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.