Reporting from the Front: A Report

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Tia Jewell

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School of Architecture

College of Design

Georgia Institute of Technology

tia.jewell@design.gatech.edu

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A pilgrimage to the Architecture Biennale in Venice

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  • Pezo Von Ellrichshausen at the 2016 Venice Biennale [photo by author] Pezo Von Ellrichshausen at the 2016 Venice Biennale [photo by author]
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REPORTING FROM THE FRONT : A REPORT
 
Mark Cottle, Associate Professor, School of Architecture
 
The prospect of a pilgrimage to the Architecture Biennale in Venice can be daunting.  Each year, an increasing horde of visitors, this year 27 million, descend upon a shrinking population of fewer than 55,000 residents, and it's not easy to experience Venice as a real, living city, much less lose yourself in the melancholy labyrinths that mesmerized Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, Henry James, Thomas Mann, China Mieville, WG Sebald....
 
Instead, you are more likely to encounter "Veniceland".  Mercifully free of the pedicabs and segways that plague other heavily touristed cities, even so, it can be a struggle to make your way through the crowded, narrow streets.  Especially when every bridge over every little canal is clogged with selfie-takers.
 
You can minimize the aggravation by avoiding central areas in favor of quiet neighborhoods in the corners and at the edges.  And by taking your long walks after dinner, when the day-trippers are back on their buses and cruise ships, the streets empty out, and the city assumes the Scooby-Doo spookiness of an abandoned amusement park.
 
Likewise, the Biennale itself can be formidable.  Intended to provide an overview of what may be considered most noteworthy in contemporary architecture around the world, the exposition is vast.  Exhibits fill two complexes, the Giardini and the Arsenale, each of which will usually take a full day to work your way through -- not to mention the many pop-ups and pavilions sprinkled throughout the city.
 
How to determine what warrants careful attention, what you can give a cursory review, and what you can safely blow past?  
 
It helps that each iteration of the Biennale is lensed through a curatorial question or concern.  In 2010, Kazuyo Sejima asked participants to reflect upon how People meet in architecture.  In 2012, David Chipperfield sought Common Ground (and didn't get much IMHO).  In 2014, Rem Koolhaas took a back-to-basics approach with Fundamentals, giving special attention to architectural elements.
 
This year, in REPORTING FROM THE FRONT, Alejandro Aravena foregrounded practices and projects that seek to "improve the quality of life while working on the margins, under tough circumstances, facing pressing challenges."  In accordance with the humanitarian focus, "starchitects" are few and far between.
 
Instead, Aravena invited participation from a large number of lesser-known practices, from all around the world, that he believed merit greater recognition.  Of the 88 invitees, 50 were exhibiting at the Biennale for the first time, and 33 of them were under the age of 40.
 
The momentary respite from the barrage of the usual suspects, continually promoted, already known, has prompted some critics to dismiss the exposition as "decaffeinated".  A pretty snobbish assessment, you could say.  But one can justly concede that the decision to eschew architectural fireworks has resulted in a flatter overall feeling tone.
 
So many fresh voices and perspectives could be expected to provoke a much more interesting and pertinent series of conversations about contemporary practice than the usual fare.  And it did.  It seemed, however, that several of the invitees did not have sufficient experience exhibiting their work, or perhaps lacked the resources to do it properly.  The majority did not follow Aravena's "problem-process-result" formula, ignoring the first two parts in favor of the latter.  As a result, the work often did not rise to the level of visibility, much less legibility.
 
Many of their displays, generally much smaller than those of more established practices, were swallowed up in the vast spaces (almost impossible to see in the deep gloom of the Arsenale's main volume).  It wasn't always clear where one exhibit stopped and the next one started.  Adjacencies often seemed arbitrary rather than enlightening.  And Aravena's short introductory texts ranged between enigmatic and inscrutable.
 
In a smaller setting, one could rightly be expected to put into practice one's faith in the curator, and to invest the time and energy in situ to figure it all out:  what a project or practice is about, why it was included, how it might relate to the others.  Here there wasn't time for that.  Best to mark them in one's program to look up online later.
 
That said, there remain plenty of highlights:
 
In one corner of the Giardini's main building, next to an exquisite secret garden designed by Carlo Scarpa in the sixties, Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo from Sicily suspended a large enclosure formed of A1 and A4 sheets, clipped-together, printed with construction drawings and photos of her projects.  Attractive in itself, the display seemed generic compared to her work, and not particularly informative.  Her singularly muscular and rigorous buildings resist easy consumption, and this did not do them justice.
 
In another corner, Grafton Architects from Ireland presented just one powerful project:  their recently-completed building for UTEC in Lima, Peru, a magnificent sequel to their brilliant building for the Università Bocconi in Milano.  A short film combined swooning drone footage of the massive structure with footage of the daily lives of a selection of occupants -- a teacher, a student, a security guard, a custodian -- including their daily commutes through the city.
 
Tucked away in the mezzanine, Aires Mateus from Portugal make a compelling case for beauty in the form of an ersatz cave, luxurious as a jewelry store display, with the space itself the treasure, revealing their enormous debt to the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (an important source, in fact, for many Iberian artists and architects, those who are interested in volume more than plane).
 
A few rooms away, Raphael Zuber, a young Swiss architect whose obsessions seem to fall somewhere between Olgiatti and Shinohara, plays another variation on the theme of beauty with a series of precious, hermetic gold models.
 
After indulging in all that formal pleasure, prepare yourself.  Directly below Aires Mateus, London-based Forensic Architects, an architectural research group who work on behalf of human rights groups, present fragments of four investigations:  "from the micro-analysis of a single ruin from a drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, to an urban analysis of the city of Rafah in Gaza under Israeli attack; the death of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, to the environmental violence along the shifting climatic frontiers of desertification and deforestation."
 
After this you may want to go back outside, have a coffee or a gelato, and take refuge in the architecture-for-architecture's-sake open-air pavilion Aravena commissioned from the Chilean practice Pezo von Ellrichshausen.  This is a surprisingly mature work from such a young firm.  They know exactly what their formal, material, and spatial questions are, and how to address their hankering for solidity in what, by necessity, is a temporary construction.
 
Deeply enmeshed in architectural culture, Pezo von Ellrichshausen quite rightly don't like to name names, preferring to let objects, images, and spaces speak for themselves, alluding indirectly to their antecedents.  Nonetheless, the rough dark-green walls pay explicit homage to the Venetian-red installation David Chipperfield commissioned from Alvaro Siza in 2012, located behind the Arsenale, in the midst of the garden that Kazuyo Sejima commissioned from Piet Oudolf in 2010.  (Both are still there, and must be visited.)
 
Meanwhile, in the cavernous Arsenale, a former rope factory, look in one corner for models and drawings of the TID Tower by Brussels-based firm 51N4E, presently under construction in Tirana, Albania.  Stylishly awkward, and the largest building in the previously isolated country, the project is perhaps more important for the role of socially-engaged high design in the revitalization of the city.
 
It poses an interesting set of questions with the neighboring exhibit by Wang Shu and Amateur Architecture Studio, who present an array of pallets loaded with materials salvaged from demolished traditional buildings in China.
 
Down the way, Khang Ze and ZAO/Standardarchitecture, based in Beijing, have built full-size mockups of their small insertions into traditional hutongs, an important strategy for retaining and strengthening the viability of these rapidly disappearing neighborhoods.  The modesty and careful attention to local particularities of these interventions feel much more appropriate, and believable, than the silver bubbles MAD have been dining out on of late.
 
If you don't yet know about Finnish architects Hollmén Reuter Sandman, here's your chance.  Their claim, to "focus on environmental and aesthetic sustainability", is borne out in the three exemplary projects on display:  a women's center in Senegal, a shelter house in Tanzania, and a school for the children of garbage collectors in Cairo.  It's beautiful work -- conceptually, compositionally, and tectonically precise -- yet also sensitive to local conditions.
 
Grupo EPM, architects attached to Medellin's utility companies, present a short feel-good film together with an array of 3D-printed topographical models of their multiple-award-winning Unidades de Vida Articulada.  The UVAs convert unused municipal land surrounding existing water reservoirs into public parks and cultural facilities.  Perched high on the hilltops, in some of the poorest neighborhoods, yet with stunning views across the valleys, these projects have it all.  
 
You might feel a tad uncomfortable with the luxury-poverty aesthetic purveyed by Studio Mumbai, but you have to admit they know how to take charge of a room.  Here, right next to the unassuming but astonishing infrastructural interventions of Medellin's UVAs, Studio Mumbai place three experiments in low-cost building techniques, configured like sculptures in an art gallery.  A long, stall-like structure, fashioned of bamboo, hemp, cow dung, and lime wash, reportedly gave pause to the Italian health authorities.
 
THE NATIONAL PAVILIONS are fun because you can play a game with yourself about cultural stereotypes:  To what extent do the exhibits representing these countries confirm, qualify, or defy your expectations?  For extra points:  How do they respond to, challenge, or, in some cases, completely ignore Aravena's curatorial charge?  Expert level:  Plot the responses across socio-economic and geopolitical vectors.
 
Spain is a good place to start -- they're right by the front gate of the Giardini -- and their exhibit confirms what we already sensed, that Spanish architecture has been operating at a consistently high level for some time now.  In fact, the recent economic crisis seems only to have reinforced and concentrated their greatest strength:  a readiness to conserve what is already there, and to work with the fragmentary, the contingent, and the in-between.
 
They were awarded the Golden Lion for best national pavilion.  I hope it was on the strength of the solid and admirable built work.  The rooms look great, but, while much lauded for their austerity and rigor (stereotype alert), they tell only half the story.  The drawings and photos of built projects, mounted on boards and attached to skeletal steel stud partitions, privilege the conceptual at the expense of the tactile.
 
This is an existential architecture, made of rough and smooth surfaces, lightness and weight, heat, shadows, and the smell of a sudden rain on dust.  None of which is evident in these bloodless, fleshless rooms.  And there is little on show that you can't see better online or in a magazine.  The catalogue, however, is excellent -- intelligent and beautifully produced -- and you can hold it in your hand!  
 
It's all about sense and sensibility in the adjacent Belgian pavilion, representing a design culture that flourishes in the half-light between cozy Dutch pragmatism and French splendor.  Six building fragments, quirky moments in banal structures, are reproduced full scale in the gallery, juxtaposed with large digitally-manipulated architectural photographs.  The rooms are luminous, spare, and elegant ... enough to allow them the minor affectation of texts penciled directly on the walls in a loose cursive script.
 
I want to send you to the Nordic pavilion because, no matter what's on display there, the building by Sverre Fehn is such an important reference.  This year, inexplicably, the exhibitors have made a construction that completely blocks from view the heart and soul of the space, those mysterious trees.
 
With such a strong building tradition, rigorous craftsmanship (of material and thought), good taste, and the money to indulge it, Switzerland's pavilion is almost always a sure bet for a good show.  This time, however, Christian Kerez installed in their main room a giant white cloud/rock that you could climb inside.  I think he was aiming for "sublime", but the installation wasn't big enough, or surprising enough, and it ended up at "mildly interesting".
 
If the antics of national flagbearers such as Jean Nouvel have led you to associate French architecture with frivolity and formalism, the French pavilion has a surprise or two in store.  Their exhibition puts the spotlight on "enhanced banality", featuring projects and practices that critique and engage the generic landscapes most of us inhabit daily.
 
The four rooms are thoughtfully arranged, each with a different light level, and deploy a range of media:  wall drawings, small drawings, sketch models, large wood detail models, videos.  Both polemical and practical, the twelve projects presented are formally assured, socially engaged, thoughtfully constructed, and, always, elegant.  Notably, not much of it is located in Paris.  One wonders why France did not receive the Golden Lion for best national pavilion.
 
It is possible that the curators of the German pavilion took Aravena's charge more seriously, and with greater urgency, than anyone else at the exposition.  They addressed the current refugee crisis in Europe under the banner "Germany, Arrival Country".  The rooms are a puzzle at first, basically empty, no architectural proposals in evidence, a few stacks of generic white plastic cafe chairs in the corner, large slogans and goofy graphics on the walls.  But the space seems so unexpectedly generous -- with so much light -- what's going on?
 
Then one notices doorways where they shouldn't be, especially not in a classical, symmetrical building, and the light dawns:  Yes, they've actually removed several tons of material (with the promise that they will restore it after the show) in order to double the number of exterior openings.  The new apertures have no doors or windows.  The pavilion is open 24/7.  The building itself is the exhibit -- a bold, physical expression of welcome.
 
More than a glib gesture, the intervention also resonates with the ambivalence many Germans have long felt toward this building, constructed in 1909 by the Italians, to the current Italian taste, then updated by the Germans in 1938 to reflect Third Reich aspirations.
 
The Nazi-era renovations included replacing the wood parquet floor with marble paving -- the very marble that Hans Haacke pulled up, bashed, and put back as rubble in the 1993 Art Biennale.  Haacke's action won the Golden Lion that year (not without controversy).  Before that, in 1976, Joseph Beuys installed a fragment of train tracks as part his piece, "Tram Stop:  A Monument to the Future", which he said was, "a meditation on human suffering".
 
By contrast, the concerns of the exhibit for Great Britain could not be more insular.  Ostensibly about exploring the problematics of inhabiting dense urban environments -- an important topic, particularly in a time of rapidly increasing income inequity -- one that has been taken on with much greater seriousness and depth in the pavilions of Korea and Japan.
 
In the British pavilion it becomes an excuse for a series of adventures in bespoke minimalism.  The visitor wanders through a maze of tall, navy-blue walls, outfitted with gleaming white high-end bathroom fixtures, dressing room fittings, and fluffy white bedding.   
 
The Australia pavilion promotes a vision of the Australian lifestyle, organized around the theme of the swimming pool, which they claim as the locus of community.  We want to believe.  The awkward indoor wading pool, however, surrounded by desultory deck chairs, feels like the stage set it is, and does not make the case.
 
The presenters in the United States pavilion marched to a different drummer with twelve proposals for sites in Detroit.  The exhibit is worth visiting for the hauntingly evocative project by Mack Scogin, Merrill Elam, and their team. 
 
A number of countries who came later to the biennale, and don't have their own dedicated buildings in the Giardini, have been given exhibition space in the Arsenale, behind the exhibits curated by Aravena.  You will likely be feeling very tired at this point, your head about to explode, and will be tempted to skip this part.  But you won't want to miss these three:
 
Slovenian architects Dekleva Gregoric have have filled much of their space with a large wooden bookcase-cum-nest, and asked a number of architects they admire, including Tatiana Bilbao and Pezo von Ellrichshausen, to curate books for them on the topic of home.  A pleasant spot to hang out in and pretend to snoop in a new friend's personal library.
 
Take a moment and sit for a spell in the adjacent Albania exhibit, an almost empty room, sparely strewn with stools that appear to be building rubble, lacquered pink.  Perch for a bit and listen to the soundscape:  Ten texts about migration, by artists and thinkers such as Yona Friedman and Yanis Varoufakis, translated into Albanian, and sung by folk music groups from Tirana.  The piece by Varoufakis, about a call from a pay phone to his daughter living in Australia, is particularly affecting.
 
The last national pavilion to see in the Arsenale is also contemplative, and intensely beautiful:  "Losing Myself", representing Ireland, by architects Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou.  Upon entering the space, one is confronted by a sculptural phalanx of robots -- compact white bodies, on brass legs, orange coils extending up into the rafters -- which resolve into an array of sixteen video projectors aiming down.
 
At some point, one forgets these impressive mechanical creatures, entranced by the shifting intricate carpet of floor plans and gardens, in a continual process of being drawn, erased, redrawn, overwritten...
 
The installation takes on the problem of how to design spaces for people with dementia, using as source material research done by Niall McLaughlin's own practice for the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre in Dublin.  McLaughlin's sensitive and beautiful building never appears in the installation.  Only impressions of how it is perceived by its occupants.
 
If you stay for the full 16-minute cycle, you'll hear a condensed version of the ambient sounds in the building over the course of a 24-hour period:  phone calls, chats in the rooms or at the nurses station, a thunderstorm, church bells....
 
You can find out more about the overall project at : http://www.losingmyself.ie
 
The Siza pavilion and Oudolf garden are located in public gardens adjacent to the Arsenale, the Giardini delle Vergini.  Conveniently, you'll go by them if you leave the Arsenal grounds the back way, but you can visit them anytime without a ticket.
 
On walls and the parapets of bridges near the entries and exits to the Biennale grounds, and at several other points around the city, you'll note the words ANONYMOUS STATELESS IMMIGRANTS PAVILION stenciled in large black letters, accompanied by a directional arrow.  Some faded, some refreshed, some new, these stenciled signs started showing up back in 2011, initiated by a number of artists/activists seeking to draw attention to the plight of more than 60 million displaced people around the world.
 
My vote for the best national exhibit of all, the Portuguese pavilion, is also open to the public, located off-campus from the Biennale, on the Giudecca, a short vaporetto ride away.  An added bonus:  On the Giudecca you can wander in neighborhoods far from the madding crowd and visit the canonical mid-eighties housing project by Gino Valle.
 
You'll find the exhibit behind a construction fence, in the ground level of a building shrouded in scaffolding and netting -- a rough, bare space, little more than the concrete structure, temporarily occupied by a quick-footed display of videos and a few wood models.
 
At the entry, one can read how Italian and Portuguese discourse and practice have intertwined over the past half century.  The story, "Where Alvaro meets Aldo, 1966-2016", starts with the publication of Aldo Rossi's The Architecture of the City.
 
It continues ten years later, when Vittorio Gregotti and Peter Eisenman invite Siza and Rossi to participate in a conference at the 1976 Venice Biennale -- together with luminaries such as Aldo Van Eyck, Carlo Aymonino, Denise Scott Brown, Giancarlo de Carlo, James Stirling, John Hejduk, Joseph Rykvert, Oriol Bohigas, Peter Eisenman, and Robert Venturi.
 
In the mid-eighties, Siza, Rossi, and Rafael Moneo are commissioned to design housing for the Giudecca in Venice.  Rossi's project is built, half of Siza's, and none of Moneo's.  At the beginning of this century, work resumes, only to fizzle out in the economic crisis.  This is the actual construction site of the abandoned second phase.  (The first part has been occupied for several years.)
 
The rest of the exhibit is dedicated to four of Siza's housing projects:  in Porto, Berlin, Den Hague, and this one in Venice.  The most engaging part of the exhibit is the short films documenting recent visits Siza made to the residents in each of the four projects.
 
In the building next door, in each apartment he visits, he takes a seat, accepts an obligatory coffee, lights one cigarette with the butt of the previous one, and, in fluent Italian, chats with the people living there, responding charmingly to questions about acoustic separation, windows that stick, faucets that drip....
 
One resident asks him, "why did you give this apartment two balconies instead of one bigger one?  Was it the budget?"  Siza responds, "I wish I could tell you it was the budget.  But it's really my fault.  It was for the composition of the facade; I thought it would look better this way.  But I can tell you that, if I were doing it now, you'd have a big balcony."
 
 

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  • Created By: Tia Jewell
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Dec 19, 2016 - 4:37pm
  • Last Updated: Dec 19, 2016 - 4:44pm