I have just returned from the opening of the Biennale of Architecture in Venice, which was curated this year by Aaron Betsky. The exhibition, entitled ‘Out There’ and it’s thematic installations are conceptually focussed on creating architecture and environments ‘without buildings ‘.

As a prelude, we should keep in mind that In recent years, artists, designers and architects have more and more been approaching the same ‘issues’  – sometimes with success, sometimes not.
This years Biennale has touched on inquiries sidereal to ‘canonical architecture’ so, for that reason alone, we will be hearing many people say that this years Biennale was ‘unsuccessful’,  since inevitably some of the experimentation was perhaps better left to ‘specialists’ in their fields (filmmakers, artists, etc,), but I fully believe that every now and then, a Biennale needs to be conceived in order to shake up pre-conceptions of who does what, but more importantly, on what needs to be done.

This years edition of the Biennale  of Architecture is, as in recent and previous Biennales, divided into two main locations; the Arsenale, and the Giardini della Biennale, and presents site-specific installations, ‘manifestos’, landscapes and mies-in-scene of an ‘Architecture beyond building’ (in the Arsenale) and ‘Experimental Architecture’ from around the world (in the Giardini).
The doors opened to the public on Sunday, the 14th of September, but I spent the previous three days of the pre-opening vernissage visiting the various installations and collateral events.

In Betsky’s vision of Architecture, and in fact, in his vision of the world, ‘buildings are not enough, or too much, to answer to the call of making ourselves at home in our modern world’. The 2008 Biennale program was formulated on that postulation….but how do we make ourselves at home in the modern world?

This years Biennale of Architecture asks as many questions as it answers…. in fact, this years edition was rich in both. No illusions were given to the public that ‘Out There’ was conceived on the notion of resolving the worlds major problems, but it does acknowledge that problems in the built world (formal, technical, environmental and existential) do exist and that the answers currently being given are not adequate – the complexity of a globalized, multicultural world and the resultant built environment was addressed.

Many of the invited architects present their work as ‘a manifesto’, but given the numerous, and at times, disparate, points of view, it immediately became evident that the idea of creating a ‘unified manifesto’ was both impossible and undesirable.

Thus the many points of view crisscross and create a web of research which cover a large range of subjects, with the major themes being: formal experimentation, narration, bodies, climate, social inequality, sustainability, multimedia, virtuality and ‘existentially’.

The Giardini
To no ones surprise, many of the thematic presentations of the various countries in their national pavilions were largely focused on subjects such as sustainability, landscapes (both urban and natural), alternative energy, and the ‘post-european’ city.

Hi-Lights in the ‘Giardini della Biennale include’:

Japanese Pavilion
Japanese architect Junya Ishigami’s exhibit ‘Extreme Nature: Landscape of Ambiguous Spaces’ was one of the highlights of the entire Biennale. The interior of the Japanese Pavilion is nearly empty, revealing the beauty of its original space – the installation was comprised of delicate pencil drawings traced directly on the expansive white walls and depicted architectures comprised primarily of plant material and other natural elements (mountains, lakes, etc.). On the exterior of the pavilion, Ishigami created greenhouses without air conditioning control systems left open to the outside, so in fact, they create an imperfect artificial environment.  Thus, there is an ambiguous mix between the internal and external environment.  With the help of botanist Hideaki Ohba, Ishigami aims at presenting a variety of plant life that creates a slight disturbance in the landscape of the park.
The designer has attempted to treat landscape and architecture as the same event.

American Pavilion
This exhibition explores the cultural, geopolitical, and architectural implications of territory, financial institutions and their intervention in the built environment, migration, and ‘survivalist’ structures in communities in need.  Inside the pavilion, drawings, photographs, and videos illustrate 16 activist projects ranging from the Rural Studio’s work in Hale County, Ala., to Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard. Memorable projects were executed by Gans Studio from NYC (with their ‘Roll-Out House’) and the facade installation by Teddy Cruz. The Pavilion shows how experimental architecture in the US is evolving “out of conflicts and relationships”.  The ‘3d installation’ was somewhat disappointing, but the content, graphics and information was stimulating and comprised one of the more relevant exhibits in the entire Giardini area.

Danish Pavilion
The Danish pavilion was a literal summation and continuation of a workshop and laboratory on sustainable urbanism in lieu of an actual presentation of projects. The Ecotopia project is a veritable storehouse for more ‘canonical’ approaches to urbanism and sustainability and can be accessed at www.sustainablecities,dk

Italian Pavilion
Due in part to its massive size, but primarily to it’s curative eclecticism, The Italian pavilion choose to accept the challenge of creating a comprehensive overview of Experimental Architecture, and was the ‘cultural soul’ of the Giardini.
The show, entitled ‘ Experimental Architecture’, was curated by Aaron Betsky with Emiliano Gandolfi. and follows closely the Biennales primary theme of ‘Architecture Beyond Building’, in this case,  past and present, and represents works by Contemporary Architectures protagonists currently working in research fields of landscape, formality,  sustainability, virtuality, alternative energy and social movements on a urban scale.
Amongst the most interesting and provocative projects the Italian Pavilion:
Boeri Studio – Sustainable Dystopias (the vertical garden apartment buildings of Boeri Studio juxtaposed with a disquieting film by Armin Linke).
The installation by Viennese/Austrian professors Fattinger, Orso, Rieper and their students) on San Paulo and the planet of slums.
Inspiring and provocative projects by firms such as Cloud 9, Lot-Ek, JDS/Julien De Smedt Architects  and Elemental from Chile.
J,P:A Jones Partners Architecture with their comic-strip interpretation/criticism/proposal for the future of Dubai.
Low-Tech interventions for an ‘alternative’ future by Aether Architecture as well as Naba (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti), including their Pirate Radio project.

These thematic installation in the Italian pavilion are complemented by small monographic (and in some cases, historic) shows by firms whose work has been based on such experimentation. This section of the  Pavilion is called ‘Masters of Experimentation’:Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, Morphosis, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Coop Himmelb(l)au.
At the tale end of this installation is a curios historical retrospective of Madelon Vriesendorp.

I would like to note that the Italian Pavilion, if not the entire Biennale, had a melancholic yearning that reminded me time and time again of the works of Italian Radical Architecture from the late 60’s, early 70’s. I was shocked that no credit or space was given to Superstudio, Archigram, Archizoom, Pettena or UFO by the curators nor the individual exhibitors who ‘sampled’ ideas and substance from these pioneers at almost every turn.

Hi-Lights in the ‘Arsenale exhibit’ include:
Diller Scofido and their interpretation of reality and simulacra in there filmatic installation re: Venice(s)
Philippe Raum’s installation ‘Digestible Gulf Stream’ involved the creation of a micro climate through the phenomenon of convection created by hot and cold systems. This was a very interesting project and like most of Raum’s work, explored architecture and the environment in a very curios and valid manner. Unfortunately, the opening event was comprised of a theatrical/musical troupe performing in the environment created by Raum, which sent ‘kitsch’ chills up my spine – the work of Raum is in some ways similar to the installations of the artist Olafur Eliasson in that it relates to climate and perception, thus it was disappointing that he felt it necessary to delve into choreography.
Un-Eternal City – Thirty Years after ‘Roma Interrotta’ – this exhibit discusses the need and desire to experiment and propose urban environments in a ‘post european city’ (or a centralized urban environment) and had notable project proposals by international firms such as MAD, BIG and New West. This installation was staged in such a  way as to contrast the projects from the Biennale of Architecture of thirty years ago. The installation itself was was formally distracting and incoherent, making it necessary to constantly move through the space and perform a selective act between projects of quality and those less so, but perhaps that was the intention (and reality) of the installation and post central city in the first place?
Gehry’s ‘micro architecture/sculpture – beautiful, but like much of Gehry’s work, was it necessary here?
Hadid’s ‘micro architecture/sculpture – beautiful, but like much of Hadid’s work, was it necessary here?
Un Studio, Nigel Coates and Gustafson/Porter were the protagonists of the linear narration provided by the conglomeration of installations in the Arsenale. Like almost all thematic group shows curated in todays Contemporary Art scene across the globe, the direction, narration, and selection of artists/pieces and ultimately, the message of the Biennale was orchestrated by the shows curator, Aaron Betsky.

Betsky created a project which is a narration of his vision of Architecture, of the planet and perhaps, life itself.  From the ‘Big-Bang’ projection in the darkened entrance of the Arsenale to the idealized Garden of Eden (‘Towards Paradise’ by Gustafson) in the bright sun-lit area at the end of the cultural promenade, I see the Arsenale as an attempt by Betsky to recount his personal story of creation and evolution though ‘Architecture beyond Architecture’ in this years Biennale of Architecture in Venice.

Other event of note:
A12 from Italy for their Deep Garden installation for Enel Contemporary placed on the water towards the giardini pubblici.

An Ironic note:
Says Betsky, “…..Architecture is more a process – a mix of experiencing, talking, shaping,…..in a concrete sense, Architecture is that which allows us to be at home in the world”.
so it is ironic that Betsky was quoted as saying,”it’s not enough to keep the rain out or create room for office cubicles” when I say it is ironic, it is because:
the rain and winds on Fridays and Saturdays vernissage events staged for the VIP members of the Architectural community (architects and press) ware so powerful that most of the invited elite were trapped inside the numerous pavilions (many of which leaked) for hours and hours,  and thus were unable to attend many of the planned events.
this is very telling: the ‘natural elements’ that so many Architects and their projects romanticized were powerful enough to force them to seek cover underneath ‘old fashioned’ roofed buildings until the rains subsided. Architecture does need to look farther deeper and more intelligently at new solutions, but the poetry of a ‘simple roof’ need not be underestimated nor considered as ‘non-radical’ either.

This is post by David Report contributor Tim Power.

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