interview with hashim sarkis on his curation of the 2021 venice architecture biennale

May 26, 2021

after being postponed by a year, the 2021 venice architecture biennale has finally opened to the public with a comprehensive and diverse selection of projects that all seek to answer the question: how will we live together? curated by hashim sarkis, the lebanese architect and dean of the school of architecture at MIT, the 2021 event opens at a specific time in history, with many of the issues and topics touched upon more relevant than ever. ‘the postponement led to open discussions among the participants about tactical things, thematic things, but also how do we respond collectively to a crisis like this?,’ sarkis tells designboom in an exclusive interview. ‘but then it also led to starting to share ideas about how it is more effective to ship from this port versus that, and using local support rather than shipping everything.’

hashim sarkis says that the extra year has resulted in a better and more considered collection of work on display, with participants given extra time to refine their contributions. ‘when you’re invited to an exhibition, you rush, rush, rush to make it on the deadline,’ the curator continues. ‘then, when you put it up, you say I wish I had another year, or another few months to make it happen. well, this is exactly what happened — everybody was rushing to make it to the deadline and then the deadline slipped. it gave everybody a year.’

the extra 12 months has resulted in an incredibly wide range of projects on view, with speculative research presented alongside tried and tested architectural responses. ‘architects are stepping forward and saying: what if it could be this way?,’ hashim sarkis shares with designboom. ‘some do it through research, some do it through hypothetical, visionary projects, some do it through prototypes that have been put together, but not tested, and others do it through projects that have been deployed and proven to be very successful in one way or another.’

a biennale like no other, the 2021 edition is now open to the public, but what does sarkis want visitors to take away from their experience? ‘I hope they will walk out hopeful,’ he tells designboom. read the full interview below and see designboom’s ongoing coverage of the event here.

designboom (DB): after such a long postponement, and a nearly a year of reflection, preparation, and maybe even anxiety, how does it feel to finally see the exhibition complete and open?

hashim sarkis (HS): I’m very moved, to tell you honestly. I’m very moved by the energy that all the participants put into making this happen — la biennale as well — and the trust that everybody gave, and the strong belief that they showed in architecture, and the need for us to come here and talk and show and discuss and debate. I hope it bodes well for other shows to start happening, obviously while taking very good care of our public health all together.

DB: the theme of this biennale is ‘how will we live together?’. what were your original motives for choosing this title before the pandemic, and how have they changed amid and following the pandemic? what new dimensions have been added to this very open question?

HS: I think there was a very interesting immediate impact that the pandemic had on the preparation of the biennale. in part, the postponement led to open discussions among the participants about tactical things, thematic things, but also how do we respond collectively to a crisis like this? but then it also led to starting to share ideas about how it is more effective to ship from this port versus that, and using local support rather than shipping everything. collaborating, in order to improve on the installations both ways. it also led to a very different logistical approach to how projects get assembled, relying a lot on digital transfers, rather than physical transfer. hopefully, it will show that we have reduced our carbon footprint as an exhibition, and hopefully that model will stay — even if the pandemic will hopefully be gone.

DB: do you feel that the extra year has resulted in a better or more considered collection of work on display?

HS: I do. the year lost in one way was a year gained in another way, in many other ways. for one, as you know all too well, when you’re invited to an exhibition, you rush, rush, rush to make it on the deadline. then, when you put it up, you say I wish I had another year, or another few months to make it happen. well, this is exactly what happened — everybody was rushing to make it to the deadline and then the deadline slipped. it gave everybody a year.

obviously that year was a difficult one because people were worried about their health, they’re worried about their offices, they’re worried about resources to support this installation. but that year also led to more refinement and to a level of parsimony in the projects — a simplification of the projects that would not have happened had we not had this extra year. it also led to more discussions among the participants, and helped me better shape the dialogue that happens within the exhibition among projects.

DB: some projects on view are already up and running, while some are speculative proposals. how happy are you with the diversity and the range of projects on view?

HS: from the beginning, as we started selecting projects, and discussing with the curatorial and biennale teams, I felt like it was important for us not to make it monochrome in terms of where the architectural project is at. meaning, not everything should have been built, not everything should be research, and not everything should be speculative, but to show that architecture has a way to contribute and communicate across all these different levels of a project, of what a project is.

there’s something that is common across all, which is that they are projects, they are proposals. architects are stepping forward and saying: what if it could be this way? some do it through research, some do it through hypothetical, visionary projects, some do it through prototypes that have been put together, but not tested, and others do it through projects that have been deployed and proven to be very successful in one way or another. we have the full range.

‘ego to eco’ by EFFEKT | image © designboom | read more about the project on designboom here

DB: in terms of architectural education, what do you think is currently the biggest issue for up-and-coming architects to resolve or to contribute towards?

HS: embracing complexity, rather than compromising it, or delegating it. the problems that are being put in front of us at our doorsteps are becoming more and more complex, more and more inclusive of a variety of disciplines, and also communities and levels of engagement. instead of withdrawing into a space where we say design is only about these attributes, we should allow ourselves to take on the rest. because our role and our advocacy and our agency as architects will only get stronger if we’re able to master the complexity of the project.

that doesn’t mean that we become engineers, or we become scientists, or we become community activists in order to solve every problem, but we become better at orchestrating and figuring out how we synthesize. if design is not about synthesis, it is compromised in its capacity to change the world.

DB: what do you hope members of the public will take away after visiting this biennale?

HS: I hope they will walk out hopeful. I hope that they will see in the projects an optimism that is realizable, that is responsible, but also sometimes that allows them to not just walk away by learning a lesson, but being able to position themselves within the dialogue between two or three projects and themselves formulate their opinion — their own positions vis-à-vis, how will we live together?

see designboom’s ongoing coverage of the 2021 venice architecture biennale here.

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