Venice Biennale’s theme won’t stop the rain

by Julian Worrall

‘Architecture is not building.” That’s the mildly provocative premise of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building,” which runs till Nov. 23. Although outspent by the Venice Art Biennale and outshone by the Venice Film Festival, the architecture event in Venice is nonetheless the most important cultural event on the architectural calendar.

The heart of the event is divided across two venues: the vast medieval warehouse known as the Corderie in the Arsenale, home to the thematic core of the show; and the leafy grounds of the Giardini, where permanent national pavilions are situated. Here architectural ambition and national pride combine in the quest for the coveted Golden Lion award.

For many years, the Japanese presence in Venice has drawn particular attention as a view of an alternate modernity. This year’s contribution is no exception, combining a cogent agenda with an aesthetic sensibility of rare brilliance. Commissioned by critic Taro Igarashi and designed by wunderkind Junya Ishigami, the intervention, “Extreme Nature,” presents a vision of human coexistence with nature through exquisitely delicate and beautiful forms.

The space around the pavilion has been turned into a garden populated by lightweight rectangular greenhouses and wooden furniture, while the interior of the pavilion is left completely bare, except for a lacy filigree of faint pencil drawings covering the walls. These show ideas for living amid nature, some fanciful, some real, all characterized by a dissolving of the boundaries between interior and exterior.

“Instead of regarding lakes and rivers and hills and forests and fields as far from the built environment, I am seeking ways to design so that nature comes close enough to be indistinguishable from architecture,” Ishigami writes in an essay. So we find drawings of a bed set in a field of flowers, or a suburb of tall transparent houses set amid a forest.

Although the Japan pavilion was on the lips of many visitors in the opening days, it was not selected for the prize. Jeffrey Kipnis, the leader of the jury panel, pronounced it simply “too beautiful.” The honor went instead to the considerably darker perspective of the Polish pavilion for “The Afterlife of Buildings.” This presented a mordant vision in large photomontages of the future of contemporary edifices 50 years hence when they have been repurposed due to encroaching urban problems of overpopulation and inequality.

The national pavilions are, wonderfully, characterized by diversity. Some, like the Dutch one, renounce form for content, setting up lectures and debates. Others, more problematically, swamp the visitor with data, as in the Danish pavilion’s well-intentioned tackling of sustainability.

Some use the architecture of the pavilions themselves to evoke an idea, such as the Belgian pavilion’s haunting empty spaces filled with confetti, alluding to the failing intercultural marriage of that country. Others, misguidedly, attempt comprehensiveness but succeed only in generating noise, as in the 300 models of the Australian pavilion.

In the Corderie, the curatorial vision of this year’s director, American Aaron Betsky, is focused and gathered in the form of 23 commissioned installations. These are, in Betsky’s words, “not prototypes for buildings but represent different ways of asking questions about architecture and how to feel at home in the world.” The exhibition presents a lineup of work from the international architectural avant-garde in Betsky’s estimation: The familiar moves of aging hipsters Frank Gehry, Coop Himmelblau, and Zaha Hadid are positioned alongside those of established successors such as MVRDV and Greg Lynn, and unfamiliar voices from the youngest generation testing their mettle against their elders.

For all the soaring curatorial rhetoric about imagination and “catalytic” interventions, for the long-suffering observer of the architectural scene there was not a lot that was really fresh. A new set of fluid forms from those architects for whom Hadid is queen confirmed the suspicion that despite vague aspirations toward revolutionizing architectural space, their effects are primarily picturesque. Screen-based exhibits, such as the “Hall of Fragments,” sometimes mesmerized, but are dependent more on the inherent hypnotic power of the screen than any of the powers of architecture.

Evidence abounded of the stranglehold that the image — rather than space — has on contemporary architectural imagination. Perhaps latent frustration with a creeping vacuousness played into the palpable nostalgia for the counterculture of the 1960s in work by many younger architects. Phillipe Rahm’s installation, one of the more memorable, employed temperature and aroma to instill his trademark concept of “atmospheres,” and then populated the exhibit with several naked hippies playing saws and singing folk songs.

A particularly anachronistic element were the “Manifestos,” which sought a 21st-century credibility by being presented on video. Delivered woodenly by their earnest authors, most were rendered even more clunky by the leaden qualities of their prose. Who can be inspired by statements beginning with “We must . . .” and “Architects should . . .” read in monotone from a Teleprompter? In their heyday, manifestos were heady statements of common purpose that girded the loins of a handful of young Turks within small artistic coteries — but they are patently irrelevant in the cultural supermarket of the contemporary biennale.

One British curator I met, a veteran of the art event but slumming it for the first time in the architecture show, summed up his reaction in a pithy epithet: “bad art.” Indeed, one of the simplest, aesthetically effective, and most quietly significant installations of the show was by a leading figure of the contemporary art world, Ai Wei Wei, in collaboration with the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron, a reunion of the talent that gave China and the world the wondrous “bird’s nest” of the Beijing Olympic Stadium. A fragile space-frame of bamboo poles and suspended chairs fills a large room in the Italian pavilion. A closer look reveals that the poles are extensions of the legs of the chairs, examples of the traditional furniture seen on street corners across China. Without recourse to any labored text, this installation speaks profoundly of tradition and modernity, West and East, and is both poignant and beautiful.

A torrential downpour swamped Venice during the opening days. The world’s architects, curators, and critics cowered at the entrances to the pavilions, desperately seeking shelter. What they needed then was building beyond architecture, rather than its opposite.

Julian Worrall is a professor of Architecture and Urban Studies in the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University.