Book Review: Biennials/Triennials—Conversations on the Geography of Itinerant Display

By Léa-Catherine Szacka (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019)

Considering the inherent limitations around exhibiting architecture, it is a wonder that so many architectural biennials and triennials have taken root around the globe. The very nature of architecture, arguably, is about user experience. So presentations at glamorous locations (Venice being the most prestigious) are inevitably showcases—interpretational representations, although often engaging in their own right.

Canadian ex-pat Léa-Catherine Szacka, a scholar at the University of Manchester, has focused her research on architectural exhibitions. Her recent book compiles her discussions with luminaries from the world of architecture biennials and triennials. It explores the many advantages and drawbacks to these temporary exhibitions, but leaves the reader feeling that, ultimately, the “eventification” of architecture is failing to move the industry forward or help practices succeed. This is not actually a criticism of the book; rather, it seems simply the reality of current times.

The introduction offers a short history of the genre, starting with Aldo Rossi’s experimental Teatro del Mondo—a temporary, floating wood and steel theatre erected in 1979 for the first Venice Architecture Biennial, in 1980. Rossi’s structure set the tone for exhibitions that would become progressively more about the objectification of architecture—observations of architectural ideology, rather than commentary on the capabilities of emerging practices or practicalities of construction.

This, in turn, has had an effect on practices themselves. Szacka interviews Andre Tavares, the co-curator of 2016’s Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa, who says “the discourse that is being shaped around architecture is dismissing many aspects of its effective practice, and ignoring the question of how commissions are attained.” He adds that architects’ interest in theories is “beautiful, but when it comes to designing a staircase, they don’t get it.” We’ve all heard the stories of large-scale, much-publicized buildings that have highly engaging designs—but that fail when it comes to mundane aspects such as flow, access, or construction details.

On the positive side, architectural biennials and triennials provide a valuable experience to attendees who might not otherwise be exposed to high-design spaces. If architecture is indeed dependent on user experience, then getting more people to engage with capital-A architecture—regardless of how temporary or impractical the installations are—is a good thing. These are the people who might eventually benefit from bigger thinking around progress and living conditions—albeit, not necessarily the usual audiences at such events.

With the postponements entailed by COVID-19, perhaps it’s a fitting moment to reconsider the purpose of such events. Biennials and trienniales could remain showcases for a particular, art-focused aspect of the industry. Yet the pandemic has demonstrated that online forums can open up global involvement despite location, and may be better places to address practical matters of construction, and issues such as affordability and sustainability.