The theme was “Out There” but the experience was over the top as the leading lights of the profession plus a smattering of young up-and-comers from around the world produced a heroically-scaled display of performance architecture.
By Julie V. Iovine
To make sharp critical observers out of his audiences, German playwright Bertolt Brecht inserted blackout moments into scenes. The 11th International Architecture Biennale offered its own alienation effect in a dark-as-pitch room—a forecourt to the vast two-mile long Arsenale exhibition space—featuring an installation by Rockwell Group with Jones/Kroloff involving towering interactive screens where scenes from architecture’s favorite movies (Cleopatra,The Fountainhead, A Clockwork Orange, etc.) as complex XY-axis projections leapt up in response to the crowd moving through. This Hall of Fragments set a seductive stage for the subsequent installations commissioned from 24 architecture practices by Biennale director Aaron Betsky. The brief was to show architecture “beyond building,” that is “revelatory, utopian, and critical.” Visitors marched past a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of gargantuan works: elegantly embalmed prototyped extrusions by Asymptote; Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Oz-like Feed Back Space first envisioned in 1969; and Zaha Hadid’s brand-perfect acid green furniture/architecture. Most breathtaking in this sequence was Frank Gehry’s Ungapatchket, a three-story timber model of a Moscow hotel that the architect is designing, slabbed over with clay in the spirit of Cai Guo Qiang’s ephemeral Rent Collection Courtyard figurines shown in New York last winter, but originally exhibited in the Arsenale in 1999.
Even if you had not already been over to the Giardini, the other part of the Biennale dedicated to national pavilions and their individually curated exhibits, and seen the Estonian’s big yellow “pipeline” providentially and ominously running down a gravel slope to the steps of the Russian pavilion, you might have questioned the relevance of the Arsenale’s fabulously blousy installations. The European press has already come down hard, especially on the nudes brought in by French architect Philippe Rahm in an effort to demonstrate space-making through convection air currents instead of walls. The concept was certainly clever, and might have been enough for an art installation, but it cannot pass muster at an architecture fair if it doesn’t actually work. Betsky tried to make an end-run around buildings that “just stand there” in favor of architecture that inspires and “transforms one’s perception of one’s world.” And while there was plenty of food for thought about the latest way to turn data into structure, from artist Matthew Ritchie & Aranda/Lasch’s scale-less, fractal-turned-structural-doily to M-A-D’s AirXY, which replicated the technology of Hall of Fragments with LED lights instead of movies, many of the installations looked as if they could too easily end up as catalog fodder for the amusement of galleristas.
The urban problems that preoccupied some architects—the lives of singletons for the Dutch collective Droog; the pile-up of unrecyclable and ghastly plastic toys for Greg Lynn—didn’t seem global enough. Pros at performance architecture like Diller Scofidio + Renfro did not disappoint with a video installation that mashed up interviews with gondoliers in three different Venices—Italy, Las Vegas, and Macau—along with anyone’s belief in authenticity of place. UNStudio, too, satisfied with a slitheringly stunning rendition of a villa fit for Zoolander that served as a screen for footage from an Alexander McQueen fashion show.
But as one continued down the vast Arsenale where in the 12th century, entire battleships could be built in a week, the impression that today powerful minds were bent to far less mighty tasks was hard to ignore. Ten months ago when Betsky set to work, presidents and vice presidents had not been nominated, Georgian borders had not been crossed, and hurricanes both natural and financial had not rocked our foundations. Now that they have, architects working in high concepts rather than hard realities seem somehow passé.
By Anne Guiney
After the machined perfection of so many of the Arsenale’s massive installations, the drawings of Roma Interrota provided the show’s first real jolt. The recreation of a 1978 exhibition of the same name was inspired by the 1748 Nolli Map of Rome. The drawings show the eternal city reimagined by 12 architects, including Aldo Rossi (pictured), Paolo Portoghesi, Robert Venturi, Leon and Robert Krier, and Colin Rowe, who were themselves monumental practitioners in the 1970s. The reinstallation was an eye-opener for a new generation, including Casey Jones and Reed Kroloff, who collaborated with David Rockwell on the video installation Hall of Fragments. For them, the juxtaposition provided a revealing contrast in the ways architects look at cities. “It has the stillness of a time capsule,” said Kroloff, “and it’s amazing to see how radically the tools of expression have changed.”
The original Roma Interrota was organized by then-mayor of Rome Giulio Carlo Argan, and took as its premise the idea that since the publication of Giovanni Battista Nolli’s famous New Plan for Rome, planning in the city had been stymied and destructive. Argan asked architects to start where the 230-year-old plan left off and dream of what the city could be. Revisiting the new reinstallation at the Arsenale, Argan wrote, “It is comprised not of proposals for urban planning, naturally, but of a series of gymnastic exercises for the imagination whose course runs parallel to that of memory… [Here] are hypotheses for the Rome which would have resulted had man continued to imagine it and not to plan it (badly.)”
At the mouth of the Grand Canal, the city’s largest public garden is dotted with 35 national pavilions and a series of outdoor installations. Inside, a few curators showed how architecture can indeed be pushed “beyond building,” with results ranging from poetic to pragmatic.
By Anne Guiney
By taking the Biennale’s theme “Out There—Architecture Beyond Building” as more guideline than directive, curators of more than 30 national exhibitions in the Giardini found expansive and fertile ground for their ideas. Expansive enough, in fact, to encompass almost anything. Freed from the physical limitations of building, architecture could relate to everything.
The two most prevalent (and often intertwined) ideas curators explored were politics and the environment, but the work ranged from the poetic approach of Japan’s Junya Ishigumi, who created a dreamland of flower-structures, to Russia, whose installation of a competitive architectural chess game could be read as a mirror held up to contemporary politics.
Perhaps the most immediately satisfying project was not in a pavilion, but running between two. Estonia put a real-scale gas pipe on the ground between the German and Russian pavilions to represent a Gazprom proposal to build the Nord Stream pipeline connecting the two countries through the Baltic Sea. It was wonderfully concise in its ability to make a political argument physically manifest, and to raise questions about issues from regional power dynamics to environmental damage.
Poland’s curators took the seldom-sexy idea of recycling and gave it some style by repurposing their pavilion as the Hotel Polonia, complete with beds. Inside, there were a series of photographic triptychs showing a building as it looks today and then one that Photoshops it into the future. A 2004 basilica becomes a fantastic water park, since after a while the only people attending church would be tourists anyway, so why not? Likewise, a university library is rebranded as a mall, and cheekily, a Foster-designed building became a convincingly ominous jail. The mixture of solid ideas and a light touch led the jurors to award it the Golden Lion.
Germany, too, drew attention to the use and abuse of nature, though without the humor of its neighbor. To highlight the way we often squander our resources, the curators did some squandering of their own: The neoclassical German pavilion’s portico was lit with 32 massive spotlights, which gave it an unfortunate eerie glow, and each visitor passing underneath felt their heat. The physical sensation made an effective point, and while there was a notice inside that team members were reducing energy consumption to offset the 50,000 kilowatts of electricity the piece will ultimately consume, the choice seemed dubious. A second inadvertently funny moment was an indoor grove of apple trees under Gro-lights, fed by an IV-like sack of radioactively bright liquid that suggested nothing more than Soylent Green.
Japan’s curator Junya Ishigumi took a very different stance on the issue of our relationship to nature, and imagined a world where architecture was not set in a landscape but inextricably a part of it. The seemingly blank white walls of the pavilion were covered with dozens of drawings of greenery-clad structures in different scenarios, and outside were a series of delicate glass greenhouses filled with flowers. Its dreamy beauty made it a favorite, but the ideas it raised were really no more far-fetched than much of the more ecologically-minded work in the Italian Pavilion.
By William Menking
When word first went out that the theme of this year’s architecture biennale was “Out There: Beyond Building,” I suspected that Aaron Betsky would take a more formalist approach and not include the kind of social activism that has recently engaged an increasing number of architects frustrated by a sense of impotence in the face of the country’s crumbling infrastructure and frayed social fabric. I turned to Teddy Cruz, whose housing proposals for Hudson, NY, we’ve covered in AN, and he started a conversation with Pratt Institute’s Deborah Gans. Soon the team also included Andy Sturm of the PARC Foundation and Aaron Levy of the Slought Foundation, two non-profits often involved with architects pursuing alternative practices. There seemed to be an opportunity to provide a counterpoint to the main exhibition with something that focused more on new approaches to engaging with communities and shaping local infrastructure.
Time was not on our side: We had only four months to conceive, develop, design, ship, and install everything down to the guestbook to Venice. Right at the start, Leanne Mella, with years of experience as a biennale coordinator and with the State Department, warned me, “I’ve done exhibits in Africa, and it can be a difficult place to mount an exhibition, but Venice is tougher!” and then she joined our team, an unbeatable vote of confidence.
Our goal was not modest: We were basically trying to develop and encourage an architecture culture that doesn’t yet exist in the United States. And while we included efforts like The Heidelberg Project, where abandoned houses in Detroit have been encrusted by recycled refuse collected in the neighborhood, or Kyong Park’s New Silk Road video montage, the impulse was to provoke new thinking about architecture, not to feature art projects.
While some of the work we decided to include (and that you may have read about in the last issue of AN) was very critical about aspects of American culture and the built environment, some of it was equally proactive about our problems, because they are in fact hard to believe. The reality is that in the last 25 years, this country hasn’t really invested in our infrastructure, and so a lot of the projects in the pavilion looked at that rather than at buildings in order to make a connection between an architectural sensibility and a larger social infrastructure. Finally, I believe that architects are by and large urbanists who love cities and want to make them function better, and the projects we chose to include represented a range of ways to do just that.
Inside the Italian Pavilion, 56 exhibits showed the range of experiment across the spectrum, from Lebbeus Woods’ drawings to architecture’s future as seen through the I Ching. With a tone set by the early, ground-breaking work of masters like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Coop Himmelb(l)au, the work suggests that the spirit of the new is alive and engaged.
By Anne Guiney
The Italian Pavilion in the Giardini promises an overview on the state of progressive practice in architecture, and while it certainly delivers, it does so in a way that is alternately provocative, satisfying, and dispiriting. Curator Aaron Betsky chose to devote the building that once housed the host country’s installation (now relocated to the Arsenale) with the work of 55 experimental firms, many of whom are younger, like MOS, NL Architects, and LOT-EK, and seven of the avant-garde’s old school, most now prolific builders, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Morphosis. Most of the masters pulled work from their archives—Zaha Hadid’s drawings were particularly spectacular, and a reminder of her extraordinary talent. A noteworthy exception was Herzog & de Meuron, who teamed up with Ai Wei Wei, their collaborator on the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, and made a simple but beautiful installation from the bamboo poles so prevalent on construction sites in China.
Almost all of the work on display is drawn from projects that were underway long before the Biennale, and Betsky has grouped like with like. Teddy Cruz’s cross-border work in Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego is catercorner to FAST’s planning and community organizing project in the Arab-Israeli town of Ein Hawd, while Field Operations’ large-scale and long-term efforts in landscape urbanism share a room with the Colombia-based Husos’ engaging Proyecto Cali, which wonderfully manages to include the restoration of a habitat for Monarch butterflies, an exhibitions building, and a soap opera called Butterflies and Passions.
One of the more striking things that emerges from the contrast Betsky sets up between the old-new and the new-new is the preoccupation with creating a more socially engaged practice over form-making, and the use of different means to tell a story. Along with Husos and its racy telenovela, AOC developed a Monopoly-based board game to help Venetians rethink their shrinking city, and J,P:A Jones Partners put together a Marvel-style comic book projecting 50 years into the future of Dubai. CUP’s intentionally crude Xeroxed posters diagram a link between sneakers and poverty, while Urban Think Tank’s colorful wall of posters from Caracas, Venezuela is as suggestive of a vibrant public realm as any in the show.
Yogi Berra, as usual, had it right: The future ain’t what it used to be, and utopia as we know and love it is in fairly short supply in the pavilion. One of the more provocative pieces calls the very idea into question: Abitare editor Stefano Boeri and a student team took on the eco-enthusiasm so prevalent in the pavilion and beyond and ask what it would really be like if nature once again was deeply integrated into our cities. Boeri’s Sustainable Dystopias presents three scenarios—the city of energy devices, the city of vegetable surfaces, and the city of wild animals, each of which pushes the proposal to its logical conclusion and points out the pros and cons. As neat as it might sound, the piece argues, there’s also a downside to having elk and moose wandering through protected greenbelts in a city. NL Architects also presents cut-n’-paste what-if scenarios in Virtual Realities that are a little uncomfortable, in spite of their humor. The ice caps are melting? Let’s make one out of trash, since there’s plenty of that! The two projects stand in marked contrast to the visually appealing yet thin suggestion represented by ma0/emmeazero’s Footprints, whose vision for new types of public space seems more grounded in the possibilities of Photoshop than in a meaningful sense of how people use city streets and parks.