As I recover from the intense heat and severe foot-pounding of the XIIth Venice Biennale of Architecture, I’m at something of a loss as to what to make of it. Trying to use the theme this year, “People Meet In Architecture,” established by Kazuyo Sejima, overall biennale curator and one half of SANAA (together with Ryue Nishizawa), as a framework only sets me back further, as the consideration of people and experience of architecture was pretty remote from most of the exhibits.
Let me walk you through.
The Biennale occurs across two main sites; the spectacular Arsenale, a corridor of vast old military navy sheds in an arrested state of decay, and the Giardini, a large urban park housing 30 national pavilions which is one vaporetto stop down the Gran’ Canal. The last biennale of Architecture, curated by Aaron Betsky, saw the Arsenale crammed with many busy exhibits. This year’s exhibits — let’s call it a symptom of the recession — seem on the whole more ethereal and artsy, more like something you’d use to fill a gallery at PS1. After the blinding sun and sweltering heat, I enjoyed running through Olafur Eliasson’s dice-with-death twirling hosepipes, spinning in pitch-darkness emitting ominous electric whipping noises and flashes of light – but there was no chance in hell I was going to “meet” anyone there. Similarly, I loved Transsolar’s ultra-delicate iron ramp that snaked around fat brick pillars, into an enveloping and carefully controlled mist-cloud in another of the giant Arsenale galleries – but I couldn’t see a soul once up there. Perhaps that is why the Biennale judges decided to award most of their prestigious Lions to arguably unspectacular, but certainly humane projects; the Bahrain exhibit, which scooped the Golden Lion (and involved New York pillar of architectural criticism, Michael Sorkin), followed the plight of an indigenous coastal population who are valiantly resisting the onslaught of glitzy development, and who are using reclaimed materials to stake out their settlements.
Speaking of humanity, the most hilarious moment of the Arsenale occurs in Wim Wenders’ 3D film about the SANAA Rolex Centre, which promoted Biennale curator Sejima’s latest big project; at one point, breaking tone with the ponderous voiceover, Sejima appears on a segway – a segway! – doing a fine impression of G.O.B. (it hasn’t been too long has it?) as she zooms round the slick walkways. And if it counts for anything, I managed to collar Wenders on what his pick of the Arsenale was; he identified the haphazard but utterly fragile and humane display thrown together by Chile, in the two-week window they had after the recent earthquake.
Back in the Giardini, the pavilions were something of puzzlement to me: so many of them seemed to want to be books. Old books, books from the nineties, OMA and Actar books. The German pavilion was a case in point; drawings of their chosen theme (the untranslatable phrase “Senn Sucht”) hung framed around the walls of a red room. And there were chairs in the middle. That’s it! There were two ponderous exhibits in the wings but nothing that translated to a genuine experience. The Swiss Pavilion showed an arcane research on bridges, photographed in black and white – beautiful maybe, but why? – whereas the Israeli went one further, and had you make up your own book from stacks of photographs dumped on the floor, exploring the theme of the kibbutzim.
Most disappointing for me personally was the French contribution, curated by Dominic Perrault, who is smart enough to know better. Through thick plastic hanging curtains, the curators had managed to emulate the smell of a Foot Locker exactly; the audio from much-celebrated (but now boring) Parisian urban night-skating was uncomfortably loud, and all the urban graphics and movies were incredibly — in the true sense of credible belief — dated. No doubt about depth of research or points of interest, particularly regarding regeneration of lesser-investigated French cities like Lyon, but the graphic style was pre-OMA, like old MVRDV books; sad to say but all the Scandinavians & Brazilians followed suit, presenting something like a “greatest hits” of projects we have seen before.
It wasn’t all bad; with characteristically English trepidation I have to say I liked the nerdy, scholarly British Pavilion — which investigated John Ruskin’s time in the host city when writing his masterful “Stones of Venice” — purely for the richness of the literary references in there. With a wooden scale-section of the 2012 Olympic stadium occupying the main room, it did seem a tiny bit schizophrenic, but the construction made for a great space for the drawing workshops hosted there in honor of Ruskin himself. Canada’s contribution had to be seen to be understood; Philip Beesley’s “Hylozoic” investigations are not altogether new (check out some YouTube videos about hylozoic soil here); this installation progresses his Cronenberg-like explorations of post-human life. Intense, enveloping and freakishly responsive, it is composed of thousands of plastic, metal and motorised components, and glowing biocells containing reactive pheromones. The whole thing used several levels of internal communication (mechanic, computerised, chemical) to react and respond both to itself and visitors. Very scary and weird for an insectophobe like me, but thrilling all the same; kids like it! The Belgians submitted a quiet, minimalist collection of salvaged building fixtures which bore traces of wear, like those circular scratches on steel elevator doors, or the center of stair treads where paint and varnish have long flaked off – suggesting perhaps the ghosts of “people meeting” in architecture?
And in the Italian International Pavilion, which basically functions as Sejima’s personal “Cabinet of Curiosities,” American Tom Sach’s obsessive and very funny reworking of Corbusier buildings raised a few smiles, while Korean Do Ho Suh – whose exhibition at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture opens in two scant weeks – installed a breathtaking cobweb of an installation; a 3D model of a Venetian Palazzo executed in mesh and suspended face down from the ceiling.
If I had to pick, the Romanian Pavilion was the one that shone for me – and from the sounds on the ground, for a few others too — if for no other reason than the fact that theirs was a refreshingly simple idea executed with poetry and precision. Entering the pavilion you are confronted with a large white box, around which runs a narrow corridor. The angles of the simple, whitewashed arc lean out ominously and twist, heightening the sense of slight claustrophobia as you are forced to edge past other keen biennalees. Reaching the far side of the ark, you are invited to enter through a door with no handle; only one person in at a time. Once inside, you occupy an eerily stark sanctuary, which corresponds exactly to the amount of personal urban space available to each citizen of Bucharest. The young team — some of them students aged 25 or so — make no bones about the absolute one-liner clarity of their project, but should certainly be commended for their courage, because it really works as an experience of space.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Shumi Bose is an architectural writer and researcher. She is currently working between London and New York.