The 12th Venice Biennale of Architecture: “People Meet in Architecture,” 29 August – 21 November
To travel in the desirable parts of the world involves waiting in line. Given this, the line to get into the 12th Venice Biennale of Architecture appeared to be mercifully short, short enough to identify those waiting in it as, if not individuals, at least stereotypes. Before the first five minutes of complete stasis had passed it was clear that the blockage at the ticket window was caused by a dapper Italian, almost certainly an architect, wearing a striped shirt and a dark tan, newspaper folded under his arm, with flowing grey hair and a beard he’d probably cultivated his entire adult life. He leaned on the counter as though it were his favorite neighborhood espresso bar. His purchase of a ticket seemed to be inhibited by endless complications. At intervals he turned to the rest of us with a shrug, as though the harried young ticket seller were evidence of how impossible it is to find good help these days. Then his mobile rang and of course he answered it, leaving the ticket seller and the rest of us waiting…
We switched to the other line, and the group ahead of us bought their tickets. Then, instead of proceeding into the biennale they appeared to exchange mobile numbers with the ticket seller, who naturally then left his post to make a phone call. Eventually this obstruction moved on leaving only the Englishman in front of us who, his twenty Euros clutched in a fist trembling with anger, said, in English, “One ticket. Now. And hurry up.”
This tale, though not technically part of the biennale, is relevant for three reasons. First, though one could never prove it, it is an example is the particular variety of hopeless disorganization which can only result when too many architects get together. Second, it left us with only seven hours to see the massive show. And third, it, along with the endless pedestrian traffic jam called the Rialto Bridge, is evidence that the 2010 biennale’s theme, “People Meet in Architecture”, is a decidedly optimistic spin on the consequences of a crowded planet.
As one might expect at such a diverse exhibition, this theme is lightly worn and loosely interpreted. “People Meet in Architecture” sounds self-evident almost to the point of tautology, but in the familiar context of rampant online social networks it is clearly meant optimistically, and not a little defiantly, as an assertion of what is perhaps architecture’s one indispensable role — the provision of meeting places. It is also a less overtly apologetic version of the theme of the 2000 biennale, “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics”, in that “People Meet in Architecture” also implies a return to year zero after a rococo period of iconic architecture which may finally be limping toward its finish line.
The Venice Biennale feels like a big budget version of the graduate exhibitions which complete the academic year at university architecture departments around the world. In contrast to the inscrutable city of Venice, every room in the Biennale is insistent. As in a graduate exhibition, the viewer is perpetually aware of the sleepless nights behind every presentation. The films, models, drawings, photographs and installations each hustle you like the touts who hover in front of tourist restaurants along the Grand Canal. You feel you owe each one respect, and yet with limited time and an awareness that hours spent at the biennale are hours spent away from the real Venice, one becomes impatient with the many instances of verbose prose, tiny fonts, self-promotion and willful pretension. While buildings must stand judged in silence, presentations about buildings tend to play the carny barker.
The highlights of this biennale are those exhibits which use the extraordinary spaces of the Arsenale and Giardini to make actual architecture. It becomes clear walking through the individual exhibitions and national pavilions that at the world’s premiere mostra of architecture, pasting a few drawings on a wall, however artfully, is a missed opportunity. These spaces demand a certain grandeur of scale, and the overwhelming nature of the biennale tends to drown out presentations which are too intricate. Among those exhibits which show architecture by making architecture, the most impressive is a wooden dome designed and built by a Chinese office, Amateur Architecture Studio. This simple and ingenious structure consists of identical pieces of timber arranged in a repeated pattern, simply fixed using ordinary hardware. An accompanying video shows a version of the dome being built in China by an eager young crew, watched over by a bemused police officer. Comfortably in the tradition of both Buckminster Fuller and traditional Chinese timber roof structures, the dome is beautiful, practical and evocative. It is also more evidence that China’s building boom is likely to be increasingly serviced by local architects.
Also having fun with wood is the Czech national pavilion in the Giardini. Where the Amateurs’ dome is an exercise in minimal structure, both structurally and constructionally, inside the Czech pavilion the visitor is almost claustrophobically hemmed in by timber walls and floors, all orderly and rectilinear until the whole structure explodes through the front door. At the Biennale you realize there is a fine line between an architecture exhibit which is itself architecture and an installation piece one might find at the art Biennale. The former envelops the viewer in space, while the latter, however large, remains an object to be looked at. The extraordinary indoor cloud created by Transsolar and Tetsuo Kondo at the Arsenale becomes architecture because of the beautifully rickety ramp which loops up and through the layers of the cloud, turning the room into a promenade in which water vapor becomes roof, then wall, then floor. In a real building an indoor cloud would be profligate, but it is an idea which seems inevitable when you see it, and the Venice Biennale of Architecture is the ideal place for it to be made flesh.
Film is an under-utilized medium for architectural presentation and it was heartening to see the many motion pictures running in various parts of the biennale. The blockbuster is Wim Wenders’ 3D short, If Buildings Could Talk, located right at the beginning of the Arsenale. The film documents the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, a design by biennale curator Kazuyo Sejima and her office, SANAA. As a 3D skeptic and Wenders fan I was looking forward to the film. Wenders’ movies and photographs demonstrate an erudite and subtle understanding of places and buildings, and I thought that if any project justified 3D it would be a film about architecture. While I am pleased to be the owner of a cool pair of Venice Biennale 3D glasses, If Buildings Could Talk is let down both by the reverberant space in which it is presented, and by the film’s awkward position somewhere between advertisement and documentary. It seems so plodding I can only hope it is operating on some rarefied plane of irony I cannot fathom. The nearly inaudible narration, spoken by a kind of female HAL, consists of what this monotonously gray and white building might tell us if it could, chestnuts like ‘I love light and though it might sound immodest, light loves me.’ Wenders seems not to have enough footage to match his text, and as a result the film consists of repeated tracking shots of what appear to be actors huddled over superseded MacBook Pros. Enraptured by the undoubtedly wicked fast wifi of this nearly bookless ‘learning centre’, they look up from their screens just in time for Wenders’ sweeping camera to capture their bland expressions as they experience the architecture. If this is what people meeting in architecture looks like, heaven help us.
In the Giardini, buzzing clouds of bloodthirsty zanzare encourage the visitor to keep moving. Most of the national pavilions attempt some overview of their local situation; some — among them the US, Danish and Brazilian pavilions — present a selection of exemplary projects, while others are less predictable. The generous British pavilion begins with a beautifully wrought “Stadium of Close-Looking” and continues with an exhibition on Ruskin which is one of the few acknowledgments anywhere in the biennale that we are indeed actually in Venice. The Belgian pavilion is a hilarious and unexpectedly elegiac exercise in deadpan humor. In self-consciously stodgy style, worn out pieces of actual buildings are displayed as art objects, each with a label informing the viewer of its provenance, whether a metal panel from an office building elevator or a curbstone from a Brussels metro station. Beyond its valuable research into materials and architectural detailing, the Belgian exhibit is strangely moving. These ordinary parts of ordinary buildings stand before us with their secrets mercilessly revealed, one after another until it becomes possible to believe that the demise of a cheap and nasty piece of carpet at the feet of a thousand oblivious office workers might confer something close to dignity.
The Dutch pavilion, “VacantNL”, identifies an enormous number of empty buildings in the Netherlands which could be given new life through creative reuse. One danger of biennales is that the inevitability and prestige of the event means that a lot of the exhibits lack urgency, existing for the sake of filling a room which needs to be filled with something to look at. Uselessness has its place in art, but the Dutch exhibit, which consists of an enormous pile of blue foam models of the empty buildings, is an example of how the forum of the biennale, and especially an architecture rather than an art biennale, can be used for genuinely useful practical and political ends.
The Dutch pavilion makes an unintended counterpoint to one of the headliners of the show, Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s exhibit on historical preservation. Koolhaas, who was awarded a Golden Lion by the biennale, seems to have reached a phase of his career in which his theoretical agenda shifts to justify whatever projects he happens to have kicking around his office at the moment. This situation is perhaps natural and healthy in a working architect, but for those interested in the evolution of his ideas, his lurching between architectural ‘issues’ has started to feel ephemeral, like the oeuvre of a rock star who atones for his perceived electronic excesses with an acoustic album. After a period of designing and subsequently repudiating iconic buildings, in “Preservation” Koolhaas has decided we should all be be alarmed by the fact that more and more of the world — twelve percent according to his analysis — has been placed under some form of heritage protection. According to Koolhaas, we are in a “period of acute CRONOCAOS” in which parts of the world are preserved by law while the rest undergoes merciless change. Unlike some of his previous theoretical excursions, Koolhaas’ sense of urgency seems unjustified. In taking aim at heritage protection, Koolhaas may be trying to provoke, but he risks sounding like a local developer who complains to his friends about being unable to demolish an inconveniently located listed building. His argument seems muddled. Surely the benefits of the preservation movement outweigh the mild annoyance caused by the faux-heritage sites he repudiates. Is he actually arguing against heritage protection? Does he really believe there aren’t enough places to build in the world? Are we really supposed to get excited about OMA’s plans to turn Venice’s Fondaco dei Tedeschi into a “culturally-programmed department store”? The genuinely urgent portion of his argument — an earnest plea for the value of postwar buildings, which are frequently denied heritage protection — is buried by a flabby presentation which takes up two large rooms in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
At the end of the day, after making it through all this and the erudite Japanese pavilion, the sci-fi Canadian, the claustrophobic Russian and the loud, dim and brash Australian pavilion (which, along with the US pavilion, neglected to translate its labels into Italian — un po’ maldestro!), we were primed to enjoy the visionary array of see-saws which over flowed the Serbian pavilion. There were traditional see-saws, four way see-saws, three on one side one on the other see-saws, as well as indescribable multi-level contraptions. By that point I didn’t care what they signified, only that there was something profoundly contextual about their gentle creaking amidst the lush calm of the Giardini, an exception at the edge of Venice.
My wife, Amy and myself took a serendipitous opportunity to visit the 12th International Architecture Exhibition, directed by Kazuyo Sejima and titled People Meet In Architecture, the current Venice Biennale. The Biennale di Venezia was instituted by the Venetian City Council in 1895 and since then it has been in the avant-garde, promoting new artistic trends and organizing international events in contemporary arts – “Art”, architecture, film , theater, music, dance. In 1980 the first Intl. Architecture Exhibition took place.
The Giardini venue of the exhibition was the subject of our visit. We spent several hours there on the afternoon of our first day in Venice, but due to time constraints we were unable to visit other venues of the Biennale in the Arsenale or at scattered sites throughout the city.
The Giardini is a park on the east end of the Sant’Elena island of the Castello sestiere. Its permanent structures include the Palazzo delle Esposizioni built in 1894 and twenty-nine national pavilions, built at various periods by the participating countries themselves. Among the pavilions are the Austrian Pavilion by Josef Hoffmann built in 1934 near the end of his career, the Dutch Pavilion by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld built in 1954, the Finnish Pavilion by Alvar Aalto assembled as a temporary structure in 1956, and the Venezuela pavilion by Carlo Scarpa.
For the current Biennale, the national pavilions were dressed up by their participating national proprietors to express individual themes. It is not clear whether these themes relate to the overall theme “People Meet In Architecture”, but there is certainly a surfeit of architectural subject matter here. On approaching the pavilions, the typical visitor must choose from this bounty which one to enter and so, make a critical judgement regarding their architecture: is the character of the pavilion inviting? To our eye, the Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish pavilion is inviting and pleasant, being visually open and enclosing three trees within its footprint. The Israel pavilion also has an inviting aspect, as well as a “take-away” in the form of stacks of tear sheets on the subject of Israel’s unique contribution to urban form and modernist design, the kibbutz, but interior space and building elements are quite spare.
The US pavilion on the other hand, a 1930 beaux-art monument by Delano and Aldrich, had a bunch of balloons tied together hovering in the front entry court. I can’t quite figure that one out. Is it supposed to be festive? The integrating theme for the exhibits is a presentation of architectural practice in the US, as if the rest of the world should be following our worn out practice models. John Portman probably is the most significant example. The 18.9 million square foot Peachtree Center in Atlanta is the centerpiece of his firm’s presentation. Is this the model for urban growth that America wants to promote….say in Venice?
Australia presented models for growth of its cities through the medium of 3-D films. This mode of presentation is very effective if you manage to snag a pair of 3-D glasses to watch it…kind of a “Blade Runner” view (without the urban decay).
The Russian presentation took us past images of old, obsolete factories to a cyclorama of the utopian world that might be created by revitalizing them. This world would look really good on a sunny day. The doors from the cyclorama open onto the Venice lagoon, so the whole presentation is very picturesque and dramatic, an interesting and direct use of architectural space to convey an idea really, with little of the pretension that abounds through the rest of the exhibits.
The United Kingdom pavilion reflects on the host city, Venice, and the contribution of Venice to Britain’s intellectual, artistic, and particularly architectural culture in the form of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. The installation of a functioning slice of salt marsh on the patio at the rear of the building is the most effective component, but the intent of engaging the city of Venice and, especially, its history is commendable.
The Palazzo delle Esposizioni, in addition to accommodating a bookstore, cafeteria, library and educational space, contains presentations by a number of architects and firms. This provides an opportunity to gain an impression of the broad design themes (as opposed to staying-in-business themes) occupying architects today. The ubiquity of biomorphic forms in design is the stylistic convention of 2010 (once again Charles Jencks has scored a hit).
No surprise, there are a lot of architectural-looking drawings and models. In many cases, whether these drawing objects and sculptural model objects translate into significant architectural space is, one may say, beside the point. Their purpose is to exist as architecture-like aesthetic objects in their own right. Since their value as architecture is questionable, one might critique them as the arty objects that they are. One presentation that I found remarkable is the Cherry Blossom Pavilion by AMID. The presentation consists of an up-to-the-minute biomorphic structure in a landscape rendered by traditional oil-painting technique. Somehow the contrast is delightful and indicates a thoughtful, if somewhat obvious, contrast between existing and new. The accompanying model of the biomorphic form, constructed of colorful reflective geodesic tessarae created using computer generation, is also visually delightful. Another standout among the Palazzo presentations was a series of theoretical vignette models of alternate urban forms by Studio Andrea Branzi of Italy. By surrounding and enclosing the vignette models with mirrors they extend into infinite space and give an idea of their effect at an environmental scale. These presentations contrast with the bored and boring muteness of too many of the others.
The presentation by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA/AMO entitled CRONOCAOS is at the center of the Palazzo and indeed anchors the exhibition both spatially and, in some ways, conceptually. Rather than eyewash, it presents a serious and thought provoking discussion of critical issues regarding architecture, the built environment, and civilization today. Like much of Koolhaas’ published work it is presented comprehensively and in considerable volume making a useful summary challenging, but I will try.
Finding an echo in the 1st International Architecture Exhibition in 1980, directed by Paolo Portoghesi and titled La Presenza Del Passato (The Presence of the Past), which presented an assertion of the Postmodernist movement, Koolhaas admonishes architects for neglecting preservation (in his opinion). At the same time, Preservation is a growing movement, while, simultaneously, destruction is expansive. He states a particular concern for the antipathy toward and destruction of postwar social architecture, implying a decline of appreciation for the public sector, but his primary concern is the lack of interest in an architectural theory of preservation in light of two strong conflicting forces, resulting in “CRONOCAOS”. In my opinion, he is absolutely on the mark regarding neglect of preservation by the architectural academy, at least.
The Biennale provides an opportunity to reflect on the current global state of architecture. While actual architecture, in the form of full scale buildings, might be the best indicator, the presentations at the Biennale are enough to convey the preoccupations and stylistic fixations of architecture’s practitioners. A fair sampling of biomorphic forms, both as building enclosure and structure, reflect biomorphism’s current position as the stylistic fixation of the moment. Environmentalism, “green”-ism, has become an acceptable, even fashionable, element in our architectural utopia. By the way, no discussion of architecture is complete without use of the word “utopia” at least once.
Another broad observation gained from our visit to the Biennale is the impression of an extensive group of people, dressed in black and shades of gray, who are the audience for the Biennale. These folks present a different profile from the folks who go to the AIA Convention. For them architecture is a cult – “Archi-culture” – and they are archiculturati.
But this cult is not a community. Archiculturati do not communicate with one another by sharing comments, opinions, joy or outrage. There was very little discussion of the exhibits at the Biennale, or visible reaction to them, such as one might observe in a museum or art gallery. Despite the obsession with archi-culture, despite the architectural-looking drawings and models, there is little dialogue about the substance of architecture. Pretentious Archi-babble carries on about utopia, time/space, deconstructivism, gender ideology, and inventive word play (site/parasite, analysis/paralysis) but misses the opportunity to support a dialogue about architecture. Instead it retards access, ultimately obscuring the substance of architecture, the most public of arts. At the Biennale, the contrast makes Koolhaas’ clear voice stand out even more.
Thanks for your comment. Certainly an exhibition about architecture will always be a mixed bag, just as those exhibitions of architecture known as cities are always mixed bags.
I’m glad you mentioned AMID’s Cherry Blossom Pavilion. I too though it was very effectively presented with the imitation oil paintings taking the place of the usual computer renderings. It is under construction, and as with all ‘biomorphic’ projects, it will be interesting to see how it is detailed.