It is no secret – nor surprise – that our cities are growing at an exponential rate. The fastest of these cities are in the developing world – or the “Global South.” By 2100, 4.4 billion people will be living in African cities – up from just 1.26 billion in 2016. Policy-makers and city residents from Rio de Janeiro to Seoul are concerned about whether cities actually have enough space to accommodate the influx in urban populations. In the Italian City of Venice, the 16th Architectural Biennale raised questions about the future of urban spatiality with this year’s theme of ‘free space.’

The growth of urban populations around the world warrants a complete overhaul in how we think about urban infrastructure. Urban planners and architects are thus left at a crossroads between utilizing what spaces already exist in cities and carving out new spaces in the urban fabric of cities. Curators of this year’s Biennale chose ‘free space,’ also the title of the exhibition, as the theme of this year’s Biennale, to address how cities can appropriate space as their urban fabrics continue to change.

We take a closer look at how some of the installations showcased at the 16th Biennale interpret free space as an answer to impending urban growth.

How free is (free) space?

Boasting one of the world’s most advanced and developed urban infrastructures, Singapore is often hailed as a role model for cities across the globe for its integration of smart technologies and robust policy frameworks. Singapore’s pavilion at the Biennale, however, suggested that, as the country moves forward, the limitations of being an island nation can prove to be challenging. The pavilion, titled “No more freespace?” accentuates this struggle posed to urban planners.

Free space, both as an urban and architectural concern, is not necessarily a monolithic element of cities. In other words, free space is not just one thing or the other. Linguistically speaking, the word ‘free’ has a number of etymological connotations. For one, it can be interpreted as space that is open to all, in the way that public space operates. Or it can be seen as unstructured space, like that of an empty lot or abandoned building, spaces in cities that lie untouched for one reason or another. Free space can also be seen as open space – which, in and of itself, can be seen in a number of ways.

The curators of this year’s Biennale, Dublin-based architects Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, wanted to emphasize the difficulties of re-designing cities as they continue to grow, explaining the theme of this year’s Biennale.

“We wanted to have something that wasn’t dealing with architecture as object. We wanted to deal with space as the craft of architecture,” Farell says. “There’s free space of thinking, the free space of imagination, the free space of opportunity of architects to finding space to operate no matter what,” McNamara continues. “It’s our position that [we ensure] those values are central to the making of architecture.”

The pavilions did not stray far from this mode of thinking. Argentina’s pavilion, titled “Horizontal Vertigo” entertains the intersection between geography, place, and architecture, implying the possibility of creating free space by playing on optic illusionaries. The pavilion, curated by Javier Mendiondo, Pablo Anzilutti, Francisco Garrido, and Federico Cairoli, emphasizes the possibility to construct space within a space, without taking from space, but, rather, by adding to it.

At the center of the pavilion lies a glass container with a number of panel mirrors, reflecting the greenery and expansive sky that lies within the container. When viewed at eye level, it seems the space within the container is never-ending, due to the strategically positioned mirrors. Argentina’s pavilion represents the country’s changing urban landscape, which is also somewhat a reflection of the country’s transition to democracy since 1983.

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The glass container from Argentina’s pavilion (Federico Cairoli. All Rights Reserved)

The Egyptian pavilion at this year’s Biennale also had an interesting take on free space. The pavilion, titled ‘Roba Becciah,’ explored informality in modern Cairo by looking at how informal street vendors, also known as roba’a bikya sellers in Arabic, collect old possessions. In Cairo, free space has been taken over by informal commerce, which explains the scores of street vendors that make up almost any quarter in the Egyptian capital.

For the pavilion’s curators, Islam El Mashtooly, Mouaz Abouzaid, Cristiano Luchetti, Giuseppe Moscatello, and Karim Moussa, the par excellence of Cairo is how the informality of the city’s urban economies defines public space in the city. Roba Becciah accentuates how free space in Cairo – alternatively public space – is defined by the informality of roba’a bikya vendors. The curators attempted to display this informality in free space by hanging common objects traded by roba’a bikya vendors from the ceiling of the pavilion.

From Roba Becciah: The Informal City, the Egypt Pavilion at the Architectural Exhibition at Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Roba Becciah.

From Roba Becciah: The Informal City, the Egypt Pavilion at the Architectural Exhibition at Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Robabecciah/Marina Caneve.

Rising Water

The world was on the edge of its seat earlier this year as Cape Town came close to becoming the first coastal city in the world to run out of water. And as Cape Town’s concerns of living without enough water is increasingly becoming a concern of other cities, Ljubljana in Slovenia struggles with quite the opposite – too much water.

Over the past 25 years, Ljubljana has grown to become the center of employment in Slovenia. And as the city continues to grow, curators of the pavilion say that understandings of ‘city’ and ‘landscape’ are no longer two distinct concepts. The growth of Ljubljana means more flood-prone areas are experiencing urbanization without considering the necessary precautionary measures.

With approximately eight percent of its inhabitants living in flood-prone areas across the country, Slovenian cities have yet to find a future for its cities where water is no longer a threat, but a part of the urban environment. At this year’s Biennale, Slovenia’s pavilion, titled ‘Living with Water,delves into reconfiguring the relationship between Ljubljana and water by understanding how changing ecological factors shape urban growth in the city. The pavilion emphasizes the importance of ‘resetting’ landscape systems to make urban environments more resilient.

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Part of Slovenia’s pavilion titled “Living With Water.” (Francesco Galli & Italo Rondinella. All Rights Reserved)

Rebellion in the City

Venezuela’s pavilion was crowned the ‘most dissonant’ pavilion in the entire Biennale by the LA Times, which isn’t too far a reflection of the country’s current social, political, and economic climate. Since the turn of the decade, Venezuela has spiraled out of control, witnessing an electoral crisis, hyperinflation, and widespread protests around the country.

Considering the realities today in Venezuela, the name of the country’s pavilion at this year’s Biennale, CCS Espacio Rebelde – Spanish for ‘Rebel Space’ – seems fitting. The pavilion looks at free space as space that is open and free to urban residents and space that can be reconfigured to suit the changing urban fabric of Caracas. Through these new spaces, curator Nelsón Rodriguez hopes to democratize free space in the Venezuelan capital to be used for communal good.

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Patricia Parinejad. All Rights Reserved.

Rodriguez emphasizes (article in Spanish) that the ‘rebel space’ is not a concern of policy makers, urban planners, or the elite, but, rather, “it is a process of inclusive consensus, collective construction, and community agreements.” This process of reconfiguring urban land has already been carried out on a number of occasions.

For instance, the land along the urban axis of Avenida Bolívar – Bulevar de Sabana Grande has been appropriated for social housing and a number of other social uses. These open spaces in Caracas have become ‘rebel spaces,’ spaces that have become reoccupied, revalued, and re-inhabited for the enjoyment of the wider community.

The Future of Free Space

Like other pavilions, Venezuela’s is not a straightforward reflection of the future of cities around the world; rather, it is a contemplation on what the future could look like in these cities. Both Farell and McNamara emphasized that the theme for this year’s Biennale is not simply about urban spatiality, but about how both architects and urban residents can think differently about free space.

Architecture is not something off in the distance,” Farell says about free space. “[Free space is] not always at the magnified scale, it could also be the smallest detail. [Architecture] is the cradle of our lives and the more that is valued, the more that architecture is supported by society, not just by architects themselves, but every citizen should also demand architecture [and] demand architecture as a civic right.”