Year in Review: Did We Reach Peak-Biennial in 2019?

The proliferation of these events begs the question: Who is the targeted audience of a biennial, and whom does its staging benefit?

Oslo Architecture Triennale Degrowth
An installation at the current iteration of the Oslo Architecture Triennale, which interrogates the industry’s obsession with growth metrics. Courtesy Benno Tobler

In 2019, the biennial model feels a little worn, a holdover from an erstwhile age. The sequencing—once every two or three years—seems arbitrary, both artificially scarce and anticlimactic, while the work produced in their name is often scattershot and possessing of little aura. Moreover, the proliferation (and profligacy) of these events almost ensures a policy of self-cancellation. This year alone saw easily over a dozen biennials and triennials cast over five continents, of which Metropolis was only able to cover a fraction. (A full accounting can be found in the slideshow below.)

The historian Léa-Catherine Szacka, in her new book Biennials/Triennials: Conversation on the Geography of Itinerant Display (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City), describes –iennialization as “[v]ery much a twentieth-century phenomenon” that has, in our current time of “hyper communication and increasing individualism,” run its course. That may be true, but the larger culture industry to which the biennial and its cognates belong is right at home in the twenty-first century. And by stimulating urban real estate and giving cover to the worst effects of gentrification, these events more than justify their existence. This begs the question: Who is the targeted audience of a biennial, and whom does its staging benefit?

The politics of biennials have not gone unnoticed, not least of all in the various curatorial agendae which guide and shape such events. Of the many observations proffered in Szacka’s book (which is structured around interviews with biennial/triennial alums), “politicization” has quickly become the —iennial’s raison d’être, outstripping its previous value in recovering unsung heroes and practices or promoting neo-avant gardes. This was the tack adopted by the curators of the latest edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, where a memorial to the victims of gun violence and land acknowledgments were foregrounded, and it’s an encouraging development, to be sure.

Coupling analysis with a communicative aesthetic, however, is an essential skill of the architect and designer, and to downplay this conjunction risks failure in engaging an audience. (What good is politicization without a public to activate and mobilize?) The results too often devolve into insider baseball—architects curating architecture exhibitions talking to other architects. This was Metropolis contributor Crystal Bennes’s chief complaint with the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, an event heavy on “theory-laden waffle and technical jargon pasted to walls” and little else.

But the most politicized topic in evidence at this year’s design festivals was sustainability. The Oslo Architecture Triennale’s Degrowth exhibition polemically questioned the growth imperative latent in all human production, particularly in the building of buildings. No less polemical was The Triennale di Milano’s Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival, which presented the task of the contemporary designer with tailoring a memorable end for the species. In its plea for stoking collaboration between humans and nonhumans, Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial was more constructive. Analyzing the latter two productions, Metropolis editor Avinash Rajagopal weighed their environmental costs alongside their conceptual apparatuses. His conclusion, that a “human-centered design” is no longer feasible nor in fact desirable, is a hard, but vital diagnosis of the industry today.


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