“It was a process of whittling down,” says Ryan Neiheiser. The American-born co-curator of the Greek Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale is standing in the middle of his creation, developed and designed alongside wife and design partner Xristina Argyros. What the two have whittled—from what must have been an exceptionally hefty conceptual log—is one of the more elegant and intelligent exhibitions to come from any of the national teams in the Giardini this year.
A series of risers with slender pedestals holding delicate, cream-colored models of a whopping 56 projects. All of the buildings featured are schools and universities from various ages and places—a perfect choice of theme, given Greece’s history as the home of the titular academia in the ancient capital. “We were also inspired by Raphael’s painting of the Academy,” notes Argyros, and an ingenious three-dimensional version of the two-dimensional space—unpeopled by the portraits of classical intellectuals that appear in the famous "School of Athens"—is one of the featured models.
All of the models, in fact, are ingenious. There’s a tiny rendition of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R)’s Vagelos Education Center in Upper Manhattan; the same project appears in a far larger and more elaborate model the DS+R’s stall in the Arsenale, but if anything it looks better here. There’s are unfamiliar projects—the double-towered Centre Pierre-Mendès France at the Sorbonne in Paris, designed by Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat—and projects as well known as any in architectural history—most especially Étienne Louis Boulée’s famed 18th-century proposal for a monumental library, a visionary drafting whose monumental sense of scale the model somehow managed to preserve. “We’ve tried to isolate down to the common spaces in each project,” Neiheiser says: all the models stress the way these structures foster community and social interaction, a focus that seems perfect for this year’s Biennale over-arching theme of “Freespace”.
Given the sheer number of national pavilions in the Giardini, one’s susceptibility to Architecture Overload can run pretty high, and it’s made worse by the fact that each individual pavilion is often divided into competing conceptual segments from varying contributors. Argyros and Neiheiser’s Greek Pavilion, by contrast, has a rare degree of visual and thematic synchrony. It also has a sort of chronological drop on almost everyone else in Venice: In examining the spaces that actually beget architects, the duo is in effect looking at the very beginning, the womb, of the profession as a whole. That they do it with so much style is just the icing on the cake.