Beyond Buildings


The Best of the Biennale

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Rotor picture
Photo: Rotor


Belgian Pavilion
Photo:  Eric Mairiaux at I Love Belgium


I believe that only one country, and perhaps only one exhibitor, truly caught the spirit of Kazuyo Sejima’s 12th International Architecture Biennale in Venice this year. It was Belgium, which gave its pavilion in the Giardini (Exhibition Gardens) over to the group Rotor, a collective of architects, artists, philosophers, and anthropologists who left most of the spaces bare, except for sections of walls, floors, stairs, elevator cabins, windows, and other fragments of buildings. The pieces hang on white walls, looking like pieces of the most minimalist sculpture you can imagine. They have no frames, and their shapes are composites of rectangles, squares, and elongations of those basic shapes. They evoke buildings so banal that you would never notice either them, or the use to which they have been put. The scuff marks, fading, and mottling turns what could be plain planes into intricate landscapes.

Rotor is not just out for beauty. As the group explains in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition:

Since 2005, we at Rotor have undertaken over 200 visits to companies to find out how goods are produced, the ensuing material consequences, and what possibilities exists for reusing the resultant waste. In 2008, we extended our research to the building sector. We then conducted a study to evaluate the viability of a resale network for construction and demolition waste.

They admit that their interests were not altogether ecological:

Like any product, they also elicit an aesthetic evaluation and, indeed, an emotional one. Traces of wear play a crucial role in this. They frequently evoke a sense of repulsion from potential buyers, but occasionally evoke attraction and even fascination.

The group eventually concluded that wear, especially in the case of human-made materials, reveals what lies beneath the finish. That is because they focused especially on the kinds of materials human beings began inventing during the industrial revolution, and which exploded in kind and use after World War II: linoleum and stone aggregates, aluminum, and different forms of plywood.These were the components of a new utopia, but here the illusion of something perfect, absolutely functional and without any natural properties gives way as the particular combinations of chemicals out of which we create our linoleum and our aggregates interact with our shoes, the oil on our hands, the pressure of our body. Here lies the core of the exhibit’s beauty: It marks our quest for the perfection of artifice that produces things that enter into daily life and thus become part of our much more messy reality. 

Photo:  Peter Christian Haberkorn


I think the exhibit hit a nerve in me because it was this issue that the Biennale brought into question for me: What is the reality of what we as human makes, what is its nature outside of nature, how does it become empty of all those associations that make us real, and by that very same process become a reminder of what we are as real, natural human beings?

Three Planes
Photo: Peter Christian Haberkorn


This is, perhaps, a broad philosophical point, and most people will only experience the delicacy of what was, in the best exhibits at the Biennale as well as in Sejima’s own work, almost not there. In the Belgian pavilion, however, the essence of artifice was on display. What’s more, it was not subject to interminable explanations pointing to something that was not there, such as this little screed and the catalog. It was an exhibition proper, something that evoked large economic, ecological, and social questions you could pursue in printed form, but only after the exhibition had gotten you to open you eyes and see what you would normally ignore as you walked along, ignorant of the poignancy and pregnancy of wear and tear.


Single Plywood
Photo: Peter Christian Haberkorn



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:10 AM Saturday, September 11, 2010

    You're absolutely right : it's a stunning experience ! And, what's even more -to my 1950+ generation- it's a collective work. I hope the artists (yes they are !) involved will be able to go on collectively, as well as individually. (Of course, I am a Belgian, but, welle, it's a pleasure to be proud of it, once in a while...)

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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.