The 16th Venice International Architecture Biennale is a lesson in architecture. Teaching us the notion of “Freespace,” it instructs us in how we can use the elements of building to create what curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects call “a generosity of spirit.” They believe that the alchemy of architecture finds something that does not go into the act of building, something that is not just made of sticks and stones, but that also offers us something else, something more, something important. What that something is, however, remains elusive, but the teaching is clear: For building to become architecture, it must offer surplus value.
That surplus value turns out to be defined, open, big space. The lesson on how to make such space starts with the buildings in which the main parts of the curators’ Biennale is located. It turns out that the major contributions Farrell and McNamara have made this time is not so much as curators as it is as architects, and it is the work they did to both the existing Arsenale, the Venetian navy’s former arsenal, and the Pavilion of Exhibitions in the Giardini, the traditional park location for the Biennale, that are the best. That is not strange: These architects are, like David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, and several others before them, not curators. They are designers who approached the building—as they say in their catalog essay—“as our site.” What they did was to open the buildings up and clear them out. In the Arsenale’s main space—a half-mile-long line of brick columns called the “Corderie,” or rope-making facility—the central axis is completely open and devoid of any displays, unlike any other Biennale I have ever seen (including the one I organized in the same spaces in 2008). They have also uncovered the windows along the sides, with the result that what is usually a succession of dark galleries through which you wind your way has become a processional that feels open and airy. This airy processional culminates in a sea of columns whose whiteness and abstraction takes the dissolution of the arms factory into an ethereal realm that forms Valerio Olgiati’s signal contribution to this Biennale.
The emptiness makes the trek through the Arsenale less tedious, but it means, along with the decision not to use certain spaces that I had opened up 10 years ago in the Garden of the Virgins at the far end of the complex, that there are about 20 percent fewer displays than in recent Biennales. That, in turns, makes what you do see, which is a succession of pavilions that emphasize the basic building blocks of architecture, look all the more monumental. But only a few displays—such as Andra Matin’s wood-and-bamboo house; Sauerbruch Hutton’s exuberantly colored, Sol LeWitt-like ceiling; and the clever appropriation of the Corderie and especially one of its windows to mimic the conditions in a theater Flores & Prats renovated in Barcelona—stands up well again the sheer beauty and emptiness of the medieval setting.
In the Giardini, the curators also did a wonderful job of opening and clarifying the rather-less-distinguished late-19th-century Pavilion. They simplified the circulation route—which has confounded all of us curators for the last few decades—partially by not using certain spaces (again) and, in their best move of all, excavating a beautiful door that Carlo Scarpa designed at the structure’s rear. (Although it is still impossible to exit through the door.)
Beyond this installation work, the main event at the Pavilion is the central exhibition, which Farrell and McNamara have titled “Close Encounter.” They asked 16 Irish architects (thus intensifying a nativism that leads the whole Biennale, “to be a victory for us Irish,” as critic and Heinz Architectural Center curator of architecture Ray Ryan put it) to respond to historical building from around the world, mainly of the 1940s through the 1970s, and they selected these installations so as “to help [them] be remembered, understood, re-valued, and appreciated for its own inherent worth.” The results are, for the most part, enigmatic, with the exception of Noreile Breen’s almost literal and rather ham-fisted evocation of the lighting effects in the Casa Barragán. The other project you can “read” (the curators talk a lot about the “silent language,” “music,” and legibility of architecture, thus making the classic mistake, in my opinion, of confusing their disciplines; I have never heard a building actually speak or carry a tune) is Heneghan Peng’s abstraction of Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Library into its diamond structural geometry. Both projects are clear, but thereby miss the opportunity I think the curators gave the participants to evoke and elaborate, rather than mimic, the buildings we are meant to remember. Not that these historical structures are evident in the more abstract interpretations, but it is exactly this one failure of the didactic technique that gives the exhibition its ability to make us wonder, ponder, and actually concentrate on the forms themselves.
Beyond this handful of moments, I am afraid that I do not remember much from this year’s Biennale. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA made their usual gesture towards delicacy with a modest installation of acrylic that was beautiful but lost among the surrounding bombast. Matharoo Associates created the most clear and simple installation with an intersection of metal plates that hinted at a house, down to a bed on one of the horizontal slabs. Michael Maltzan, FAIA, channeled Zaha Hadid in a wall-sized, off-kilter rendering of Los Angeles as a collection of skewed planes out of which a housing project he designed emerged. Elizabeth Hatz collected an array of architecture drawings, from historic to contemporary, to create a three-dimensional version of collage sketch book. Possibly the best realization of Farrell and McNamara’s thesis as the modest tile floor created by maverick British group Assemble at their own Granby Ceramics Workshop and which is part of a larger project the firm is doing in Venice. It brought an abstraction and an evocation of Venetian traditions to something you barely noticed as you walked on it in the entrance room of the Pavilion. But once you looked down, read about the social project surrounding their creation, and reflected on their beauty, you got a sense of what architecture could add to both social advancement and aesthetic knowledge and enjoyment.
After all those teachable moments, what did I learn? Not much. Like all curators (including myself), this pair leaned heavily on the work of their friends and those who do similar work, and that meant a lot of grids, brick buildings, and an evocation of vernacular in the manner of “critical regionalism,” to use a phrase of Kenneth Frampton, Assoc. AIA’s, to whom Farrell and McNamara awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. I have never quite bought Frampton’s argument that the integration of the techniques and technologies of modernity with local landscape and building traditions is the solution to architecture’s alienated position, and I am afraid this Biennale did not do much to convince me.
Beyond this, I am not sure that buildings, as the curators believe, speak to us, even silently. I also do not think they teach us anything. They certainly do not do so by reference. That does not mean we can’t learn from them, it just means we can’t learn by “reading” them. We have to understand buildings within the realm of architecture so that we can experience in them what we can only read about in books or understand as abstract knowledge. That is architecture’s beauty and importance; that is its “surplus value.” And that is what you cannot experience in most of the contributions to this Biennale, though you can in the Arsenale and the Pavilion because of the curator’s operations on those spaces.
Overall, I would give this Biennale an A+ for its own architecture, but a failing grade for the overall content.
In my next column, I will describe the treasures to be found for the next six months around Venice, not only in what the city always has to offer but also in the country pavilions and special displays that are part of the Biennale festivities.