WHILE GENEROSITY TAKES THE MAIN STAGE AT THE VENICE BIENNALE, OLD CONFLICTS AND NEW TENSIONS ARE EXTENDING ARCHITECTURE’S BOUNDARIES
There’s architecture in Venice – momentous and iconic architecture that includes everything from St. Mark’s Basilica and the 15th- and 16th-century palazzi lining the Grand Canal to Carlo Scarpa’s masterful interventions and the immense former shipyards of the Arsenale. Venice is an open-air architectural extravaganza to which the world flocks unceasingly – a double-edged situation that both sustains and imperils this watery city. Every two years, the world’s biggest architecture show takes place here, mounted by La Biennale di Venezia, the landmark cultural organization founded in 1895. The architecture exhibition, which alternates with the more famous art exhibition, fills the halls of the Arsenale and the national pavilions in the Giardini (a park-like space in the eastern part of the city) from May until near the end of November. This year marks the 16th edition of the architecture exhibition, which debuted in 1980 under the direction of Paolo Portoghesi, with Aldo Rossi’s famous floating theatre, Teatro del Mondo, the event’s indelible emblem. This year’s biennale is directed by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley Mcnamara of Ireland’s Grafton Architects, who have chosen the theme “Freespace.” In their inspirational manifesto, meant to galvanize participants, Freespace is defined as architecture that provides “free and additional spatial gifts” beyond its program and that demonstrates a “generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity.” This is just the second time the architecture biennale has been guided by a female principal – the first woman director was Kazuyo Sejima in 2010. The concept of Freespace, which includes emphasizing “nature’s free gifts of light” and proposes the Earth as client, could be read as a feminine perspective on how to make the built environment more sustaining for both humans and the planet. Grafton’s theme of generosity extends to including both teaching practices and participants who don’t normally make the A-list. Although Farrell and Mcnamara’s exhibition begins in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, many people start in the Arsenale. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter where you start: The Biennale is a sort of pinball machine that confounds a linear experience. In the Arsenale, installations by some of the 100 firms or individual architects participating in the Grafton exhibition line both sides of the long hall of the Corderie, which is punctuated by soaring, six-metre-high columns. It’s a hugely impressive sight, with each of the installations a wonder unto itself and the hall (where mooring ropes were once made) contributing its own awesome scale and evocative light. In contrast to the art biennale, where the works are largely present, the architecture exhibition is frequently referencing projects that exist elsewhere. Some architects – Alison Brooks, Sauerbruch Hutton and Flores & Prats among them – interpret “free space” in their projects by bringing near-lifesize architectural elements into the Arsenale. Interactivity (or “instrumentality,” as Canadian architect and Biennale jury member Patricia Patkau calls it) is a theme, with many of the constructions offering an opportunity to climb, to peer into, to enter the architecture in some way. Other architects use models
to convey built work or work in progress. A story could be written just about the models: The intricate dioramas and miniature constructions are made of all kinds of materials – paper, lichen, string, wood, wax, concrete, metal. In fact, a stunning assemblage of models of works by Peter Zumthor, from the collection of the Kunsthaus Bregenz, is on display in the Central Pavilion. These models could be enjoyed simply as works of art, without ever connecting to the work they reference. Dna_design and Architecture’s Songyang Story, told through large-scale models and video, is one of the most impressive installations in the Arsenale. Xu Tiantian’s Beijing practice has been working in eastern China’s Songyang County for several years, applying what she describes as an “architectural acupuncture” to help revitalize the area’s rural condition. Seven projects – ranging from a bamboo theatre to a community performance space inside a brown-sugar factory – demonstrate how small, sensitive interventions can effectively augment and reinforce a sense of place and identity and how great work can be located in non-urban settings. Since this is architecture and not art, the intent often requires considerable effort to unpack, and a viewer can only do this with a small percentage of the material. The sheer size and scale of the exhibition – the Arsenale alone contains some 20,000 square metres of exhibition space – produces physical exhaustion. Some of the most generous free space is where the architects provided a soft place to crash. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and wonder at the purpose of an architectural exhibition. Is it a jungle gym for the public to clamber on, a self-conscious display of orchestrated beauty, a string of things loosely connected by a theoretical idea? How does it advance architectural practice? For Patkau, one of the pluses of the Biennale is the presentation of work from a wide cross section of the profession. “There were projects,” she says, “that did incredible amounts with little means, by architects you’ve never heard of before, next to other projects by Sejima, Souto de Moura and others. Presenting together neutralized the star quality, and you were really looking at how well it accomplished what it set out to do. For the person you’ve never heard of before, it’s a huge opportunity.” To navigate the biennale, you need to pick a line and give up on any ambition of seeing it all, getting it all. Some illuminating text from Becoming, in the Spanish pavilion in the Giardini, where the rooms are empty and the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with images and text representing 400 works by students, reads: “A person would have to live in the pavilion of Spain for six days to see each image for 10 seconds and read each word.” In some places, unpacking happens spontaneously. Island, in the British pavilion by Caruso St John and Marcus Taylor, is an experiential installation that functions as an allegory for the U.K.’S political and geographic condition. The interior of the building is empty, leaving space for events, installations and performances (a few are scheduled). The main gesture is a rooftop platform, accessed via a staircase built of scaffolding alongside the historic building. From the open piazza on the rooftop there’s a bird’seye view of the Giardini below and a unique vantage point on the nearby lagoon. It’s a free space with a free view, serving free tea at four o’clock every afternoon. Awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, the Swiss pavilion’s House Tour is a musing on the ubiquity of banal apartment interiors, which in the exhibit are sized up and down to great effect. Architects and curators Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara spliced together different scales – from 1:5 to 2:1 – and strung the resulting interiors together into a labyrinth. Visitors
Another Generosity, the Nordic pavilion at the Venice Biennale, explores how new architectural forms can connect the natural and built worlds. Photo by Alex Fradkin
LEFT: In the Arsenale, Recasting by Alison Brooks Architects draws elements from various projects and recasts them as four inhabitable timber totems.