Architecture is more than buildings, and more than just pretty buildings. The 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale made this more than clear, as I tried to indicate in my last two posts. In a few instances, this Biennale evidenced advanced research into technology—as well as new attitudes towards participatory design—that can lead to the construction of structures that are arresting in their appearance and contribute to the social good. Unfortunately, these were not always at the heart of the Biennale.
On the one hand, there was the Swiss Pavilion, in which Christian Keretz erected a beautiful neo-cave: A lightweight gypsum structure sat in the middle of the space, bathing in light and inviting visitors to take off their shoes and crawl into the equally luminous space. When I visited, Keretz was crouched inside, holding court on how his research at the ETH in Zurich has shown that this construction technology—which looks primitive and idiosyncratic, but is guided by a combination of computer modeling and traditional craft—can offer an alternative to current construction technologies that are both wasteful and imprisoning.
On the other extreme, the Peruvian Pavilion, which won a Silver Lion at the Biennale’s award ceremonies, exhibited the Plan Selva, an initiative that brings schools to small villages in the Amazon. For once, the Biennale’s theme of providing an architecture that makes the world better for the under-served and under-represented while using innovative and participatory design techniques came together in what, from the photographs and models (curated by Sandra Barclay and Jean Pierre Crouse), looks like a set of simple, but beautiful structures that vary according to their sites and programs.
Scaffolding was also the solution proposed by Nina Baier-Bischofberger and Urban Think Tank for a largely empty and decrepit modern art museum in Sarajevo, which was presented in "Sarajevo Now," an exhibition curated by Haris Piplas. Built in the Yugoslavian period, the museum once represented the future; now it marks the failure of dreams, memories of the civil war, and the lack of resources in Bosnia. The team proposed not to invest in the building itself, but to erect scaffolding around it, and to then cover that structure with the same material used to keep workers and materials dry during construction. The building would thus be safe from the elements, and events could take place not only inside, but also within the scaffolding itself.
Most intriguing to me, however, was the Polish Pavilion. Curators Dominika Janicka, Martyna Janicka, and Michał Gdak filled their space not with either buildings or representations of buildings, but with the stuff out of which you make buildings—and which Colin Rowe once thought should be the model for future architecture: Scaffolding (Spain did the same thing, but in an aestheticized manner for which they, for some reason, won the Golden Lion). Within this space, haunting in itself, they showed videos and photographs of Polish construction workers on site, highlighting the often dangerous and onerous conditions in which they work. The installation was effective both because it once again proved the old saw that a building under construction is much more beautiful than when it is finished, and because it raised an issue some critics have pointed out in far-away places like the Emirates and China, but that is just as germane in the Western world: Oppression and worker abuse are part of the building materials of many of our most beautiful structures.
All of this for me addressed the questions that the 2016 Venice Biennale wanted to make central, of for whom we build and how, as opposed to who builds and why. The great advantage of this Biennale was that it turned the spotlight both on users who we usually don’t see (not just clients for private homes, museums, or office towers) and on those architects working with them. Its disadvantage is that it then filled that moment of illumination with too much distracting information and designs that confirm that the rest get what is left over after good design and materials have been spent on the one percent.
Upon reflection, my “take-away” from the usual sea of projects and people was this: The importance of the idea that architects have the power to use their knowledge and skills to do something good. I was especially frustrated when, at some of the discussions that swirl around the Biennale in both informal and formal ways, architects fell back on blaming others for their failings. At the Dark Side for instance, Patrik Schumacher used this wine-fueled debate, organized at each Biennale by Robert White, to blame clients and outdated technologies for hindering designers’ abilities. I tried (in my somewhat inebriated state) to make it clear during this debate that I think architects need to stop blaming clients, budgets, sites, codes, or anything or anyone else for what they themselves do not achieve. They should come to this Biennale and learn from the many techniques and hopeful examples on display to figure out what they can do, and then go do it with the beauty that has the power to move our hearts and minds.