Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The best (and worst) of the 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.
The 13th International Architecture Exhibition officially opens today in Venice, and as usual, there’s a lot to see. The theme this year is "Common Ground," chosen by the British architect and curator David Chipperfield, who warns that architects detached from solving the world's problems risk becoming mere "urban decorators."
But the theme rarely changes the style of the National Pavilion exhibits, which usually conform to one of the following story-lines:
- The Art Project (“A Plethora of Metaphors”)
- The Posterboard Info-Dump (If I Wanted to Read a Book, I Wouldn’t Have Come to Venice)
- The Hometown Boast (Common What?)
There’s a lot of overlap between these three categories, and rare are those among the 53 National Pavilion works this year that manage to be visually attractive, informative, and important. Usually, a good pavilion can do well by excelling in just one of these categories, taking small points in the other two. Sometimes, the best pavilions defy the conventions. We’ll get to the best in a minute. Here are three not-so-good projects that epitomize these categories:
Category 1: Serbia has a good example of a N.P. that’s squarely a Category 1 project. The exhibit is called "1 : 100" but also called "1 : Table": table and 100 are the same word in Serbian. It’s a giant white table in a giant white room. Commissioner Igor Marić writes, "Everything is white, white is broken down into the spectrum of colors, a table is broken down into a plethora of metaphors. Architecture thus created fascinates us, awakens us from the dream, initiates thinking and encourages us to observe what is happening around us." This sort of language is endemic to all architectural writing, but let’s not forget that we’re talking about a table here. (We do like the website, though.)
Category 2: The Germans did stellar work in Category 2. Their exhibit, "Reduce, Reuse Recycle: Architecture as Resource" is heavy on information and low on interest. Credit the German Pavilion for addressing an important issue, but that the meat of the exhibit is conveyed through giant walls of text represents a failure of the imagination. With 52 other National Pavilions to visit, we ain’t got time for that. The Three Rs exhibit is clean, methodical, practical and dull – a confirmation of German design stereotypes.
Category 3: Switzerland has done a standard Category 3 job with "And Now the Ensemble!!!" It’s a "giant mural fresco" composed of illustrations of buildings of various Swiss architects. It’s a warning that chaotic development can be "a further step towards global monotony," whereas comprehensive, Swiss-style planning can yield "a contemporary as well as continuous form of urban development, beyond modernism and postmodernism." Just so long as there are no minarets.
But enough complaining. Here are some of the best projects of the Biennale, projects whose artistic flair, architectural innovation, and – gasp – humor! make them the most promising of the Venice Architecture Biennale’s National Pavilions.
Canada: The adaptable wooden skylines of "Migrating Landscapes" (below) make it one of the best visual installations in Venice—check out a previous iteration of the project here.
U.S.A.: For sheer scope and practical value, the U.S. can’t be beat. The "Spontaneous Interventions" project is a catalog of 124 urban interventions from American cities, many of which have appeared on this website. All in one place, it’s an astounding collection and an inspiring resource.
Poland: The themes of these events are generally open-ended enough that any project can be positioned as relevant. Poland’s project is a good example of this: it’s a giant, acoustically sculpted echo chamber that will play with sounds emanating from other pavilions. It’s Category 1 all the way, and we won’t quote the description, but it sounds like fun.
Britain: Perhaps the Brits have had enough self-promotion for one summer: their project for the Biennale is called "Venice Takeaway" and is in direct contradiction to the Category 3 corollary – all projects should function as an advertisement for said country’s architectural capital. Instead, the Brits went around the world and reported back on ideas they thought could improve things at home. Here’s to learning from others!
Israel: "Common Ground" is a loaded exhibition theme for a country whose history is defined by the world’s most high-profile land battle, but the Israeli designers have taken it in stride. The exhibition is a critical exploration of American-Israeli architectural development, charting the country’s evolution from a socialist welfare state into a capitalist boomtown. To give you an idea of the organizers’ wry sensibilities, the title, "Aircraft Carrier," comes from this quote from Reagan Secretary of State Alexander Haig: "Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk… and is located in a critical region for American national security." The exhibit also includes a store selling items like this sliding tile-tray that would probably make the Israeli government cringe:
Angola: This is Angola’s first trip to the dance, and the country has put forth an ideal exhibition, "Beyond Entropy": a simple, original, local solution to a problem that lots of cities have. Like many African cities, Angola’s capital Luanda has been growing rapidly and without regulation, producing a "metropolis without urbanity; congestion without infrastructure; high density without towers." So architects have started a DIY urban intervention developed particularly for sub-Saharan Africa: Arundo Donax. The fast-growing sugarcane not only turns empty lots into dense, lush green spaces, but its leaves of course convert CO2 to oxygen and its roots filter dirty water. It’s a cheap and attractive solution for the dull in-between spaces. The National Pavilion is a 1:1 scale replica of one of these interventions, complete with potted plants.
Brazil: The Brazilian contribution to the Biennale is unique. For one thing, it’s borderline NSFW (sexually explicit content), which might be standard fare for the Art Biennale but is pretty unusual at the Architecture event. To interpret "Common Ground," the organizers looked at the life of an upper-class Brazilian household; at the different generations and different social classes that interact between the walls. It includes this video, "Peep," made by Lea Van Steen and Marcio Kogan’s StudioMK27, that imagines life in one of the firm’s newest houses, V4 House in Sao Paulo:
Top image: StudioMK27.