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How Real is Real?
Amid expansive displays of derring-do and clever acts of interpretation at this year's 12th International Architecture Exhibition, a silent question hangs in the air: Is this really what architecture means?
Japanese engineers Transsolar and Tetsu Kondo Architects collaborated on two metal ramps that disappear into the mist.
Marco Zanta

“People meet in architecture”—the theme of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale—is perhaps a too-literal translation from Japanese into English. Put forward by exhibition director Kazuyo Sejima, the idea is to “provide a greater connection between the viewer and the exhibition itself.” The emphasis here is clearly on experience rather than exchange. “You can see nice photographs of models on the Internet,” Sejima said. “At the Biennale, you should be able to see the real thing.” Of course, the real thing is always a question in any exhibition on architecture, and Sejima seems to have strong ideas about that in guiding her choices for this year’s show.

For this Biennale, open through November 21, Sejima selected 47 practices (only two are American) and gave each its own space and the power, she said, to be “his or her own curator.” One feels Sejima’s knowing design hand in the selection process, which introduces several relatively new voices to this most important international stage. It is also clear from the clever curatorial ebb and flow of the various installation placements in the two main Biennale venues—the Arsenale and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni—that she carefully considered which architects would be placed next to each other. It was Sejima’s intention in the show, she said, that it be a “chance for less information and more feeling.”

Spanish architects Anton Garcia-Abril and Ensamble Studio play with the notion of structure.
The non-supporting giant I-beam made of wood and plaster by Spanish architects Anton Garcia-Abril and Ensamble Studio play counterpoint to the centuries-old brick columns that hold up the roof.
Roland Halbe

Mirko Zardini, director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, believes that Sejima’s Biennale introduces a new approach to architecture, one that focuses not on style but on “the atmosphere and the character of things,” and that it emphasizes ambience and space in a way that puts “experience at the front of design.”

  Architect Junya Ishigami's Architecture as Air: Study for Chateau La Coste
Architect Junya Ishigami's Architecture as Air: Study for Chateau La Coste, a 3-D sketch in thread, existed for barely a day before a cat destroyed it.
COURTESY Contessanally
This is probably true, and points to the limitations of Sejima’s stance, as most of the architects she selected focused on formal concerns with little relation to the messy urban problems out of which architecture most often emerges. The 17 projects in the vast Arsenale—admittedly a difficult space to exhibit, given its spectacular physicality and history as a workshop for the entire 12th-century Venetian fleet—simply placed their installations in the center of rooms and lit them dramatically from above. The very first space in the Arsenale featuring Chilean architects Smiljan Radic and Marcela Correa’s large round stone pierced by wood and metal, called Boy Hidden in a Fish, pursued exactly this strategy. In the Biennale catalog, the architects claim it was created in response to the “recent earthquake in Chile and is proposed as a prototype for an idealistic social space in the future.” I’ll have to take their word for it, but viewed in the Arsenale, the object is still an isolated sculptural monument that references only forms and leaves us questioning its connection to the earthquake. Even by the standards of current art biennales, this project would be viewed as formalist and disconnected from any larger cultural discourse.

This was also the case for the Japanese engineers Transsolar, collaborating with Tetsu Kondo Architects on the beautiful installation Cloudscapes, where two metal ramps swoop up and through a room of mist that hangs suspended in the space. Though calibrated to the dimensions of the Arsenale, the project is still missing a larger connection to an urban problem that one expects from architecture. Cloudscapes encourages us to experience its soft and tactile ambience, which, while pleasurable, makes us wonder where it moves the debate on architecture. The obvious expense of this project also forces us to question whether architecture is to be found only in luxurious commissions that appeal to the senses. I am not arguing, as some do, that architecture must always solve a societal issue, or that exhibitions should focus on buildings, or that personal experience is not important in architecture. But unless architectural solutions arise out of real-world problems and issues, how does it differ from art?

Further along in the Arsenale, Studio Mumbai’s installation work-place (winner of a Golden Lion Special Mention Award) describes the group’s daily working method through the presentation of models, material samples, and so on. It is studied in its careful placement of beautiful objects, but by its focus on process, it begins to make connections between designing and solving problems—the defining work of architecture.

Work by architects from Studio Mumbai.
Architects from Studio Mumbai painstakingly recreated their process and their workdays.
Courtesy Studio Mumbai Architects

The projects Sejima placed in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (formerly the Italian Pavilion) do include some formally inventive and compelling installations, offering the kind of relationship to working methods, research, and design process that mark architecture as different from art or design. In an exhibition of his firm’s work, Rem Koolhaas, who was given the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award (along with the late Kazuo Shinohara), provided a dense critique of historic preservation and what it means when, as he said, “4 percent of the world’s surface now cannot be touched and the time lag between construction and preservation becomes even smaller,” concluding that “our ability to inhabit architecture declines.”

Koolhaas, though he is a brilliant formal inventor, always connects his forms to the city, proving why he remains the most compelling figure of his generation. (Unfortunately, he is still also a terrible role model for headstrong young male professionals coming out of his office.) But he deserves this award. After all, making connections to the surrounding world moves architecture beyond simple formalism to become what makes it distinctive as a shaper of the built world.

The Architect's Newspaper has compiled a Special Report from the Venice Biennale featuring a selection of national pavilions from around the world.

William Menking

William Menking is Editor-in-Chief of The Architect's Newspaper.