At this year’s edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, there was little evidence of a discipline coming to grips with pressing issues.
“Freespace,” the one-word theme of the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, is a neologism whose separate elements—freedom and space—would seem surefire ingredients to compel curators and designers to grapple with architecture’s political valances. But the Biennale’s directors, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Irish firm Grafton Architects, have supplied a prompt whose indeterminacy has left several exhibitors struggling to meet the concept’s generous potential.
When space is described as free, it is either unoccupied (like a parking spot) or mostly unprogrammed (like a meadow). In either case, it is the absence of occupation and domination that constitutes a space of opportunity. “Freespace” was taken to heart in the official exhibition staged in the Arsenale and interrogated brilliantly by a few of the national pavilions in the Giardini.
Such was the case for the U.S. Pavilion’s Dimensions of Citizenship, curated by Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, and Mimi Zeiger. The team’s choice of direction is the boldest move in what is a particularly conservative edition of the Biennale, and the exhibition successfully deconstructs the spaces and mechanisms of citizenship at a time when its meaning holds profound and immediate consequences for many.
Contested citizenship can separate young children from their families, and mobility across borders (the U.S.-Mexico border, the site of President Trump’s promised “Great Wall,” for example) and the movement of borders themselves (the Russian annexation of Crimea) are matters of life and death, and human suffering. With this in mind, the U.S. Pavilion is a razor-sharp exhibition that confronts visitors with evidence of the un-free territories of American geography. But it also begs the question: Can architects do more than represent structures of injustice?