In a biennale that emphasized “research” and presented scores of graphs on the walls, beauty seemed nowhere to be seen. While many countries presented catalogues of buildings but forgot about the need to create compelling installations for the public, the Belgians made a pavilion that was a joy to enter and absorb. This pavilion managed to accomplish both thoughtful research and the most beautiful installation. The Belgians did not think of the pavilion as a research project, but they smartly put the research into a catalogue and created an abstract interior of string. The pavilion argues that the interior is fundamental in architectural design but has been little studied, and if it had it would become clear, “counter to the notion of modernity as an all-consuming phenomenon, interior research would reveal that vernacular architecture is instead absorbing and consuming modernity.”
The curators of the Finnish Pavilion (Ole Bouman and Julia Kauste) took the Koolhaas directive that it describe if and how national traditions and habits still matter in todays globalized world. In fact they presented a compelling argument that national traditions still do matter in architecture. Bouman, who curated the recent Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (China and Hong Kong), presented a “primitive hut” by a Finnish architect in China, Anssi Lassila, and then re-presented it in Venice. In front of the Alvar Aalto–designed pavilion the curators placed one version of the Lassila piece constructed by a Finnish master carpenter for Venice and then in back the one designed for Shenzen. The one made for Venice was built of cedar logs while the Shenzen one was made for economic reasons of local bamboo. With the doors open in the pavilion, a large table displayed the drawings for each structure and clearly and concisely showed the variations in the two national constructions as they moved from Chinese bamboo to Finnish cedar.
This intensely research-based installation, Instant Past, was not the easiest to absorb, as it featured multiple small tear sheets on the wall and photographic snap shots inside glass vitrines, but it was worth the extra effort. Modestly curated by Seyed Reza Hashemi and Azadeh Mashayekhi, it is an example of how to do a Venice installation on a minuscule budget. Rather than focus first on national identity, this exhibit showed how architecture itself can help form national identity. It argues that “if modernization is viewed as a force where ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ history presents itself as a tactic to find meaning and solace within these changes.” It wants to argue that the past is closely tied to visionary ideas of the future. Finally, a video highlights the dialogue between the two formal languages: Persian and modern. It starts from the biennale’s premise, Absorbing Modernity, but turns this notion on its head.
This was a very modest installation befitting an emerging country like Mozambique. Further it was at the very end of the exhibition in a room with two other small installations, so many biennale goers may have overlooked it and missed one of the most well meaning and powerful attempts to come to terms with Absorbing Modernity. The exhibit, Architecture Between Two Worlds, curated by Jose Forjaz, Vincent, Joaquim, and Joel Mathias Limbombo, focused on the building projects and legacy of the colonial Portuguese building program. It took the research mandate seriously and featured iconic modern buildings from around the world and then showed how they were influential in Portuguese-designed buildings in the their country. A three level display on a wooden wall featured various historical realities of the country: The first section displayed a series of images and audio-visual media giving the visitor an idea of the country’s reality—natural systems, the people, infrastructure, human settlements and economic activities, illustrating the human, geographical, and cultural context of a young country, little known due to its recent history and geopolitical importance. It also highlighted contemporary gaps in urban development, making the point that they “should be understood, in themselves, as unavoidable steps in the creation of an endogenous architectural culture.” Like other developing countries, they took the theme of modernism and its cultural, social, and political baggage seriously and without anger into a future they are still creating.
Three of the last four British pavilions in the Venice Architecture Biennale have featured public housing, as if the country has nothing else to celebrate on an intentional level. For this year’s biennale, the British curatorial team of A Clockwork Jerusalem (taken from William Blake), Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout, did not focus exclusively on public housing but used it as examples of how the “British form of modernity emerged from the aftermath of the industrial revolution.” We heard from several national pavilion curators in Venice that uber-curator Rem Koolhaas contacted them about staying on point with their research approach to presenting material on their country. But the British curators seemed to not focus on encyclopedic research and instead created a thoroughly idiosyncratic and unique view of regionalism in architecture. In the end it made a convincing and really brilliant installation (though I did not understand the totemic dirt mound in the entry space) on how responses to the industrial city combined “with traditions of the romantic, sublime, and pastoral to create new visions of British society. It was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable installations in the biennale, particularly when it focused on images of past utopian (and dystopian) visions of the future city ranging from Stonehenge to council estates, Ebenezer Howard to Cliff Richards, ruins and destruction to back to the land rural fantasies.
The economics of curating a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale are daunting with the costs approaching a million dollars for the temporary installations. The traditional western European pavilions get huge financial support or subsidies from their central governments and this can truly be seen in this year’s German pavilion. The curators created a 1:1 partial replica of the Kanzlerbungalow, which was built for the German chancellor in Bonn in 1964 by the architect Sep Ruf. The bungalow was a pure representation of a type of Southern California case study project that was widely featured in the German media as a symbol of progress for the country and served as the nation’s “living room.” When the capital moved to Berlin in 1999, the Kanzlerbungalow lost its usefulness and apparently “vanished into oblivion.” The curators claim this wonderful scale model is supposed to be in dialogue with the German Pavilion, which I don’t really get as meaningful, but as an image the model powerfully sums up how architecture can represent the wishes and political goals of a country. When it was finished, the German chancellor said, “You will find out more about me if you look at this house than if you watch me deliver a political speech.” The chancellor’s Grand Mercedes Benz was brought to Venice and parked in front of the German pavilion, adding an exclamation point to this built symbol of German democratic hopes for the future.