So what is worth seeing at the International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale this year? As I mentioned in my last blog, the images that make director David Chipperfield’s, point are the photographs of buildings by Thomas Struth, and they are, as always, quite beautiful. In addition, the Urban Think Tank installation in the main exhibit area, the Arsenale, is a lot of fun, and a good place to get some food.
The Arsenale starts with a bang, or rather an echo of one: four posters by Bernard Tschumi, FAIA, that recall his propaganda and installation work from the 1970s. They proclaim such verities as: “Concept, not form, is what distinguishes architecture from mere building,” (amen to that), and, “Architecture is not only what it looks like, but what it does.” The latter statement he illustrates with comparisons between the real Venice and its reproduction in the Venetian in Las Vegas (a point that Diller Scofidio + Refro made in the 2008 Biennale), the latter with photographs of the Guggenheim and a parking-garage ramp.
The Indian architect Anupama Kandoo brought a team of craftspeople over to build a partial mock-up of one of her houses. It is like a sectional model, giving you an instant and three-dimensional lesson in construction, though what it says about common ground or space or anything else about architecture, I am not sure. It does sum up this biennale’s earnest attempts to edify.
Herzog & de Meuron papered one gallery with press reports on the troubled history of its Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, a project that is way over budget and behind schedule. As if to say that maybe all the politics, criticism, and economics don’t matter, they then hung beautiful foam study models of the building’s main spaces in the center. So maybe form is the point?
Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, erected a metallic flower in the next space over, and festooned the walls with snaking and drifting studies of space; Grafton Architects created a distorted hut you could walk through; and Norman Foster showed public spaces around the world in use, though without analysis or point.
Beyond the main hall, the Garden of the Virgins cemented its position where the most innovative work is now more often than not on display during the biennale. It is here that Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement winner Alvaro Siza created a room enclosed by red walls that caught both trees and their shadows. Williams & Tsien had their friends send them do self-portraits in little boxes, and then made a wunderkammer or "wonder room" in a niche off the garden. Next to it, the architects Gigon & Guyer displayed its work, but also gave a niche over to a sound artist who filled the empty room with a clanging piece whose rhythms is more spatially evocative than most of the actual constructions.
Over in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, or Gardens, things lose a bit of quality. The most interesting display consists of a collection of buildings “designed by civil servants” in Western Europe after World War II, put together by OMA in its usual earnest manner. There are a lot of full-scale mock-ups of building details in the various galleris, blown-up sketches, attempts by architects such as Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel to claim social purposes for their look-at-me objects, and a room of neo-Piranesian models that made me wonder whether Postmodernism’s belief that history is something you should keep repeating, with the help of eager-beaver students, endlessly, is coming back. The whole is neither comedy nor tragedy, so much as it was rote.
Luckily, the country pavilions show more variety, and I will write about those next.