Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: What We Learned About Car Design

07 October 2016 | by Karl Smith

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: What We Learned About Car Design

Nigeria Pavilion – a floating school docked at the Arsenale

The Venice Biennale, despite its name, is an annual affair now, as for the last two decades it has showcased art and architecture on alternate years. This year it was architecture that was the focus of the exhibition, with entries from over 40 countries and numerous large private practices, scattered in pavilions in the Giardini, the Arsenale, and numerous private venues around the city.

All very good, you say, and in the most picturesque setting imaginable. But what does this have to do with car design? As it turns out, quite a lot. Here’s what we learned:

The Big Picture Lesson


British architect Richard Rogers proposed skyscrapers made of stacked prefabricated dwelling units

The surprising overall lesson is that architecture and automotive design are grappling with some of the same fundamental questions. As the world urbanises, and working and living patterns change in response to new technology and ecological challenges, what is the appropriate built environment to shelter human activity?

Whether it is a living, working or mobility environment, the rules and constraints are many and ever-changing; so are both the challenges and opportunities for innovation.

Materials and Structures Still Matter


Designed by the ETH Zurich Block Research group the Armadillo Vault is revolutionary stone vault design that works entirely in compression

A number of exhibits showed innovative shell structures, often made of humble materials, but engineered in new ways. Many of these are designed to be erected in areas with primitive labor forces and local materials. This is research straight from the heart of the Modernist Canon. But it reminds us that materials and structures still matter, they influence our designs. And it is the wise designer that is conversant with the opportunities and constraints inherent in every material that will dominate the future of design – be it steel, carbon fibre, bioplastics, or a host of others.

New Spaces Will Emerge


Cloud-like sculpture at the Swiss Pavilion – Constructed of cement, the sculpture is meant to represent the odd spaces between buildings that may become a resource in the future. You can climb around inside the cloud, but watch your head...

A number of pavilions, included the Swiss, showed projects that occupied left-over or unused spaces in innovative ways. Other projects upended the traditional domestic space to challenge us to reconsider how we use space in our dwellings. It was reminder to be aware of the changes in automotive environments that come with changing tastes, lifestyles and technologies. After all, twenty-five years ago, could anyone have predicted the rise of the crossover? It would have once seemed absurd that every class of car from mini A-class cars to luxury D-segment cars would demand a huge chunk of rectangular interior space. What’s next?

Constraints Will Bring New Forms

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Models of interesting solutions to height and massing restrictions at the South Korea Pavilion. Will urban conditions produce new car forms in the future?

The South Korean pavilion exhibited a collection of buildings, many of odd shapes, that had forms determined by local height and massing regulations. The multiple constraints and the creative ingenuity of the local architects made for some strange beasts, but it was also a reminder that new forms emerge from constraints. What conditions and regulations will constrain the car of the future and how will we respond to it?

New Functions, New Environments

The Japanese and British pavilions held exhibitions that asked questions about the nature of dwelling in our new century.


A Home for Weeks – a playful inflatable plastic sphere that visitors can climb in and live womb-like in padded comfort. Attendees were climbing in and rolling around the room, turning it into a playful mosh pit. Good Times. Where is the automotive equivalent of this kind of joie de vivre?

The British pavilion, on of the most abstract and challenging of the whole show, in particular asked about dwelling in particular situations – what is the nature of dwelling in a place for an hour, a day, a week, a month, or a lifetime?


Questioning the past and future of dwellings at the Japanese pavilion

In many ways it echoed the question car designers today – what is the difference between a shared car experience, and that of a car you might own for a decade, and a car that might become an heirloom? What features add value to each? What are the distinctives of each type? Will a shared car be fundamentally different from a car you own?

Don’t Forget About Boats


A vision of the street of the future? A compact, easily manoeuvrable personal watercraft is a design challenge still to be met.

Venice is a city of boats, of course, and it reminded us that in an era of rising sea levels, and increasing urban areas along seafronts, a personal watercraft of modest size – essentially a commute car on water – is a design challenge that still awaits us. More than one transportation designer has committed a career to boat design, usually yachts. Could there be an opportunity for a kind of “Model ‘T’ boat”, a personal watercraft that puts a generation on the water instead of the motorway?

Those are just a few of the challenges posed in an unlikely place – an architectural exhibition. But the challenges and solutions for the car of the future are found in unlikely places, even in Venice, a carless, medieval city.

The Venice Biennale continues until November 27, 2016