Reflections from the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

At Sparano + Mooney, we are mad about architecture. For us, great design is at the heart of our Los Angeles, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah, based practice and our architects are wholeheartedly focused on delivering thoughtful, innovative, sustainable and contemporary design solutions to each and every client. We explore hyper-specific cultural cues and strive to construct a meaningful relationship between modern architecture and the experience of its inhabitants. Which is why we were so excited to visit the mothership of international architecture – the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. We were eager to explore visionary architectural creations from architects from around the globe and to be inspired by the plethora of architectural delights on offer. Do other firms share our core values? Does an architect in Ireland approach design in a similar manner to an architect in the American West? How can we continue to progress the cause of research-based conceptual design and architecture to solve the real problems we confront each day? What can we learn from our peers around the globe? Below is a snapshot of the incredible installations and exhibitions we discovered during our trip.

Entrance to the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, Arsenale Pavilion, curated by architect Alejandro Aravena. Photograph courtesy World Architecture. Photography by Luke Hayes. © Luke Hayes 

First off, we were blown away by the truly amazing entry space to the Arsenale Pavilion – the vast former shipbuilding facility in Venice that houses the main part of the exhibition – designed by notable Chilean architect and Pritzker Prize architect Alejandro Aravena. The Elemental founder curated this year’s Biennale and created the installation using seven miles of scrap metal and over 105,000 sq. ft. of drywall discarded after the Venice Art Biennale 2015. Sections of crumpled studs are suspended from the ceiling, and the walls covered with textured, stacked sections of multi-tonal plasterboard. Across both the Arsenale and Giardini Pavilions, Aravena used more than 100 tons of scrap material to create not only beautiful works of art / architectural space, but also to spark dialogue around the issues of waste, pollution, sustainability, inequality, housing and quality of life addressed by architects in their work around the world. 

We were also intrigued by the “Losing Myself” exhibition at the Irish Pavilion, which explored the design of spaces for people with dementia. We were interested in the consideration of architecture’s social function and the way spatial cognition can help us understand how humans interpret their surroundings. The floor of this installation accommodated a large drawing of the Alzheimer’s Respite Center located in Dublin, Ireland. The dynamic drawing was animated by multiple projected hands, representing 16 individuals who live in the Center. A simultaneous soundscape projected murmured conversations and other quotidian noises, creating a sense of layered confusion. The architect’s installation communicates some of the shifts in spatial perception caused by dementia and the challenges faced when designing habitable spaces for those suffering from the condition.  

“Losing Myself” Installation, the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 (photo by Anne Mooney, architect)

We found the model of Boris Bernaskoni’s Matrex building compelling because of the successful translation from concept to large scale realization. Matrex is the primary public building in Skolkovo, Russia, intended as a multifunction space for retail, business and arts activities. The model is spectacular – it is well crafted and grand in scale, but maintains a sense of simplicity, effectively communicating the interconnection of pyramidal and Matryoshka-esque shapes that constitute the building’s form.

“Matrex” model by Boris Bernaskoni at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 (photo by Anne Mooney, architect)

Finally, we were drawn to the “Against the Tide” installation at the Chilean Pavilion, not least because the architects chose to feature an ethereal architectural space entirely out of recycled plastic bags. The purpose of the exhibition was to highlight the efforts by emerging architects working specifically within the Central Valley, a rural area of Chile. These architects focus primarily on the social aspects of architecture and how the built environment shapes residents’ daily lives. The issues that affect these communities are often fluid and in flux – hence the symbolic wall of plastic bags wafting in a “tidal” ebb and flow that so caught our eye. 

“Against the Tide” Installation, the Chilean Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 (photo by Anne Mooney, architect)

There is so much to experience at the Venice Architecture Biennale, and this report is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. The next Biennale will take place in 2018 – we hope to see you architects and architectural buffs there!


1.       “Venice Architecture Biennale: Buildings for the People”, by Anna Seaman for The National, 3 September 2016

2.       “Alejandro Aravena uses over 90 Tonnes of Recycled Waste for Entrance Rooms of Venice Biennale 2016”, Jessica Mairs for Dezeen, 2 June 2016

3.       “Reporting from the Front”, by Alejandro Aravena

4.       “Losing Myself: Inside the Irish Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale”, by Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou, 17 June 2016