Holy See brings ‘O Encontro’ to Venice Biennale of Architecture

The title of this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture is “The Laboratory of the Future” and it is doubly interesting because at a time in which Africa becomes the continent with the world’s youngest population, it features a majority of works by Africans and the African diaspora. The contribution of the Holy See focuses on the theme of encounter.

By Antonella Palermo and Linda Bordoni

The 18th edition of the top-level Venice Biennale Architecture exhibition which opened at the end of May and runs until 26 November is designed as a workshop of ideas. Architects from across the globe have presented their works in the 63 national pavilions scattered throughout the “Arsenale”, the former shipyard and naval base of the ancient Republic of Venice.

The Holy See is also present with its Pavillion dedicated to “social friendship”, a theme dear to Pope Francis. Created by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira and the Italian Studio Albori collective, it is entitled “O Encontro”. The installation guides visitors through a Benedictine Abbey into a garden symbolising the Church’s desire to open its doors and go forth into the world.

Decolonization and Decarbonization

The director and chief curator of the Biennale is Ghanean/Scottish architect Lesley Lokko. Speaking to Vatican Radio she highlighted the Biennale’s 2023 theme dedicated to “Decolonization and Decarbonization” and expressed her belief that the relationship between mankind and the environment and our relationship between each other “clearly cannot continue as we have been doing.”

“So the theme of decolonization and decarbonisation for us was really to draw attention to the lack of care that we have towards one another and towards the planet”, in line with Pope Francis’s teachings in Laudato si.

Regarding the ongoing narrative about the need for sustainability in all areas and the dangers of so-called “greenwashing”, Lokko said she thinks “that sustainability is really about a change in culture, a change in the way we think about resources.”

“It's not so much a scientific race to declare your credentials. It really is about changing the way we live.”

The hunger for truth

Asked what her concept of beauty is, the director of the Biennale said “I suppose I would say truth; to find something truthful in one's voice, one's creation, one's expression. (...) The hunger for truth is always beautiful.”

An architect, she explained, strives to express truth by recognising the complexity of the job.

“For a long time,” she continued, “we've thought of architects simply as people who build buildings. But I've always thought of architecture as a bigger category.”

“Architecture is about building many things: building society, building knowledge, building confidence, building hope.”

Lokko went on to comment on how so many of the curators at the Biennale responded to the theme “The Laboratory of the Future” bringing to the fore a similarity of concerns regarding resources, the environment, mineral extraction, exploitation.

“For me, architecture is a broader category than form,” she reiterated.

The role of the architect

An architect is trained, Lokko continued, “to try and understand complexity” at a time in which the world is becoming more complex.” This is important, she added because architects are able to hold very different ideas in their minds and their imaginations.

This concept, she said, also means that all creative forms, including films, documentaries, art installations and sculptures – anything that translates ideas into form – are a form of architecture: a form of “building”.

And regarding the Biennale exhibition, she noted that some visitors may be disappointed at the lack of buildings – “of things that we recognise as buildings” – but she expressed the hope that it will encourage people “to question what they understand by architecture, what they understand by the environment, what they understand by history, by storytelling.”

“I think that's what the best architect does: force us to question, in a positive way, how we look at the world.”

Lesley Lokko also reflected on how architecture is really about people: “It's about how people see space, how they use it, what their ambitions are, what their desires are, what their hopes are.”

And so, she added, it always contains an element of participation, because architects often “translate the desires of others into form.”

They have the responsibility and privilege to filter the views, hopes and desires of people which means they must also never lose the ability to listen and to understand what “the population is saying about its own relationship, to the environment, to the world.”

Searching for roots, building a home

Reflecting on her own choice to undertake the profession, the Scottish-Ghanean architect recalled the fact she grew up “in between cultures - half one thing, half another”. This, she said, probably drew her to architecture because “it seemed to be a profession that would give me some roots.”

“A lot of architecture is about establishing yourself in the earth, about making a home.”

The more she studied architecture, the less she knew about it, she continued, noting that this is one of the reasons she is still so fascinated about it.

She observed that as a continent, Africa does not have as wide an appreciation of architecture as a cultural force as other parts of the world, so it has been quite difficult to persuade African countries to invest in making a pavillion or a show.

“But what is very interesting about this Biennale is that Africans and the African diaspora came together, not under the banner of one country or one nation, but actually as a collective,” she said, “and maybe this is something that the future can learn from.”

“It's not so much about your territory, where you were born or the passport you carry, it's more about your approach to the world, to a common humanity.”

"I think the desire to have a home, to make a home, is a fundamental human desire," Lokko said, and at a time in which the conversation around migration is shaping the modern world, it is interesting to see that only the migration that comes from Africa appears to be seen as “a problem.”

“Migration built the United States, it built Australia. The desire to make a home is in every single one of us,” she said.

Guests from the Future

Lesley Lokko concluded expressing her pleasure of "being in education" and dealing with people who are “two or three generations younger than yourself: you always have a closeness to the dynamism, the ambition and the hope of the young.”

“It's a very privileged space to work in,” she said, noting that she has called the young architects she invited to participate in the exhibition “Guests from the Future.”

“It's really important to encourage, support and nurture young voices, because how else does change happen?”

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26 June 2023, 17:09