Much better than the architecture

Cabbage Patch Moll: beyond architecture at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2008.

It’s always dangerous to ask architects to do something other than buildings or urban designs. The danger is that they will start to think that they are installation artists. When they do this, it is time to leave. There are rare exceptions of course – Diller Scofidio and Renfro, for instance, manage to bridge the art/architecture gulch with insouciant ease – but as this biennale shows, the outcome is more usually embarrassing.

So – after the endless dry global-city statistics of the last biennale, undoubtedly the dullest ever – this time we find ringmaster Aaron Betsky exhorting his troupe to self-indulgence with his “Out There” theme. Please, we really don’t need any more space-filling bits of stuff from Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Co-op Himmelblau, MVRDV and the rest of the funny-shape brigade. Big beasts of architecture they may be – the headline names that every curator wants a piece of – but the trouble is that nothing they can do can possibly surprise or enlighten any more. As a consequence, once again the long walk through the buildings of Venice’s Arsenale is replete with disappointment. Though to be fair, it took me 45 minutes this time, as opposed to the half hour that was all I could bear of the World Cities thing last time round. That’s a 50 per cent dwell-time improvement.

Betsky has been busy recording his achievement for posterity. The exhibition catalogue set, traditionally in two volumes, is this time a pyramid of five – or is it six? – in a special transparent moulded-plastic carry-case. I regret buying it, though I was not fool enough to fork out for the additional “making of the Biennale” DVD. Look – it’s always the same. The architecture biennale always plays second fiddle to the Art Biennale. There is always extreme doubt as to whether the architecture version will even take place, so knife-edge are the economics. Finally, they always decide to press the button late, and a director is appointed in haste, with relatively little time to pull the whole thing together. The same is true of all the various curators of the national pavilions. In consequence, there is a mad dash to fill the acres of space available. That’s how it works, and that’s how it looks. Get over it.

But Betsky had one good idea that has paid off handsomely, and for this he deserves the grateful thanks of the world of architecture. He decided he needed a Paradise Garden, and he asked Kathryn Gustafson to design it. It is a triumph.

Gardens in general popped up all over this sprawling show. America announced itself with a cabbage patch, and got keen on compost and community building. Japan surrounded its pavilion with exquisite minimalist garden glasshouses. Hong Kong and Singapore gave themselves urban-garden themes. Russia planted a birch forest in its basement (and Estonia bought itself priceless publicity by launching its yellow gas pipeline just outside). There was someone’s water garden out in the Lagoon. But “Towards Paradise” by Gustafson and her combined Seattle and London offices, blew everything else away.

She found a large patch of scrubby wasteland, right at the back where the Arsenale buildings give way to boat repair yards. Here she made a clearing, planted a vegetable garden (complete with female scarecrow, hand-stitched by herself) to represent abundance, found an overgrown old storage building to act as a repository of memory, and made an exquisitely lovely floating white canopy of spinnaker fabric, supported by tethered white balloons, over a sculpted greensward, to represent enlightenment. Neil Thomas of engineers Atelier One made it work. These elements, she says, are the three traditional elements of Paradise. I don’t doubt her. The long walk past the three-dimensional clichés in the Arsenale is well worth it for this magical oasis of calm and release. And when you tire of all the rest, well, there’s always Venice.

If you want to see me ad-libbing about the various national pavilions, here’s the result of Amanda Baillieu of BD cornering me with her svelte little video camera.

And if you want to hear Kathryn Gustafson telling me about her paradise garden, here she is.

Text, photos and audio interview with Kathryn Gustafson © Hugh Pearman, September 2008. Video interview with Hugh (via hyperlink) by Amanda Baillieu of BD.