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“Freespace” Venice Architecture Biennale Opens

“An occasion to celebrate the best of creative practice” –Yesomi Umolu

Architects, designers and industry journalists from around the world convened in Venice for the press preview opening of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale during the last week of May. The six-month exposition morphs Venice’s picturesque, honeysuckle-filled Giardini park, set along the famous Grand Canal, into a hub of expressive architectural ideas from around the world. A host of parallel exhibits at palazzos throughout the city offers all-you-can-eat architecture and design for the curious to explore. This year, the Biennale features 100 participants in the international exhibition, 63 national participants, 12 collateral events and two special projects.

The Biennale’s Dublin-based curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, curated the overarching theme of the 2018 edition, “FreeSpace.” Farrell and McNamara tied together concepts presented by diverse designers representing different nations. These core exhibits, showing at the Central Pavilion and Arsenale, feature projects by global architects. Beyond that, each participating country curates its own pavilion within the Giardini, selecting architects to represent its particular contributions. The Biennale will remain open until November 25th, attracting members of the architectural community as well as the general public.

This year, in response to the overall theme of “FreeSpace,” the U.S. Pavilion presented seven projects that considered the “Dimensions of Citizenship.” Seven design teams explored a sense of belonging, addressing inclusion and exclusion through race, the borderless digital world, the boundaries within the natural environment, the cosmos and how urban communal spaces interconnect with people’s narratives. This pavilion leaves wanderers wondering about what it means to be a true global citizen and raises awareness of the connection between the built environment and a feeling of belonging.

We caught up with curator and former architect Yesomi Umolu who offers a unique sense of perspective on the importance of tasking architects to respond to wider themes while celebrating their individual sense of design. Umolu currently serves on the curatorial advisory board for the U.S. Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. In addition, she was just named the sole artistic director of the forthcoming 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, which is the U.S. sibling of the Venice event. Umolu has also been involved in the European biennial Manifesta 8. Her penchant for helping find unique voices within a curated context is driving anticipation for her upcoming contributions to Chicago’s next architecture fest. The 2017 edition drew over half a million visitors to explore the theme “Make New History” as interpreted by 140 architects and designers from 20 countries.

Umolu calls the Venice Biennale “an occasion to celebrate the best of creative practice from around the world.”

The U.S. Pavilion was executed with participation from co-curators Mimi Zeiger, of Los Angeles, Niall Atkinson, with the University of Chicago and Ann Lui, with the School for the Art Institute of Chicago. The diverse group of design participants included artists Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez, architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang and her team, architects El Hadi Jazairy and Rania Ghosn of Design Earth Speculative Designs, Kate Orff’s SCAPE landscape architecture design team, the research-based political and architectural firm of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, Diller Scofidio + Renfro architects, and architect and author Keller Easterling’s team, who explore the scale of network and migration.

During a send-off event for the U.S. Pavilion, Zieger cited the ability of the Biennale framework to provide “a platform to explore citizenship and the spatial conditions of belonging that go beyond conventional constructs of nationhood or sovereignty. We are at a moment when headlines here in the States and abroad routinely ask us to consider, who has access to the full rights of citizenship and who doesn’t?” she said. “Architecture just can’t evade these thorny questions of inclusion and exclusion. They are acted out on public streets and in airports as well as in border walls and prototypes thereof… This is why we think it’s critical, even urgent, that our exhibition presents spaces of citizenships from the body to the cosmos, across seven scales, each tackled by a different artist, architect or landscape architect. These scales include… citizen, civitas, region, nation, globe, network and cosmos.”

Participant Jeanne Gang was already working on a project in Memphis that was relevant to the theme. While looking at how to connect public buildings along the waterfront, her team considered an ongoing debate about removing two Confederate statues in the area. The divisive conversations brought to mind questions of “civitas” and challenged them to try and weave personal stories into the design of an urban, public space.

They realized that a cobblestone landing they were already working on offered an opportunity to express a new idea of what a Memphis memorial could be. A careful process of interviewing local residents created a range of cobblestones that captured their complex histories. From there, Gang says, “We felt like also giving the stones a new history and memory by bringing them over to Venice and doing something to them, installing them into the space and then shipping them back to Memphis and maybe doing a show there would extend that conversation… We thought [the Biennale] was a great way to bring those questions forward to a broader audience that’s non-American and to see what the things that were comparable with our situation in the States and also things that are different.”

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