Architecture as installation

The Studied Avoidance of Building: Venice Architecture Biennale 2010

This is one of the most purely enjoyable architecture biennales I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a fair old few over the years. Why so? Because, for once, it’s not all about the next big icon building. New icons are getting to be an endangered species anyway, but like most of us I’d got well bored by such landmark projects and their starchitect designers, some years back. The recent recession thankfully knocked most of them on the head.

Instead, you’ve got a fine architect in charge of this show – Kazuyo Sejima of Japan – who has marshalled a force of similarly thoughtful people who seem to be leaning over backwards to avoid anything which might be mistaken for an actual building. The centre of things in the medieval Arsenale – so often a junkshop of competing architectural ‘visions’ – has become a calm, beautifully-paced sequence of installations by both architects and artists.

Normally I get very suspicious when architects pretend to be artists – the results can be lip-puckeringly embarrassing – but this time the quality is high, to the extent that you quickly cease to bother who did what. Besides, there are more real artists than architects.

You walk through clouds of steam (“Cloudscapes”, by Transsolar), or through Olafur Eliasson’s spiralling jets of water in strobe-illuminated darkness. You stand in a room and listen to Canadian Janet Cardiff’s version of a 40-part Thomas Tallis motet, played through 40 speakers arranged in an oval. You puzzle at the old white Alfa Romeo in the “Piazzasalone” installation by Tony Fretton and Mark Pimlott. You try not to trip over the transparent gossamer wires of Junya Ishigami’s “Architecture as Air” which you can hardly see, let alone photograph. A child (or some say a cat) ran into it and completely demolished it. It won the top prize of the “Golden Lion”, naturally. Irony is lost on these people. Haven’t they heard of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Then there are the national pavilions. You smile wryly at the Belgian contribution – lots of worn surfaces, including old carpets, bits of wooden floor, table tops and suchlike, the marks of mankind on man-made things. You look at salvaged driftwood fisherman’s shacks from Bahrain (best in show, according to the Biennale judges, clearly relieved not to be presented with another Dubai or Abu Dhabi). In the Polish Pavilion you find yourself in something like a scary gay disco, where you have to jump into a smoking pit. Hungary fills its building with dangling pencils, and displays all manner of drawings. Canada fills its pavilion with strange organic growths, Great Britain with stuffed seabirds, Ruskin notebooks and a one-tenth scale model in timber of part of our 2012 Olympic Stadium, whereupon it becomes essentially a lecture theatre (some see it as akin to an old operating theatre), where people sit and sketch, or just sit. The stage, podium or whatever is actually the entrance doorway. You enter, and find an audience looking at you. It’s all a bit Fellini/Bunuel.

Called ‘Villa Frankenstein’ after a remark by 19th century Venetian obsessive John Ruskin, bemoaning the way his architectural ideas became coarsened and commercialized, it is all about the British love affair with Venice and even has a functioning bit of real saltmarsh from the lagoon on a platform at the back. There are psychogeographical layers of Ruskin in the flanking galleries. But for once the BritPav, too often introverted and fussy, has understood the need for the big attention-grabbing moment, and this is provided by the stadium/lecture theatre. The architect who came up with this wheeze – Lisa Fior of the firm known as muf – calls it ‘the stadium of close looking’. Apparently it’s to make us concentrate on what we’ve already got, rather than shiny new stuff like the Olympics stadium itself. Around the Olympics site in London is a watery landscape which if you half close your eyes could almost be…OK, it’s a bit contrived, but that’s the biennale for you, and anyway the thing is beautifully made by Venetian carpenters. It’s definitely one of the better British pavilions of recent years.

The United States gave us some nice silver helium balloons outside, and a rattle-bag of projects inside with no clear theme. Australia tried to wow us with whizz-bang 3D movies of future antipodean supercities. Ireland filled a chapel in town with documents establishing an Irish-Venetian link through some saint or other. Russia had a cyclorama of a revived industrial district. If you looked hard enough at the very top end of the Arsenale, you’d find a lovely garden by master plantsman Piet Oudolf. And so on, and on. All this is ever so interesting, and often beautiful, but not what most people would regard as architecture, really. It’s something else.

So let’s argue that this biennale is trying to tell us what we already know – that we’ve had enough of “signature” projects, and it’s time to think differently. When you finally DO encounter the odd real project, such as an opera house by Toyo Ito, it’s almost shocking. At least Aldo Cibic had some fun re-imagining Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, though I didn’t see him giving any credit to Wright. But when even one of the best-known starchitects in the world – Rem Koolhaas, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Golden Lion – fills a huge space at the exhibition with his musings on preservation rather than new buildings, you know something’s going on. Rem is always bang on the zeitgeist button. Yes, from here on we’re all going to have to make do much more with what we’ve got already. I find that a cheerful thought.

As for the Croatian Pavilion, a rusted steel-mesh affair that was towed across the Adriatic to Venice on a barge – I seem to have been one of the few to have clapped eyes on it. It turned up in the lagoon outside the Sant’Elena district where I was strolling – perplexingly out of eyeshot of the Biennale gardens, so not the best place to make an entrance – paused for a few minutes, then sailed away again without mooring. Later I learned that it had been a bit too fragile, and had part-collapsed on the journey over, turning it back into a heap of reinforcement bar. Full marks for concept. Nul points for execution. But this year – a biennale I loved – it seemed like an elegant bit of performance art, put on just for me. Bravo, Croatia!


Official Venice Biennale site:
Video Interviews with Tony Fretton and Liza Fior

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman, September 2010. Some elements of this also crop up in The Sunday Times online and the RIBA Journal.

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