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Pakistan’s first-ever Venice Architecture Biennale pavilion is all about cities

And how complex and dynamic the country’s can be

Karachi (seen here), Pakistan’s most populous city, served as inspiration for the country’s debut pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.
Sakina Hassan

Somewhere between the Olympics and the world’s biggest, baddest, design-school pin-up lies the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Every two years, a few dozen nations deputize a small circle of curators and thinkers to represent them at the show; many of the participating countries are regulars, with permanent pavilions of their own, often dating back to the early 20th century, and located in the leafy Giardini della Biennale near Venice’s easternmost tip.

But each edition of the exhibition also brings a batch of wildcards, never-before-seen entrants whose homelands have decided, for whatever reason, to throw their hats into the ring. This year, first-timers included Guatemala, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. And social media (full disclosure: mine included) took a special shine to the premier outing from the Vatican, a brace of inventive freestanding chapels by architects both well- and lesser-known.

There was one rookie nation, however, whose appearance at the Biennale was especially poignant, both for the character of its installation and for the mere fact of its being in Venice at all: Pakistan.

The National Pavilion of Pakistan, by Coalesce Design Studio, sits in a small park not far from Venice’s Giardini.
Courtesy National Pavilion of Pakistan

“This is a very political statement,” says Salman Jawed, a member of Coalesce Design Studio, the collaborative, multidisciplinary firm that helped bring the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to Venice for the first time.

The politics he’s speaking about are not, at least at first, overtly evident: Situated in a small public park not far from the Giardini, the Pakistani installation, titled “The Fold,” is a roughly four-yard-square cage of irregularly-spaced steel bars towering some twenty feet in the air.

Slipping into this rather forbidding envelope via a narrow passage, the visitor discovers a playground-like atmosphere within, a trio of wooden swings dangling from overhead beams, and a pair of wooden benches on curved, brushed-steel rockers. The contrast between stern exterior and playful interior gives a pleasant jolt. But understanding its polemical intent requires a little more digging.

As Coalesce partner Zeba Asad explains, in Karachi, “all the urban spaces are in the street.” The Pakistani capital is home to over 21 million people, most of them jammed into a relatively small wedge of the metropolis, with little room for parks, plazas, or other urban amenities.

Seen from one perspective, “The Fold” is an attempt to address this condition: The placement of the swings at odd angles means that users are constantly at risk of colliding with their fellow swingers, just as the children of Karachi must hazard cars, pedestrians, and one another as they play in the city’s crowded streets.

Visitors to Pakistan’s pavilion need to cooperate to successfully negotiate the space.
Courtesy National Pavilion of Pakistan

The rocker-benches perform a similar maneuver, obliging the sitter to negotiate with anyone beside them so that neither will slide sidelong into the dirt should their neighbor stand up. As a metaphor, the installation is at once a teasing critique and a tongue-in-cheek celebration of Pakistan’s jostling urbanism, giving exhibition-goers a taste of Karachi without sparing them its vexing particulars.

Stepping into a swing herself, Asad demonstrates its operational logic. “You have to go forward for me to move back,” she says. “We have to talk to each other or it would be a disaster.”

Not just an urban critique, the installation also makes a broader case for dialogue, compromise, and coordinated action at every political scale: The globe, no less than Karachi, is a crowded place, and the designers identify patterns and prescriptions that could apply to either, layering a second metaphor atop the first.

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Motioning toward the benches, Jawed notes that “there’s something so democratic about a seesaw—it’s an agreement between two people.” Returning us to the terrain of childhood, the designers take us all (as it were) back to school, asking the world to re-learn a few rudimentary lessons that it appears to have forgotten of late.

Pointed as that case would be in any pavilion, it’s even more so coming from Pakistan, which arrives in Venice with more than its share of geopolitical complexity. “There’s a certain preconceived notion about where we come from,” says Anjum Rahman, a representative of Khaadi, a major Pakistani fashion brand that helped finance the country’s Biennale effort.

Dogged by conflict—with religious extremism, and with neighboring India—and its own demographic and developmental challenges, Pakistan has struggled to establish its 21st-century identity on its own terms. Its highly skilled workforce tends to find better opportunities abroad; notably, the Pakistan pavilion itself was partly organized by a Dubai-based group, Antidote Art & Design, while the national government (unlike most, which tend to furnish some measure of support) did not play an official role in the Venice program.

“Being talked about in terms of art is something that has not happened for 5,000 years,” says Rahman, and the determination to change that spurred a grassroots biennale initiative that came from the organizers and designers themselves.

A view skyward from inside Pakistan’s pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Courtesy National Pavilion of Pakistan

The biennale administration proved receptive, and in scarcely a few months the quickly assembled Pakistani team had made “The Fold” a reality, finishing construction mere hours before it opened.

Pakistan had arrived in Venice, and the collaborators finally garnered a bit of official recognition with a visit from the country’s Milan-based consular general. After brief remarks, Rahman took the stage, and in an unusual turn she invited the attendees to join her in singing the Pakistani national anthem.

It might have been for the benefit of the visiting dignitary—a bit of political theater—but as they got going, those who knew the lyrics seemed to get into the spirit of the thing. Even the international crowd seemed caught up, letting the Pakistanis take the lead and trying to hum along.