VENICE — Wandering around Venice on a sunny afternoon can be an overwhelming experience. Hordes of tourists are everywhere, snaking about in long lines, eating, lounging, talking loudly — especially in the most renowned sites, such as the breathtaking Piazza San Marco.
However, if you walk a little over one kilometer east of the romantic and historic square along the sea front, a mindful visitor can leave the crowds behind and find themselves immersed in a different, yet deeply Venetian world: the Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennal).
The Biennale is a cultural institution established in the Laguna in 1895. Structured as a World Fair, with individual countries and institutions featuring their own pavilions immersed in a lush and serene garden, the Biennale is the venue of the famous Venice Film Festival (held every fall), of the Art Biennal (in odd-numbered years), and in even-numbered years, the Biennale Architettura (running May 28 – November 27, 2016), which features the world’s most innovative and emblematic trends in the field of architecture.
Exploring the pavilions allows visitors a glimpse of how countries see themselves in the future, how they imagine designing and building tomorrow’s houses, cities, and projects.
For example, Australia presents an exhibition on swimming pools (“an exhibition about public space and public debate,” reads the introduction on the entrance wall).
Spain’s display is titled “Unfinished” and it focuses on the challenges brought about by the end of the real estate bubble, the empty ghost skyscrapers all over the place, and the response of architecture in times of economic crisis.
However, in this reporter’s opinion, none of the pavilions managed to capture the essence of its country better than the Israeli one.
The establishment of the Israeli pavilion dates back to 1952, only four years after the state was founded — a symbol of the deep ties between Italy and Israel. For the 2016 exhibition, the work focuses on the intersection between nature and human invention, in a highly innovative, highly technological and vivid exhibition called “LifeObject. Merging Biology & Architecture.”
“We are all aware of the impact that the digital revolution has had on every aspect of our lives. We believe that the next revolution will have to do with biology,” says Yael Eylat Van-Essen, head of the curatorial team, in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel explaining the relevance of the theme.
Holding a BA from Bezalel Academy of Arts and design in Jerusalem, an MA and a PhD from Tel-Aviv University, and a post-doc from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Eylat Van-Essen specializes in the interface between art, science and technology. She was invited to lead a team which includes architects Bnaya Bauer, Arielle Blonder and Noy Lazarovich, and scientist Ido Bachelet (many others contributed to the exhibition, including Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman).
“The intersection between architecture and biology includes many different perspectives. It has to do with new materials, new ways of structuring based on biomimetic principles, with the understanding that we cannot consider human artifices and nature as two separate categories any more,” says Eylat Van-Essen.
‘Thanks to scientific and technological development, we know how to hybridize the physical and the virtual’
“Thanks to scientific and technological development, we know how to hybridize the physical and the virtual and how to employ big data in material thinking. There are so many new opportunities and potential. We think it is not only interesting, but actually important that architects start to take the influence of this merger into consideration,” she adds.
The lens through which the relationship between architecture and biology is looked at is the concept of resilience, the ability to cope with shock or trauma by reacting and adapting to the surrounding environment. A concept that is essential in many fields, including architecture and biology, but that it is also especially relevant to Israeli society.
“In architecture, resilience is one of the most important issues in terms of structural thinking. The term also indicates a biological trait, that is present in many systems in nature. It offers an opportunity to adopt a biological term into our value system. Moreover, resilience is a concept of great significance in the context of Israel’s unique reality, considering its geo-political framework,” Van-Essen says.
‘In architecture, resilience is one of the most important issues in terms of structural thinking’
Entering the pavilion, the visitor immediately encounters the epitome of biology, architecture and resilience: an architectural installation that reproduces the nest of a Jordan sparrow, the embodiment of a structure built working in cooperation with nature, designed to serve the most basic purpose of a living creature (building a shelter) with light but resistant material, capable of reacting to stress.
The nest is described in the catalogue as “a light-weight, porous and resilient structure” formed by “free-form volumetric airy surfaces undulating in space that are composed out of over 1,500 slender and light components, inspired by twigs, relying on tension only.”
It is the LifeObject itself, the main attraction of the ground floor.
On the second floor, the projects of seven teams of architects and scientists are presented. They utilize concepts and techniques from different fields, medicine, physics, computer science, anatomy. They envision different architectural speculations that could engage several areas of the country, offering new solutions in terms of the materials employed, the approach to the surrounding natural and human environment, the way of structuring the entities.
Among the projects is “Live it” an innovative solution for the sandstone cliffs on the coastal line of Netanya, subject to constant erosion that threatens buildings and human life. Instead of responding with more bricks and concrete, the study suggests allowing nature to take the lead. The idea is to keep the area monitored and to reduce human interference to the minimum level by anticipating the natural course of the erosion and planning the urban development accordingly, as explained in a three-dimensional video of the coastline.
“Dead Sea Resurrection” presents innovative ideas to heal the Dead Sea. The key element of the research is a comparison between the inter-dependence of its two lakes and Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome, where one twin develops at the expense of the other, with separation being the operational way to save the pregnancy.
Other projects include the “Diffraction of Urban Crystals,” a different way of predicting and shaping the urban development of the city of Haifa based on the patterns of crystal formations and the “Breathing Building,” a research center to be built in the port of Ashdod whose infrastructure would imitate the process that takes place when air is inhaled and ejected through the nose. The “Nanocellulose Desert Shelter” imagines employing a material that has the capability of self-assembling to build a resilient and flexible structure that perfectly fits in the environment (in particular, a community center for the Bedouin community).
‘What is special about Israel is its innovative power, the attitude of thinking outside the box’
“The relationship between architecture and biology has been attracting the interest of many labs and architectural studios around the world, who engage both in experimental and practical projects in this field. However, in my opinion what is special about Israel is its innovative power, the attitude of thinking outside the box. We have a lot of openness and very good scientists. Therefore, a great potential of bearing some fruits, if we want to talk in biological terms,” points out Van-Essen.
“I believe that even if not all projects will be actualized soon or within a few years, we have achieved a very important result by creating a platform for dialogue between scientists and architects,” she says. “And we intend to continue working together. As stimulating and prestigious working with the Biennale has been, this exhibition is not the end point. It’s just the beginning.”