Beyond Buildings

 

Burying the Past

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What is it with the Germans that they think that the best solution to a bad past is to tear down what remains of it? In the latest attempt to raze (as opposed to raise) history, the heads of the German architecture and art professionals organizations want to tear down the German Pavilion in the Giardini, the site of the Venice Art and Architecture Biennale.

 

German Pavilion
German Pavilion, Venice Biennale

 

Banality would be a reason to tear the structure down, and the President of the German version of the AIA claims that it is the building’s rigidity and lack of connection to Venice that argues for its demolition. On that count, however, you would have to tear down every country pavilion in the Giardini, thus reinforcing Venice’s sense that nothing has gone right since the 17th century. I think, however, that the arguments for mediocrity is just a screen. Artist Tino Sehgal, who made such good use of the Guggenheim this spring with an installation that emptied it of all art, was quoted in London’s Independent newspaper, saying, "It is one of the nastiest clichés about Germany around. It creates an image of Germany that has nothing to do with the reality of today."

 

If those with pitchforks and bulldozers succeed, the Pavilion will join the Culture Palace, which once faced Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin, as well as countless other examples of either the Fascist or the Communist past, on that by-now mountainous dustbin of history. It would seem to me that instead of pretending that such structures never were, the Germans would do better to keep using them to do what art and architecture do so well, namely open up new spaces, forms, and images out of the past.

 

 Haus der Kunste
Haus der Kunst, Munich

 

Certainly the House of Art, a much grander and more troubling structure commissioned by Hitler in Munich, has become, under director Chris Deacon’s leadership, a place for some of the most progressive and even radical visions of how art can transform our lives and our world. If anything were to be torn down in the Giardini, it probably should be the Italian Pavilion, an undistinguished mess that has become a bloated mass of additions, making its exterior a hulk and its interior an impossible maze.


Italian Pavilion
Italian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Photo: Librado Romero, The New York Times

 

The German Pavilion is not a particularly beautiful building. Designed (or rather redesigned on top of a what was intended to be a temporary pavilion) in 1938 by the forgotten architect Ernst Haiger, it is a standard-issue temple—its four-columned, extruded front too tall and narrow to impress, its side wings so recessive as to be almost unnoticeable, and its decorations so stripped down that they cannot serve to ennoble this otherwise pedestrian structure.

The German Pavilion itself every year is home to another attempt to look towards using the past build a better future. When I directed the Architecture Biennale in 2008, it was a laboratory for advanced green design. Last year, in a mark of true internationalism, the New York-based British artist Liam Gillick made it his own. 

It is notable that the curator of next year’s Venice Art Biennale (which alternates with the architecture event) opposes the demolition. To quote the Independent: “Ms. Gaensheimer, who is also the director of Frankfurt's Museum for Modern Art, claims that demolishing the building would be futile. 'You can't change history by demolishing architecture. But we can use architecture to preserve our consciousness of history,' she said. 'Fantastic works of art have been shown in the German pavilion and that is what represents this country,' she added.” 

Well said.  And, by the way, the Pavilion has good, open, and flexible spaces lit by skylights. Let’s not bury the past, let’s use it.

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.