The 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale opened its doors to the press at the end of last week. Texas Architect was on site and on assignment, taking in the sights and sounds of the world’s largest bi-annual forum for architectural exchange. Curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Irish practice Grafton Architects, the theme this year is FREESPACE. “It is our aspiration,” write the curators in a statement, “that the word: FREESPACE focuses on the generosity of architecture.”
The 71 participants Farrell and McNamara assembled in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini and in the Corderie at the Arsenale are remarkable for their adherence to presenting real-life architectural projects that speak to the theme. Among the 63 national participants and assorted others spread throughout the main venues and city of Venice, however, there are plenty who put up installations that address the theme through means more tangential to architecture, such as art and social studies. What follows is a list of 10 highlights that is by no means meant to be definitive. Look for more Venice Biennale coverage in the July/August 2018 issue of Texas Architect magazine and beyond. For those who wish to visit, the Biennale runs through November 25.
Of all the exhibits in the Central Pavilion, this editor spent the most time interacting with the gorgeous models of Atelier Peter Zumthor. Twenty are presented in all, each painstakingly crafted with the same attention to sensual materiality as the buildings they represent. On the one hand, Zumthor’s work might be considered a strange choice for FREESPACE, as they are mostly exclusive buildings experienced by a privileged few. On the other, it’s hard not to consider this work generous, as it conveys so much of its spiritual potency even through its representations: models and pictures — which is how most people have experienced them, including me.
A close second in terms of precious time invested was with Michael Maltzan Architecture’s presentation of its Star Apartments complex for the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles. Here is architecture being generous in a more social way, providing formerly homeless individuals dignified housing without skimping on design or quality of life. The project was depicted in several models — one of the entire building and several of the modular housing units themselves, complete with doll-house furniture. A large map of Los Angeles wrapped two walls, while photos and a video conveyed what life is like there.
Farrell and McNamara made it a point of approaching their curatorial job as architects. One result of that move is that, like preservationists, they uncovered and revealed many of the architectural delights of the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale that had been kept undercover in previous Biennales. This was true of the frescoed dome in the Central Pavilion’s entrance, which was gloriously exposed, and, perhaps more surprisingly, of this Carlo Scarpa window toward the rear of the same building. On another note, Farrell and McNamara also made sure there were plenty of places to sit. Throughout the exhibition spaces chairs, bean bags, and other lounge furniture abound.
Among the national pavilions in the Giardini, the majority of the buzz seemed to orbit Switzerland. For once the chatter was on the mark, as the international jury — Sofía von Ellrichshausen (Argentina), Frank Barkow (USA), Kate Goodwin (Australia), Patricia Patkau (Canada), and Pier Paolo Tamburelli (Itally) — awarded it with this year’s Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Titled “Svizzera 240: House Tour” and curated by Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg, and Ani Viheraara, the installation was an ironic take on an unfurnished luxury apartment. Visitors are invited to take their own tour, and quickly discover that something isn’t right. Each of the rooms is rendered at a different scale: 1:5, 1:2, 1:1.6, 1:1.3, 1:1.2, 1:1, 1.1:1, 1.3:1, 1.5:1, and 2:1. While the point of this exercise is that old avant-architectural saw of defamiliarizing the banal, the execution is flawless, with each and every interior element, from the windows and doors to the hardware and electrical plugs, produced at its particular scale. It’s a rare moment of successful humor for the Swiss. Everyone I saw passing through had an amused smile on their face, and the taller of us kept bumping our heads!
Slightly more serious in tone and political in nature, but no less a wry one-liner, was “ISLAND at the British Pavilion,” which was given a special mention by the jury. Curators Caruso St John and Marcus Taylor took to heart Alejandro de la Sota’s maxim, quoted by Farrell and McNamara, that “architects should do as much nothing as possible.” They emptied the pavilion’s galleries, erected a scaffolding around it, and topped it with a deck complete with cafe seating. Access, limited for safety, was provided by a stair and lift, though no spike heels were allowed. According to the brochure, “The experience of visiting the British Pavilion embraces themes including abandonment and reconstruction, sanctuary and isolation, colonialism, climate change and our current political situation.” But I think it was summed up better by one British visitor during my tour, who proclaimed with a flourish of her arms: “It’s a symbol of our nation, sailing away from the rest of Europe, and looking down on the French.”
If the Swiss were ironic and the British wry in their handling of aspects of culture and politics, the Israelis turned up with a deadly serious exhibition that grappled with the geopolitics of holy spaces in their highly contested homeland. Curators Ifat Finkelman, Deborah Pinto Fdeda, Oren Sagiv, and Tania Coen-Uzzielli studied five sites: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mughrabi Ascent, the Western Wall Plaza, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb. While there were no new architectural projects presented, the examination of how these holy sites are shared by a variety of communities, mostly according to regulations that have been in place since the 19th century, was striking. The model of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by german architect Conrad Schick, color coded to indicate the locations of the six Christian sects who use the building, was supported by a film showing how the space is altered — with armed guards in attendance — between services.
The tendency to present a book as an exhibition can be tiresome in the context of a Biennale, but in the case of “Architectural Ethnography” at the Japanese Pavilion — a guidebook of sorts — the results were delightful. Curated by Momoyo Kaijima, with Laurent Stalder and Yu Iseki, the show was composed of drawings by 42 exhibitors, including university design studios, architectural offices, and contemporary artists from all over the world. The exhibition is an extension of a project Kaijima has been working on since the late 1990’s, which documents how people live in cities through field research, architectural drawings, and the perspectives of building users. The drawings are highly detailed and a lot of fun. Visitors are encouraged to take their time and delve into individual drawings with hand-held magnifying disks — a real relief from the QR codes appended to gallery walls that have become more common these days. I myself became absorbed in a drawing of the view out a residential window, focusing on a cat sleeping on a tile roof.
Perhaps no national participant invested itself more in the realm of social studies than the U.S.A. Even the title of the installation seems to be cribbed right out of a high school civics textbook: “Dimensions of Citizenship.” Curators Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, Mimi Zeiger, and Iker Gil assembled seven participants in a show intended to challenge “architects and designers to envision what it means to be a citizen today, as critical contemporary issues expand conventional notions of citizenship.” For example, Studio Gang brought hundreds of cobble stones to Venice from an old Mississippi River landing in Memphis, an act of portage meant to explore how this landing could be a site of civic memory, representative of citizen voices past and present. “In Plain Sight” by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, and Robert Gerard Pietrusko with the Columbia Center for Spatial Research is composed of a large projection of aerial views of places in the world with lots of lights juxtaposed with places with few lights. My favorite is “Cosmorama,” a grid of nine back-lit drawings that tell three stories related to our fantasies about outer space: extraterrestrial mining expeditions, a bunch of animals shot into space to save the future, and an island in the Pacific set up to house dead satellites and climate refugees.
One of the most heartening — not to mention well conceived and executed — national pavilions I encountered was that of Saudi Arabia. This is the Kingdom’s first foray at the Biennale, and they came out swinging. Curated by two women, Jawaher Al-Sudairy and Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, teamed with two male architects, Abdulrahman Gazzaz and Turki Gazzaz of Brick Lab, the installation is titled “Spaces in Between.” It takes a hard look at Saudi urbanism in a succession of circular chambers enclosed by luminous walls of resin mixed with sand — a reference to the Kingdom’s most abundant resource and most typical landscape element. Projections on these walls show various views of Saudi cities: maps as they are today and in incremental slides that show how they’ve developed over the past 50 years, the view from car windows as they drive around town, and social media feeds that reveal how individuals are experiencing their domain. In the final chamber is a sunken conversation circle, complete with a depiction of an oriental rug in the resinous floor, where visitors can sit and discuss what they’ve seen. As I explored the pavilion I couldn’t stop thinking about how similar its subject matter is to issues we face in Texas. Indeed, when I mentioned this to Abdulrahman Gazzaz, he said, “When I visited the U.S. I decided not to go to Houston because I thought I have already seen it back home in Jeddah.”
Can love at first sight be trusted? Obviously, not always. But in the case of my encounter with Estonia’s entry to the Biennale, “Weak Monument,” that first blush of warm feeling proved enduring. It was the first thing I saw, and it colored the rest of my experience in Venice, as very little that I viewed subsequently reached the bar it set. And in my three repeat visits its merits did not diminish. Curators Laura Linsi, Roland Reemaa, and Tadeas Riha explore their nations’ antipathy to the classical European notion of monuments — the heroic figure in the town square — and instead find the value in its every-day “Weak Monuments,” such as the curb cut seen at left above. “Where does the monument stop and the pavement begin?” they ask. Installed in a former baroque church off of Via Giusseppe Garibaldi, the main part of the installation is a raised platform of typical Estonian pavers, a park bench, and a skim-coated wall that conceals the church’s elaborately sculpted altar. The platform puts visitors at the same level as the raised altar, which can still be accessed and viewed through an open threshold. Behind the wall are other examples of Estonia’s weak monuments: the hardened vertical circulation core of the typical Tallinn apartment building, Estonian architect Leonhard Lapin’s “Monument to the Anti-International – Donkey Stable,” the Hirvepark staircase, and a series of vignettes about the relationship between monumentality and pavement.