News
10.05.2004
From The Belly of the Whale
With the theme Metamorph, the 9th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is an aquarium of exotic architectural creatures. Richard Ingersoll attempts to make sense of the mmlange.

With the theme Metamorph,the 9th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is an aquarium of exotic architectural creatures. Richard Ingersoll attempts to make sense of the mmlange.

Asymptote conceived of the environmental design for the Metamorph exhibition, which occupies the Corderie dell'Arsenale (left).
Renzo Piano Building Workshop's 2002 Parco della Musica in Rome (below right) resembles three beetles. Foster and Partner's The Sage
Gateshead in Northern England (below left), slated to open in December, looks like a giant sea slug.

It probably all began with a fish. Not GGnter Grass' tale of the world-weary flounder, but Frank O. Gehry's love of wiggly marine life. The hundreds of models that recently washed up for the central exhibition of the 9th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, installed in the half-kilometer-long Corderie dell'Arsenale, appear like partially digested morsels of underwater creatures clinging to a series of colossal, stark white plaster ribs. Snack food for the Leviathan. The trend in architecture, privileged by the Biennale's mercurial director, Kurt Forster, oscillates between the desire to represent natural forms that have metamorphosed from the conventional notion of building and the desire not to represent at all, but to create random shapes through the accidents of computer morphing.. Thus the exhibition's syncretic theme, Metamorph. The ribbed installation, designed by the digitally endowed New York office Asymptote, breaks down the interminable axis of the column-lined hall by placing each exhibition platform laterally, forcing the visitor to meander in picturesque circuits. Each of the three dozen podia has an irregular streamlined shape that is different from but related to the ones nearest it. These sinuous ribbons are fascinating as sculpture, work fairly well for exhibiting the displays (though the flat bases of each of the models had to be adjusted to the platforms' irregular surfaces), and invest the space with a resounding metaphoric unity. Like most of the projects in the show, however, Asymptote's ribs demonstrate a lack of interest in constructional or structural determinants, approaching form as something that could be grown rather than built.

As Hani Rashid, principal of Asymptote and spokesman for a new generation of digital designers put it, With the aid of computing a newly evolved architecture is emerging. It is within the grasp of architects and artists today to discover and evoke a digitally induced spatial delirium, where a merging of simulation and effect with physical reality creates the possibility of a sublime morphing from thought to actualization.. Let us agree that the Vitruvian categories of commodity and firmness have no place in this hallucinogenic purview. And even the third canonical objective, delight, is much abused. Those who visit the main exhibition of the Biennale will come away with a clear sense of a styleevaguely organic, neo-picturesque, and sublimely homely. Most of the projects also seem technically dubious and extremely expensive to build because of their awkward geometries. While there is an undercurrent of concern for the environment and many designs consciously simulate natural forms, there is no attempt to justify the works from a social, technical, or ecological point of view. Thus the show concentrates almost completely on a current tasteea new version of expressionismmthat appeals to some of the cultural elite of advanced capitalism. Forster, a Swiss-born art historian, the founding director of the Getty Center, and for two years the director of the Canadian Center for Architecture, came to the job with a formidable intellectual and institutional background. While one may take issue with the content of the Biennale, its concept has been convincingly displayed and given an excellent pedagogical armature in the three-volume catalogue. In some ways, the basis of the show was prepared by writer Marina Warner, who curated an art exhibition with a similar theme at the Science Museum in London in 2002. In her view, the taste for metamorphosis accompanies the anxious desire for self-transformation in an advanced technological society. Historian Juan Antonio Ramirez sees the trend in a more political light, especially after the events of September 11 in New York and March 11 in Madrid, declaring that the nascent 21st century's love affair with pulverized ruins, relies on the demolition of democratic institutions. Any analysis of our social political reality would define the sides of the triangle in which we move as: lies, usurpation, and ruin..

Unfortunately the critical and skeptical insights of the catalogue are unable to shape the experience of the exhibition, which is by nature an endorsement of style. Forster has pursued a personal theoretical agenda that revolves around two of his close friends: Peter Eisenman, with whom he founded Oppositions magazine in the 1970s and commissioned a project for an unbuilt house, Eleven-A, and Frank O. Gehry, for whom he has often acted as an intermediary or glossator. While recently the architectural styles of Eisenman and Gehry seem to be converging toward an organicist mode, their approaches to architecture are diametrically opposed. Eisenman's methods celebrate the autonomous capacity of geometry and computation to signify, while Gehry relies on artistic intuition and metaphor. Eisenman's line of thought has led to computer morphing, while Gehry's has led to an appreciation of zoomorphic and crystalline iconography requiring computer modeling to be realized. The formal results of each are intentionally monstrous with respect to architectural conventions and urban contexts, appealing to the aesthetic theory of the sublime.

Gehry is well represented at the Biennale with the show's largest model, of the recently completed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a stainless steellclad sibling of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Eisenman, meanwhile, was given an entire room to make an installation about his work. The most interesting projects, both currently under construction, seem like ventures into land art: the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. In addition, Eisenman was honored with the Biennale's Lifetime Achievement Award. His built works, so often instant ruins, such as House VI or the Wexner Center at Ohio State, should serve as a parable for the Metamorph style: You can fantasize and digitize all you like, but that won't stop a building from leaking.

(Abobe) Stavanger Concert Hall by PLOT; (Left) Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry; and (Below) Peter Eisenman's City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela.

To give substance to the trend toward a new expressionist taste, Forster assembled a separate exhibition on contemporary concert halls. The peculiar demands of acoustical engineering and the monumental imagery often attached to these projects give them a particular iconic power in an urban setting. Like the museum, concert halls serve as a kind of scapegoat for the demise of civic life. To see so many together, one has little doubt that they adhere to the underlying taste of Metamorph. Starting with JJrn Utzon's Sydney Opera House and Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic, both designed in the 1950s, the 40 models of recent solutions demonstrate that the type has yielded some of the weirdest forms in architectural history. Acoustical engineering seems to have bestowed a functionalist precept for irregular forms that struggle against the orthogonality of most urban contexts. The prize-winner in this part of the show, an unbuilt project for a two part concert hall in Stavanger, Norway, by the Danish office PLOT, is an ingenious solution that unites two monolithic parallelipeds with steps that wrap around the base of the buildings and then continue as a louvered facade to the roof. The risers are translucent, allowing slats of daylight into the structure and at night creating a magical light box effect, like a Noguchi lantern. One can still recognize a humanist bias in the approach, especially when compared to other projects such as the Dutch office NOX's recently completed installation Son-O-House, which looks like guts spilled on a sidewalk. The trend in zoomorphic transformations and picturesque planning is evident even among the most technologically astute offices. Norman Foster's The Sage Gateshead music hall rests like a giant sea slug on the banks of the River Tyne and Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica in Rome resembles three beetles. Despite being the largest international exhibition for architecture, the Biennale this year cannot be said to represent the world's architecture. And while there is no hierarchy or singling out of any particular nation, the curatorial concentration on the quirks of a particular aspect of high style is unavoidably discriminatory. The Biennale has always compensated for its elitism in the dozens of national pavilions, where each country assigns a curator to assemble a show. The pavilion prize went to Belgium, which presented an artist's and anthropologist's vision of Kinshasha, a mod- est consideration of Congolese vernacular adaptations in a situation far removed from the patronage necessary for the projects of Metamorph. A work of postcolonial guilt, it stood out from the rest of the Biennale as a reminder of architecture's misplaced priorities.

The Japanese pavilion was exceptional in its conceptualism, bringing together a myriad of images from pop culture surrounding the figure of the eternally adolescent and aimless computer nerd, christened Otaku. The chaotic but repetitious assembly of plastic toys and bright colored posters creates a convincing idea of how the trivial products, games, and junk of consumerism have become elements of contemporary urbanism. The other pavilion that caught my attention was Germany's, a fascinating photomontage mural that undulated from room to room, seamlessly blending 37 contemporary works of architecture into the landscape of sprawl. Has sprawl finally become beautiful? Finally, the U.S. pavilion, which relies on private sponsors, showed the work of six offices, three of which are very morphy and three that are not. The Biennale's juried prizes went to SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) for two works, the Contemporary Art Museum in Kanazawa, Japan, and the Valencia Institute of Modern Art in Valencia. Other awards were given to Foreign Office Architects (Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi) for its terraced, undulating hanging garden scheme for a car park at the Novartis campus in Basel, and Marttnez-Lapeea and Torres for its design of an exhibition platform and photovoltaic tower at the new convention center area of Forum 2004, which covers Barcelona's water treatment plant. The new expressionism of Metamorph opens a perennial problem, not just of technique and social program but of aesthetics. Hybrid works such as many of those presented in the Biennale are misfitsslinguistically closed, impractical to construct, and difficult to adapt to. Their meaning is circumscribed by their uniqueness of form, which greatly limits their chances to be understood. They are doomed to extinction as they are unable to cooperate with reality. Will we someday find ourselves rallying to save the architectural whales? Richard Ingersoll is a critic based in Italy. His latest book is Sprawltown (Meltemi, 2004).

Richard Ingersoll