Sylvia Aehle's letter from Venice

The groundbreaking Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko, aims to decolonise architecture. As someone more attuned to the representation of Africans and those from the African diaspora, in what is traditionally a white-dominated space. I anticipated witnessing how and if decolonisation could truly be achieved.  

Prior to joining Bennetts Associates, I had been naive to the significant impact the built environment contributed to waste and our carbon footprint, as well as our capacity to mitigate these effects. The practice has had a long-standing commitment to sustainable architecture and place-making that caters to genuine human needs. It is this conviction that led them to support and encourage my participation in this year's thought-provoking Biennale. 

The Arsenale, nestled amidst the labyrinthine canals of Venice, serves as the starting point for my exploration of the Venice Biennale. Not far from the entrance, Lemon Pebble's installation creates a captivating ambiance as you hear melodic Arabic music coming from above. Their installation explores the effects of colonial capitalism and the displacement of free and enslaved Muslim communities in South Africa. Projected onto the ground are prayer rugs that illuminate the space, while above them, suspended beads hang from the ceiling, simultaneously creating openness and enclosure. In their own words, "the 'musallah' (a space of prayer) is the architecture." 

Moving deeper into the Arsenale, Gbolade Design Studios' installation fills a large corner. Their film, centred around a beloved community centre in Brixton, celebrates the Brixton Immortals Dominoes Club. It serves as a reminder to those of us who embarked on architecture due to a moral and social calling, reinforcing why we do what we do. Nearby, the BFA (Black Females in Architecture) film explores their individual journeys as well as their collective experience. It was inspiring to hear them speak about their evolution from a small community advocating for people who looked like them to a recognised architectural group promoting diversity and collaboration with organisations in the sector. 

In the Giardini, innovation and socio-political commentary through art abound. The Brazilian pavilion, winning the Golden Lion for best National Participation offers a unique experience. Stepping into the pavilion,  the smell of earth and the coolness enveloped me. Terra, the installation, emphasises the importance of looking back as we move forward - or as they described Sankofaa Twi word from the Akan tribe of Ghana. Among the showcased earth samples the Amazonian Dark earthhas been traditionally used in indigenous Brazilian building techniques, and is now being explored as a sustainable building material for the future. This display effectively highlights the spatial practices of indigenous communities and their relevance now more than ever.   

The adage from Walter Lippmann, "Where all think alike, no one thinks very much," encapsulates what can be taken away from this year's Biennale. While it has faced criticism regarding the balance between "real" architecture and the high-brow installations, abstract pieces, and films, perhaps this diversity is precisely what we need. This platform not only amplifies new voices deserving of recognition but also challenges us to rethink the meaning of architecture in this age. Is it solely about brick and mortar or its new trendy sister, timber? Or can architecture serve society in unconventional ways, prompting us to think outside the box? 

The Venice Biennale encourages us to embrace different perspectives and question established norms. It sparks dialogue and pushes boundaries, reminding us that architecture has the power to shape our world in profound and unexpected ways. 

Picture of a student in Venice with Venice Biennale logo

Sylvia Aehle shares her experience of the Venice Biennale 2024 as part of an inspiring collective account authored by London Met's representatives at the world-famous event.