An exhibition of ideas and visions: the temporary architecture of biennials, festivals and universal exhibitions

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An exhibition of ideas and visions: the temporary architecture of biennials, festivals and universal exhibitions

Helsinki Biennale Pavilion by Verstas Architects. Image © Tuomas Uusheimo

Architectural events such as biennials, urban festivals or the Universal Exhibition provide a framework for research and experimentation, allowing architects to present their visions on an international stage, with the aim of advancing practice and stimulating innovation. Universal exhibitions, in particular, allow these avenues of research to unfold on the scale of architecture rather than that of an installation. Within these platforms for discourse and knowledge exchange, temporary architecture becomes a medium for communicating ideas on architecture and the city, its challenges and possible axes of development.

United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2021. Image © Frederico Torra for PLAN-SITE© Raul BettiUnited States Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Biennale. Image © Laurian GhinitoiuUK Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010. Image © Daniele Mattioli+ 7

United States Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Biennale. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
United States Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Biennale. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

During its four decades of existence, the Venice Architecture Biennale has established itself as one of the most important architectural events. From Portoghesi La presenza del passato and his Strada Novissima, in Fuksas’ Less aesthetics, more ethics, or that of Aravena Frontline reports, the themes of the biennale have created opportunities for complex and diverse architectural narratives. However, before the emergence of architecture biennials, World and International Fairs were the playgrounds of architectural culture. The World’s Fair draws on more than 150 years of history, and some of the projects created for the World’s Fair have proven to be essential for the development of architecture, starting with Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in 1851, the Barcelona pavilion by Mies van der Rohe in 1929, and continue with the geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller for the American pavilion in 1967 or Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie.

Danish pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.  Image © Iwan Baan
Danish pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Image © Iwan Baan

Today there are at least 35 architecture biennials and triennials in the world, and many other festivals or architectural exhibitions that take various formats and axes, as well as the Universal Exhibition, which is held every five years. While many architecture biennials are more interior-oriented, the World’s Fair is a very inclusive platform by tradition. Although of different magnitude, these recurring events are a living testimony to the architectural concerns of the moment, a barometer of the state of the profession and its challenges. They all appropriate ephemeral architecture as a display and communication tool to convey research.


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The the relevance of the biennials is called into question, in the same way the sustainability aspect of similar events. The effort put into it, the level of consumption or waste is rightly considered to be the expression of an economic model of endless growth, the validity of which now seems questionable. The pandemic has exacerbated this line of criticism, with the media deeming the effort somewhat redundant given the gravity of the global context. However, some festivals are taking steps to offer more sustainable formats, and architects are following suit with proposals that allow disassembly and reuse, as is the case this year with the Japanese Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, some interventions at this year’s Chicago Biennale, or Concentrico.

© Raul Betti
© Raul Betti

Events such as biennials and world fairs illustrate a range of trajectories for architecture and urban environments, serving as incubators of ideas which promise to advance knowledge in the field. Since in many cases contributions are chosen through a competition template or curation process, these events open up opportunities for emerging practices to present their views on architecture and cities on the global stage. In addition, the succession of curators in the biennials allows for diverse perspectives and participations.

United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2021. Image © Frederico Torra for PLAN-SITE
United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2021. Image © Frederico Torra for PLAN-SITE

At the same time, it is an opportunity to implement avenues of architectural research which otherwise would not find expression in everyday architecture. International exhibition, especially in the age of digital media, helps disseminate ideas quickly and widely, inspiring the architectural community and concepts outside of architectural discourse have the opportunity to gain traction with the public. On these lines, it would be interesting to see if and how the proposal put forward by this year’s Golden Lion winner, UAE’S Wetland, finds its place in traditional architecture. The ephemeral architecture within this type of event is freed from the constraints of the program and the imperatives of daily construction. Its limited lifespan makes it the ideal testing ground for full-fledged ideas and developing concepts.



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