Alejandro Aravena’s Venice ​architecture ​​biennale: ‘We can’t forget beauty in our battles’

Alejandro aravena's venice ​architecture ​​biennale: 'we can’t forget beauty in our battles'
Paraguayan architect Solano Benitez’s parabolic brick arch / © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

The Chilean architect pitches activism against starchitecture and uncovers the architect’s role in drone warefare – leaving Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano distinctly out of place

“The only animal that can defeat the rhinoceros is the mosquito,” says Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect curating this year’s Venice architecture biennale. “Or a cloud of mosquitos, actually.”

He is standing in the former rope factory that serves as the exhibition’s main venue, a 300-metre-long promenade of installations, where robotically milled stone vaults compete with teetering bamboo frames, made by dozens architects from far-flung corners of the world. These are Aravena’s mosquitoes.

“Architects often think they are too small to make a change, but together they can smother the big animal.”

The beast in question is the capitalist machine, responsible for the slew of “banality and mediocrity” in our built environment. It’s one of the battlegrounds Aravena’s biennale aims to tackle, along with migration, segregation, traffic, waste and pollution, and a host of other “urgent issues facing the whole of humanity”, as he puts it, “not just problems that only interest architects”.

It is a refreshing premise for the biannual bonanza, which too often indulges the rarified realms of architectural theory and form-making. But does it make for an engaging show, or a tedious traipse through holier-than-thou humanitarianism and architectural self-flagellation – the latest attempt to convince the public that designers have a conscience?

Thankfully the moralising is kept at a relatively low volume. What shines through is a dazzling range of ingenious responses to situations of scarcity and insecurity, along with a good number of beautiful things that have no worthy pretensions at all. […]