In 2015 Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was appointed director of the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the global exhibition and think tank that draws architects to Venice in flocks. His difficult task was to try to rally the world of architecture behind a common thematic proposition, and to curate a coherent and engaging central exhibition – accompanied by myriad national pavilion exhibits, satellite events, publications, panels and talks – that stimulated progression in the practice, understanding, valuing and application of architecture.
The Venice Biennale of Architecture is a unique exhibition which provides not only a forum for professional discourse and hand-wringing over the status and preoccupations of architecture but also a thought-provoking and visually arresting public spectacle that strives to engage the broader public in conversations about the role of architects and architecture. For his edition, Arevena chose a theme as well as a mission for the exhibition. Titled Reporting from the Front, Arevena’s biennale challenged architects and their commentariat to consider ways in which the process, practice and deployment of architecture might better contribute to those living on the fringes, who do not already experience the benefits of architectural thinking. The biennale placed particular emphasis on rapidly expanding urban centres in developing nations, and outlying rural areas of the world overlooked by the benefits of globalisation and neoliberalism.
Importantly, Aravena made his call-to-arms from his own lived context in the sprawling urban region of Santiago. His was a provocation thrown from a developing nation in the Southern Hemisphere to the gatekeepers of mainstream architecture in the north. To enunciate his point, Aravena gathered examples of architecture that sought to improve living, education, health, material, aesthetic and ecological conditions, and in doing so presented a low-tech, bottom-of-the-pyramid biennale that implicitly rejected the techno-centric architectural hegemony of Britain, Europe, North America and Japan.
Aravena asked his audience to consider whether architecture could recalibrate itself, shift metaphorical hemispheres and navigate away from the places in which it had become rooted as a professional practice that many claim lacks empathy and relevance in challenging times and is dominated by money, gadgets, magazine spreads, form and style. At the time, Avarena said that architects should be
in the battle to improve the living conditions for people all over the world. The theme Reporting from the Front aims to focus on architecture which works within the constraints presented by a lack of resources, and those designs which subvert the status quo to produce architecture for the common good – no matter how small the success.1 Alejandro Aravena, Reporting from the Front: Biennale Architettura 2016, 28.05–27.11 Venice, Marsilio, Venice, 2016.
His proposition (to the status quo) was an architecture operating on the edge, on the ‘frontiers’ where the human need is greatest, resources scarce and the material rewards for architects often unspectacular. Around this armature an exhibition emerged that offered stories from far-flung places and which strived to reveal another architecture – a practice leaning towards common problems and focused on improving living, education, health and ecological conditions.
It is within this framework that the 2016 Creative Directors of Australia’s presentation at the biennale, Isabelle Toland, Amelia Holliday and Michelle Tabet, exhibited The Pool – an architectural exploration of the ways in which swimming places have shaped Australia’s social, sporting, cultural and national identity. The installation proposed that swimming pools can be read as some of the most important elements of our physical environment – places that often demarcate and mediate frontiers within our society, and which are capable of challenging, unifying and defining the nation.
Importantly, these three young curators understood that to respond appropriately to Aravena’s provocations from their vantage point in Sydney, one of the richest cities in the Southern Hemisphere, they would need to look broadly across time, culture, landscape and the built realm in order to construct a coherent narrative about pools in Australia. As they explain:
In the bush, the pool is a waterhole, a dam or a billabong; in the city, a backyard pool, sports facility or city baths; on the coast, a beach house, a concreted grotto in a rock shelf or an ocean baths washed with surf. Mysterious and familiar, tame and wild, natural and man-made, pools are places where the communal and the personal could intersect.2 Isabelle Toland, Amelia Holliday & Michelle Tabet in The Pool: Architecture, Culture and Identity in Australia, Australian Institute of Architects, Melbourne, 2016.
Their exhibition argues that pools are about far more than buildings or architecture, and sets out to reveal that when designing them architects think far beyond these terrains:
Recognisably Australian, The Pool is joyful, celebratory and accessible. It is also a setting for the sharing of stories, tales of personal and collective struggle, of community building and transformation and refusal of the status quo. Creating a pool as the focal point in the space, the exhibition will at first seduce the senses, but it will also capture the imagination and intellect of those who choose to dive deeper, as we have throughout our research and development process.3 ibid.
Given Aravena’s theme for the biennale, it might have seemed incongruous to offer international audiences an installation about swimming pools, which in many places are inaccessible; yet there is a logic at work here. By casting the pool, built or natural, as architectural protagonist, we see architecture not simply as buildings or the production of spaces, but as a way of thinking about the significance of place. The exhibition helps us recognise the importance of making and preserving places with the potential to affect people, presenting the pool as a social frontier, a liminal space with the capacity to host and facilitate ritual situations – of imagination, protest, meditation and joy. Toland, Holliday and Tabet elaborate:
As an architectural device the pool represents a physical edge, but it also expresses a social and personal frontier. This is explored through the narratives broadcast in the exhibition space for which we have selected eight storytellers: Olympians Shane Gould and Ian Thorpe; authors Anna Funder and Christos Tsiolkas; musician Paul Kelly; environmentalist Tim Flannery; fashion designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales from Romance Was Born; and Indigenous art curator Hetti Perkins. Their interviews reveal stories of fulfilment and accomplishment, of segregation and inclusion, of learning from the past and reflecting for the future, all through the lens of the pool.4 ibid.
The Pool asks us to consider the broader sociocultural and psychological implications of place, space and context – examining how these things can trigger and facilitate relationships between us as citizens. It is also a more personal enquiry into race, the body, confidence, sexuality and our primordial and sensorial relationship with water. Through all of this we begin to see that in Australia, the driest continent on the planet, pools matter.
Alejandro Aravena, Reporting from the Front: Biennale Architettura 2016, 28.05–27.11 Venice, Marsilio, Venice, 2016.
Isabelle Toland, Amelia Holliday & Michelle Tabet in The Pool: Architecture, Culture and Identity in Australia, Australian Institute of Architects, Melbourne, 2016.