape was provocatively captured by the creative directors of the Australian pavilion, ‘Unsettling Queenstown’. Creative directors Anthony Coupe, Julian Worrall, Emily Paech, Ali Gumillya Baker and Sarah Rhodes have created a work that highlights Australia’s colonial inheritance at the end of the second Elizabethan era, treating Queenstown as an emblem for decolonial struggle the world over.

A skeletal artwork of copper pipes represents the Empire Hotel in Queenstown. The artwork reflects a return of the colonial facade back to Europe – in a sense, the old architectural practices being given back.  The suspended ghost-like facade is dominated by a visual art projection by Ali Baker and Sarah Rhodes.

The landscape of Lutruwita (Tasmania) and Yartapuulti (Port Adelaide) creates a context and representation of landscapes and country that have been impacted by colonial ignorance. Nature, water, and mangroves contrast the impacts of the colonial past and testify to the resilience of country and culture.

Images of men weaving as part of the digital art piece express a nurturing masculinity that contrasts the destructive colonial actions. The flickering of the projected images of nature animate, however briefly, the constructed and inert architectural form at the centre of the pavilion.

Eucalyptus leaves piled across the floor bring a sensory quality to the pavilion. The rich smell brings country into the space. Again, nature forms a foundational element on which to explore the relevance of architectural practice within a post-colonial age.

Audioscapes from Auntie Pat Waria-Read and Uncle Lewis Yarlupurka O’Brien AO bring the Yartapuulti country deep into the pavilion. They generously share their knowledge and experience of country – the damage and loss resulting from the impact of colonial occupation and the potential to heal country through indigenous design thinking.

The guidance provided by elders such as Uncle Lewis and Auntie Pat leads to the pavilion’s Open Archive. A collection of projects, planned, speculative, and completed, that starts a conversation about decolonisation and the ambition of architectural and landscape architectural design practices to imagine a new co-created future.

The Open archive, of which Yitpi Yartapuultiku is a part, provides a resource for learning, a tangible lesson of how architectural and landscape architectural design practice in Australia must acknowledge and accept the continuing process of decolonisation and indigenisation. To reinforce the words of Lesley Lokko, “To create a better world, it must first be imagined”. We need to imagine a future that balances the needs of people, place and the planet.

My takeaway from the 18th Venice Biennale was that of a complex, multi-layered, and often overwhelming call to reset architectural practice.  To renew and re-balance architectural thinking. The next challenge is to work with nature, to listen to the deep-time teaching of indigenous culture, and ultimately, to create designs with and for the living world.

“Places do not bear the names given them by their original inhabitants, but the names assigned by those who came later, the indigenous languages giving way to the language of the coloniser; the centre exercising power over the margins. Political disputes over borders are resolved to the satisfaction of the cartographers or their rulers, areas rendered barren by ecological devastation or over farming are hidden away, dry lakes shown full, dead rivers snaking across valleys rendered deserts by dams and irrigation.” James Bradley