Venice Biennale Curator Series: The Nordic Countries

by | 21. Apr 2016

Article | Interview | Venice Biennale
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The Nordic Pavilion (Giardini, Venice). Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

In Therapy: Nordic Countries Face to Face is the exhibition for the Nordic Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. Curated by David Basulto and assistant curator, James Taylor-Foster, the exhibition will comprise of a survey of the Nordic Countries to explore and investigate architectural projects that have been instrumental in constructing contemporary Nordic society. The pair recently spoke with editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, to discuss their process and ambition for the Nordic Pavilion.

Robert Martin: Hi David and James. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at arcspace. To start things off I’d just like to acknowledge that you’re both located in different parts of the world with David in Santiago, Chile and James in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Would you mind letting me know how you got involved with the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2016?

David Basulto: During recent years I’ve developed a relationship with the Nordic countries, and especially with Finland. I participated in an exchange program in which Finnish architects travelled to Chile, and we held a series of conferences. In my role at ArchDaily I would also cover what the Museum for Finnish Architecture were doing in previous Venice and Shenzhen Biennales.

Last year, for example, I moderated a session at the Alvar Aalto symposium, where I also gave a lecture on globalization and its threats to the built environment which the commissioners of the Nordic Pavilion saw. Based on their interest in “global” perspectives-particularly in relation to the BRIC countries-on architecture, they subsequently extended an invitation to curate the pavilion. I invited James to join as assistant curator because I recognised the responsibility and that I had to work with someone very talented.

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Curator, David Busalto (left) and Assistant Curator, James Taylor-Foster (right)

RM: How do you feel about curating a pavilion for countries that neither of you are from? Do you feel that that gives you a new opportunity to examine the built, cultural and historical context of the Nordic nations without any bias?

DB: I come from the “developing world” where there is a constant appreciation of the Nordic countries. They, including Denmark, are used as a reference for everything – culturally, socially and in terms of government. In countries such as Chile, which are undergoing a process of rapid growth, people want to be empowered by their nation and, therefore, demand equality. Continually the Nordic countries provide the reference and, as a result, they are constantly in the back of your mind as representational of what you want to achieve.

To only know the architecture from the “outside,” so to speak, offers us an interesting perspective. We cannot pretend to fully understand the innate cultural conditions that have led to this point, but we can make observations related to how “Nordic” architecture relates to this perception of “Nordic” society. So we perhaps serve as a third party – a sort of mirror – able to refocus the lens and frame architecture as a series of questions, pertinent to those “inside”, designing for and building within the individual countries.

James Taylor-Foster: One statement made by Paolo Baratta, at the first curators meeting last year has resonated with us in particular. He asserted that the role of the curator is to discriminate, and we also believe in that to a certain degree. Bias is crucial in order to be able to (re)present a story, or frame information, and therefore be able to suggest points for reflection. Perhaps the selection of a foreign curator is a brave thing for the Nordic commissioners to have done, but it’s by no means disadvantageous.

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The Tree Hotel, Tham Videgard. Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

RM: We’ve seen an abundance of biennales starting to pop up all over the world with the most recent being held in Chicago last year. What do you think is the specific role of the Venice Architecture Biennale in contemporary society?

DB: Biennales were once the places where you went for an update of what had been going on during the last two years. Media was different then, and they were some of the only outlets to get a global discussion going. Today there is a perpetual global overview and the biennale as a model is, in some ways, losing its traditional role as a thematic condenser. There has been an evolution recently, especially at the Venice Biennale, in which it is able to attract the world’s most renowned architects to respond to tough questions and challenges.

In this way, the Venice Biennale has been at the vanguard of this evolution.The 14th Biennale (2014), for example, encouraged a large number of people create and consolidate much-needed archives, which meant that it was more than just an event but actually drew a new line in terms of practice’s relationship to architectural research and history.

There have also been high hopes with this year’s Biennale Director, Alejandro Aravena’s, brief. Everyone in the architectural world that I have spoken to recognises that there is potential to catalyse much-needed change. Crisis leads to hope, and there is a sense that this Biennale will be one in which problems are posed and, as a consequence, possible solutions will be investigated.

Alejandro held a press conference very recently in Chile, and it was clear that he hopes this Biennale will inspire architects to take action – that people will learn new things and return to their countries to do things that will really have an impact.

JTF: I was at his press conference in London and one of the particularly relevant questions raised centred on whether or not the “biennale model” is outdated. Is it anachronistic to stage exhibitions and separate them by national borders? The Pavilion of the Nordic Countries is interesting inasmuch as it represents three countries. This year for the first time we’ll also see the unification of the Baltic countries in a single space and, I think the Nordic Pavilion has been ground-breaking in bringing together three highly distinct societies – culturally as well as, to a surprising extent, architecturally.

To build a little on what David has said, I do think that it’s important to have the physical anchors which Biennales and Triennales represent. They provide a moment for people to actually come together to discuss, probe, and-ultimately-leave with questions, intentions and new frameworks for reading and creating the built environment. The Venice Biennale has an added importance because it also actively reaches out to the people who usually might not ordinarily connect to these sorts of issues. This, without a doubt, is also a significant facet to Aravena’s agenda. The Biennale shouldn’t solely be a talking shop for those in the architectural sphere, which is one of the greatest challenges curators have to solve.

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The National Tourist Route Trollstigen, Reiulf Ramstad Architects. Photo: Ken Scaluchtmann –

RM: As you both are fully aware, the overall theme set by the biennale director, Alejandro Aravena, is “reporting from the front” You’ve already stated that the Nordic countries are the ambitious benchmarks that developing nations are aspiring to. They almost seem perfect to the outside with their welfare state provisions and well-functioning liberal democracies. In a global context, we can see huge problems in other regions to do with mass migration, war, housing crises, megacities, etc. In this context, what do you see the “front” is in the Nordic countries?

DB: This is a very good question because, following such a strong call from Alejandro, I felt that many countries would respond by focusing on crisis – but this is not a humanitarian Biennale. Alejandro has made it very clear that the Biennale wants to highlight real architectural issues for each particular country. These are naturally going to differ depending on the state of development and the political setting for each country.

That said, the challenges, the questions, and the problems are not so obvious in the Nordic region – but that doesn’t make them any less serious. The issues being faced in this part of the world are more underlying and the first challenge that we have is to uncover them and bring them to light.

JTF: A national pavilion at the Venice Biennale is not necessarily the place to attempt to address how architecture can and might respond to every issue currently at the “front”. Finland, Sweden and Norway each currently face radically different, complex and nuanced challeneges.

There is such a short amount of time to develop the exhibition that you have to be very careful about which issues you are seeking to confront. In some ways it’s about oscillating between breadth and depth – do you cover many things broadly, or do you try to address a few key issues? The latter is our approach.

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Råå Daycare Center, Dorte Mandrup. Photo: Adam Mørk


RM: To take the discussion towards your exhibition, could you give us a short introduction? I’ve read in your press release that you’ve selected roughly 300 projects to explore architectural themes that have been instrumental in constructing Nordic society. What can visitors expect when they visit the Nordic pavilion?

DB: We want to make this exhibition something active. We will be presenting around 300 projects as part of a framework around which we can devise important questions. But without presenting the information to inform this framework in the first place, visitors who are not familiar with the condition of Nordic architecture would not be able to engage. In this sense, it will provide a snapshot of the past eight years of built projects that originated in the responses to an Open Call.

In the same way we might go to a psychoanalyst, the Nordic countries are ‘in therapy’. You have to understand that the issues you’re currently facing are results of, and related to, your past. Once you understand these, you’re able to amend how you operate now and in the future. This exhibition might as much be a wake-up call to some as it might be a positive reflection to others – and this is where the polemic begins.

JTF: People can expect that within this incredible pavilion – one of the most impressive pavilions in the Giardini, filled with natural light and very much connected to the surrounding public space and walking routes – they’ll be able to find a space in which they can interact with the exhibition, and where they will be able to learn. I hope that they will leave with questions that will hopefully inspire them to take on the challenge to find solutions to in their future work.

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The Nordic Pavilion (Giardini, Venice). Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

RM: You mention psychoanalysis as a framework to understand your exhibition. Are there any particular tools or mediums in particular that you’re going to use to either communicate or explore your ideas?

DB: Something that I have been interested in is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that shows how the individual evolves in order to achieve their full potential. It is a diagrammatical pyramid that describes a path from solving basic needs (such as: food, water, shelter, love, and recognition) to higher psychological ones. Once you have progressed through all of these stages, Maslow theorised, you can finally begin to reflect inwards and begin to see how you can achieve your potential.

I think that the Internet is demonstrating a new global consciousness, in which we are all aware on some level of the crises and problems being faced around the world. “War” is not something isolated just to the Middle East or in parts of Africa – its impact has gone way beyond physical barriers and has become something that, to a lesser degree, affects us all.

We will be using an abstracted interpretation of the Hierarchy of Needs, together with other subtle references to psychoanalysis, as a framework to direct the visitors towards these issues.

JTF: We’ve also been working with Marge Arkitekter in Stockholm to really try to understand, experiment and challenge the conventions of what an exhibition is and can be. The Nordic Pavilion is unique in so many ways, and is located at at the very heart of the Giardini. The potential of the pavilion lies in the relationship between the interior and the outside space, and how the exhibition within can respond to this.

It’s also about playing with how people actually engage with the exhibition. There is so much information at the Biennale, and so much to absorb. If we can offer a moment of pause, a moment for reflection amid this intensity and communicate what we want to communicate in an inclusive format which is both familiar and unconventional, we’ll feel like we’re on the right track to facilitating fresh responses to big questions.

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Exhibition concept collage. © Marge Arkiteker


After curating such a huge cross section of some of the best projects to come out of the Nordic countries over the last 8 years, and having to narrow all the entries down to 300  – were there any kind of emergent styles or trends that you can identify coming out of Nordic architecture today?

DB: I don’t think that we can necessarily say that these projects are the “best” to come out of the Nordic countries, but they do represent the best which came from the democratic process of an Open Call. As it’s so subjective, selecting the “best” is not actually that important – but an accurate cross section very much is. It just happens that the standard of submissions was – characteristically, perhaps – extremely high.

In terms of trends, the traditional spirit of wood, light and space remain, but it is also very interesting for me as an outsider to see the high level of construction and how details are designed and implemented. It’s also possible to observe how certain programs really embody the democratic aspects of Nordic society, especially in regard to educational and healthcare facilities. When you start to engage with the floor plans and you see the importance placed on public space – where people eat, where people exchange, etc. – it becomes clear.

JTF: I just want to pick up on one of the things that David mentioned about how this emergent style of wood, light and space remains very strong in Nordic architecture. The word ‘remains’ is very important because a theme which underpins In Therapy relates to the weight and potentially restrictive influence that traditional figures – such as Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund, and Sverre Fehn himself – have had, and continue to have, on contemporary Nordic architecture. It is a question of what role these figures, who helped to construct the conceptions surrounding “Nordic architecture” today, have in pedagogy and practice, as well as what role they should have. These nuances will have to be experienced through installations that singularly aim to highlight the relationship between architecture as a socio-cultural practice, and democratic society…

DB: …and, most importantly, highlighting the resulting challenges in a direct and legible way.

RM: Thanks David and James for giving up your time and providing some more insight into your intentions for the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016.

The Nordic participation at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is a collaboration between the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki, the National Museum’s Department of Architecture, Oslo, and ArkDes – the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, Stockholm. The exhibition will be designed by Stockholm-based Marge Arkitekter. is run by the Danish Architecture Centre, who is also commissioner for the Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Read more about the Danish pavilion 2016 here