One of the first questions raised about this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, “Freespace,” is whether this exhibition has anything in common with previous editions. Edwin Heathcote, writing for the Financial Times, sees similarities with the 1980 exhibition, The Presence of the Past. Heathcote recognizes related themes between these two versions that stand almost 40 years apart, because he sees this exhibition, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, as going back to the civic realm, privileging urban public space.
It does not come as a surprise that references to this earlier 1980 Biennale are already being made. Indeed, one wonders just how far Lea-Catherine Szacka’s provocative book, Exhibiting the Postmodern: the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale, has permeated our consciousness, forcing us to reconsider the Biennale as an institution, an exhibition, and as a provocation in the making of contemporary architecture culture.
Szacka’s book, which provides a comprehensive assessment of The Presence of the Past, came out in late 2017 and has been gaining significant momentum since. In this tightly researched account, Szacka provides an overview on what might very well be one of the most controversial post-war exhibitions produced for the Venice Biennale. While some might recall the full-scale street facades of the Strada Novissima, or Aldo Rossi’s floating Teatro del Mondo, it is the broader historical context that remains absolutely essential to understanding how the 1980 edition came about. In other words, Exhibiting the Postmodern is much more than a history of the first Biennale dedicated solely to Architecture: Szacka positions this exhibition as the primary vehicle for formulating new discourses on architecture, by understanding how the lead-up to this event, as well as its aftermath, have significantly influenced the way we understand architecture today.
The Presence of the Past, curated by Paolo Portoghesi, would turn out to be a game-changer. The exhibition, in the absence of national pavilions (only found in later editions), held forth on numerous thematic fronts, providing seven separate sections, including works by those considered precursors of the architectural style that would come to be known as Postmodernism. The exhibition feted Philip Johnson, whose AT&T building was rising on the New York skyline, as well as solid contributions from Aldo Rossi, who designed the main tripartite gate to the newly refurbished Arsenale and built the Teatro del Mondo, a spectral theatre made to glide across the Venetian lagoon. But it was the novel Strada Novissima, a reformulated version of the famed perspectival street in Genova, assembled by stage craftsmen in Rome’s Cinecittà, that remains the most controversial display in the exhibition.
The architects selected to contribute with full-scale facade structures made a notable community: Constantino Dardi, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, Oswald Mathias Ungers, Robert Venturi, John Rauch and Denise Scott Brown, Léon Krier, Joseph Paul Kleihues, Hans Hollein, Massimo Scolari, Allan Greenberg, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, Paulo Portoghesi, Ricardo Bofill, Charles Moore, Robert Stern, Franco Purini and Laura Termes, Stanley Tigerman, Studio GRAU, Thomas Gordon Smith and Arata Isozaki. Szacka, in thinking about the use of this eclectic collection of facades for the Arsenale, asks, “So what exactly were they? Representation, simulacra, signs, images? Were they real or imaginary?”
Szacka’s book unpacks this exhibition precisely through this lens. We don’t merely confront an exhibition, we penetrate deep into its subconscious. We learn from Szacka about the polemics surrounding the Venice Biennale’s reconstitution, brought about after mass protests demanded revolutionary changes in the way the Biennale was administered. Other events served as critical precedents: The 1973 Milan Triennale exhibition curated by Aldo Rossi, and in Rome, the Roma Interrotta exhibition set in the Trajan Forum in 1978, which reconceived the famed Nolli map through the urban projects of an international set of architects, many of whom would find their way into the Biennale two years later.
“In the 1970s,” Szacka observes, “exhibitions were important events that served to define architecture’s intellectual discourse in the wake of the modern movement,” and were employed as “springboards to display ideas, debate and exchanges.” The direction of this debate, at least as it would be consolidated within the spatial configuration of the Arsenale in Venice, was further redefined by a significant break in the Biennale’s organizational program, when the institution chose to formalize the separation between art and architecture in 1980. Taken together, these prior exhibitions furthered sensibilities in architectural representation, and recent institutional reforms permitted the making of one truly unique architectural extravaganza.
The invention of a dedicated architecture exhibition–independent of the arts sector–significantly reinforced the autonomy of the architectural subject and made possible a far more self-referential body of architecture. Access to the Naval yards and the Arsenale for the first time provided a unique building configuration with a monumental central corridor and flanking mezzanines spaces that could be readily adapted into an interior street mall. But in this reviewer’s opinion, the Presence of the Past lost something very precious in the process. The association with the Biennale’s fine arts program served to draw out ideas that went well beyond the built world of architecture and its urban fantasias.
Szacka, in her very detailed history of the Biennale, glanced over one particular exhibition for Venice held in 1978, whose curators included Lara-Vinca Masini, and whose exhibition Topologia e Morfogenesi (Topology and Morphogenesis), merged the arts together with architecture. This exhibition would be best remembered for the piece by Superstudio, la Moglie di Lot—the Wife of Lot, the steel-framed mechanical contraption with five salt molds depicting five building archetypes and a dripping water spout that melted them away one by one. Masini, who built a solid reputation as art and architecture critique and curator working from Florence, spoke frequently about how art and architecture contaminated each other, enriching their modes of research and expressions on human nature and the built environment. Architecture, when contaminated with art, became radicalized, experimental and visionary, aspects that would be lost when architecture gained its independence.
Nonetheless, 1980 would become a watershed year for postmodernism, and Szacka’s book very successfully points out how Biennales shape our understanding on these transformative and critical processes. She provides more than ample evidence to demonstrate how architecture evolves under the pressures of an international exhibition, from the genesis of a concept to the debates that brought a generation of architects together on a project few would have ever imagined possible.
Exhibiting the Postmodern refreshes our understanding of the postmodern relationship between architecture and urbanism; a concern that seems to fuel Grafton’s curatorial vision for Freespace, but also connects to Kenneth Frampton, who is being awarded with the prestigious Leone D’Oro in this year’s Biennale opening ceremonies. In her pursuit of the exhibition’s multiple afterlives, Szacka details an insightful chapter on the exhibition’s follow-up tour through the U.S. and France, along with an insightful account of Frampton’s own controversial role in the 1980 Biennale. Szacka details how the British born architect and theorist felt obliged to step back from this historicist movement, as he could no longer reconcile his critical position within the expanding eclecticism of the postmodern. Frampton responded by formulating, according to Szacka, his own critical theoretical position on regionalism. Szacka’s book pulls together quite a few of these lose ends while brilliantly drawing out the major themes of the day. This extraordinary exhibit on the presence of the past, thanks to Léa-Catherine Szacka, is in no risk of becoming forgotten.
Exhibiting the Postmodern: the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale
Forward by Adrian Forty