The 2010 Venice architecture biennale closed on Saturday—at least for media representatives, as journalists were required for the first time to turn in their press passes and enter as public citizens (tickets, $25). I hated giving up that pass as it allowed me access to the exhibitions both at the Arsenale and in the giardini, home of the national pavilions. Though Venice is hardly a major military installation there are canals in the area that are off-limits to civilians; a water taxi driver informed my group that only a special permit would get us into the canal so I produced my press pass and he said “va bene” and he drove us up the canal. The power of the press!
I walked the exhibition again but this time trying to imagine the message it was communicating to the public rather than to professionals. It was now no longer possible to speak with the designers of the installations who were made available for the press to help explain their projects. In one bay of the Arsenale, for example, an elaborate recording studio space had been created in which Hans Ulrich Obrist dramatically interviewed biennale participants live during the vernissage but there was now only silent faces of interviewees on isolated flat screens with voices accessible by head phones.
The fantastically elegant installation Architecture as Air: Study for Chateau la Coste by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami was still there, that highlight of jury day that was later, as we reported, knocked down by a rampaging cat the night before the opening. Now as you walk by the piece, its a huge bare room with monofilament fragments scattered across the floor, a mere memory of the installation that won the Golden Lion for the best project in the exhibition. Small groups of workers are trying to figure out how to reconnect the piece, while at a computer, some five techies try to figure out how to put it back together again before the end of the biennale. Visitors still wonder by, not sure what to make of the mess.
In fact, the Venice biennale, like any architecture exhibition, communicates with two audiences between which its curators and directors must always mediate: the professional and academic architecture community, including the design press, and the public, particularly young students from Italy and Europe. This problem of how to display architecture to different audiences is of course an issue with any architecture exhibit, but in Venice it takes on added meaning because architects have looked to the biennale as the most experimental and trend-setting event in the architecture world. Yet its curators—from the first by Vittorio Gregotti (“On the Subject of the Stucky Mill”) to this year’s Kazuyo Sejima (People Meet in Architecture)—always claim they are thinking of the public first when they create their biennales. Which always leads them to being slammed by the design press for elitism and lack of concern for the public. The question of how to display architecture in an exhibition is not an easy one to answer but criticism most often focuses on each biennale’s emphasis on art-like installations rather than on attempts to grapple seriously with the important architecture and urban issues of the day.
Gregotti, for example claimed that when it comes to presenting architecture “communicating with the public is practically impossible” but then he did the first biennale in which he claimed: “I wanted to make a clear and certain declaration that the biennale was open to the public, to Venice and to non-specialists.” Even the curator of the famous 1980 Strada Novissima exhibition in the Arsenale, Paolo Portoghesi, asserted at the time that architecture had lost its ability to “speak to the common people.” But this lack of communicating was behind the creation of his cinematic facades lining both sides of the Arsenale. The best exhibitions of architecture, according to biennale president Paolo Baratta, are the ones that are the most cinematic and entertaining. Yet it is equally true that the best ones are those that inspire without preaching.
How well did the 2010 biennale do in this regard? This is the fourth Venice biennale that I have attended and this year there seemed to be even more displays of art-like installations than before. Mostly, they focused on the nature of design as a way of inspiring people to recognize the power of architecture. But then the question is, whether design in the absence of urbanism is architecture or just design? The great thing about the biennale is that there is always something for everyone to love (or to hate) regardless of their position. The Kingdom of Bahrain’s national pavilion consisting of actual hand-hewn shacks imported for display and judged the best by the biennale team of jurors, proved that architectural ideas and concerns can be displayed in an exhibition setting. Throughout the biennale many exhibition spaces were, in fact, examples of architectural ideas on display that didn’t need to resort to strategies of artistic practice.
It should be noted that in the biannual complaining— for which opportunities abounded at such venues as Raumlabor Berlin’s inflatable bubble space, Volume journal’s Dutch pavilion, and Robert White’s Dark Side club soireés—concerns about cost and exclusivity of its message are now getting more serious. There were many people speculating that the biennale format may have outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned. Some of this is a reflection of the ubiquity of communications and image-making on the web, but it is also a feeling that money would be better spent on solving more demanding issues, like poverty and affordable housing. I know from experience that staging a biennale in a national pavilion cost in excess of $400,000, and there are rumors that this year the Austrian pavilion cost in excess of $800,000, while the Germans at their pavilion showed only drawings and it still cost $650,000. If you add up all the pavilions, the Arsenale, the giardini, not to mention the parties and airfare, this is a $20 million to $30 million affair, an increasingly flashy two-month party. How much longer can, or should, we carry on?
Look for a final blog post on the Golden Lions, the national pavilions, and the events surrounding the biennale.