The Venice Architecture Biennale is known for corralling big thinking. And for this year’s presentation, the United States Pavilion is looking all the way to the cosmos.
The exhibition “Dimensions of Citizenship” was commissioned by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago, on behalf of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the United States Embassy in Rome.
It features seven installations that address the topic on levels ranging from the individual to the universe itself.
“There are two big questions,” said one of the curators, Ann Lui, a professor at the art institute’s school and a co-founder of Future Firm. “What does it mean to be a citizen today? And what’s the role of architecture in that? So we organized it around seven spatial scales.”
Ms. Lui organized the show with Mimi Zeiger, a curator and critic who teaches at ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles, and Niall Atkinson, an art history professor at the University of Chicago.
“Globally, nationalism is on the rise,” Ms. Zeiger said. “We wear the mantle of the United States Pavilion with a full understanding of that weight, but we want to blur those edges. Our continual refrain is to complicate questions of citizenship.”
Here’s a rundown on some of the projects, from the smallest on up.
Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez, in collaboration with Shani Crowe
For the individual level, three artists collaborated on an installation called “Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line),” which tackles identity and shelter in African-American communities.
It comprises a site-specific steel structural frame that will be overlaid with thousands of feet of braided cord, meant to evoke African-American hair. The frame is a podlike structure with arms that extend into the pavilion’s courtyard and up onto its roof.
Amanda Williams, who is based in Chicago and once practiced as an architect, said in an email, “Hair in the black diaspora is at once a material around which black women often commune.” The cord will be arranged so that it creates “pockets of stillness” that are also “free space,” she added.
“Thrival Geographies” also addresses the 1930 United States Pavilion itself, acting in “formal, material and conceptual contrast” to the structure’s neoclassical style as “a representation of democracy and freedom,” Ms. Williams said.
The Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang and her colleagues used their travels for inspiration for “Stone Stories: Civic Memory and Public Space in Memphis, Tennessee.”
“We’ve been working in a lot of cities, but one frequent stop, a place that’s going through changes, is Memphis,” Ms. Gang said. “It made sense for us.”
As they worked on a waterfront revitalization plan there, they discovered a cobblestone landing on the Mississippi River that symbolized the city’s “contentious history,” she said, referring to slavery and other inequality.
So they moved the actual stones, weighing up to 40 pounds each, for their Venice installation. It features an inclined plane of stones leading to a hand-drawn map of Memphis, and a film featuring interviews of residents who talk about their city.
“The stones are portraits,” Ms. Gang said. “It’s a different kind of memorial.”
Diller Scofidio & Renfro, Laura Kurgan, and Robert Gerard Pietrusko with the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia
The collaborators on this exhibition, “In Plain Sight,” previously worked together on a 2008 project called “Exit.” For this round, they made a short video inspired by NASA’s famous 1972 “blue marble” image of Earth, and the later “black marble” composite image showing light emissions at night.
The blue marble was “the first time we saw ourselves from space,” said the architect Elizabeth Diller, a founder of her firm. “It was really resonant moment in understanding the vulnerability of the planet, and one of the starting points of the global citizenship.”
The black marble, however, is “quite deceptive,” said Laura Kurgan, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. It doesn’t necessarily show brightest where the most people live, but also depicts light from activities like mining.
Though “In Plain Sight” is underpinned with an environmental message, Ms. Diller said they steered away from a critique of United States policy on the topic, and decided to look at the big picture. “It’s too easy a temptation to get political,” she said.
Keller Easterling With MANY
Keller Easterling, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, has been studying migration for years, and she wondered why there was no centralized hub for one-on-one exchanges between newcomers and established residents.
So she developed an online platform called MANY to address migration as an “exchange of needs,” she said. Think of it as an internet-facilitated barter system.
With a projected video and 10 iPhones for visitors to test a beta version of the platform, “It treats migration as a constant and not a crisis,” Ms. Easterling said. Though it’s not live yet, she intends for it to be a working app eventually. “We want it to be real,” she said.
El Hadi Jazairy and Rania Ghosn, co-founders of the architecture firm Design Earth, got to play with the largest scale of all. “We’re the cherry on top,” said Ms. Ghosn of their project, “Cosmorama: Mining the Sky, Planetary Ark and Pacific Cemetery.”
“Architects have always been influenced by cosmic thinking,” Ms. Ghosn said. In this case, the partners were looking at space exploration, but in the context of environmental changes on Earth that are leading to extinctions. “It takes a cosmic imagination to give scale to how big the spaceship would have to be to gather all these species,” she said.
The installation features three backlit triptych drawings that are placed in light boxes — “a reinterpretation of a diorama,” said Mr. Jazairy — as well as a series of suspended, 3-D printed heads in different materials.
A custom carpet is printed with text from the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 as well as the NASA Space Act of 2015, which encouraged the exploitation of space for commercial purposes. “On the one hand there’s a science and peace agenda, but on the other, the extension of an economic possibility,” Ms. Ghosn said.