28.10.2010 Frank Kaltenbach

Perceiving Space With All the Senses

Simply Architecture?

It takes an expert to assign many of the abstract exhibits in the Arsenale and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni to specific structures; occasionally, short films are helpful, as in the case of Sou Fujimoto’s Primitive ?Future House. The exhibition catalogue, which is organized alphabetically, offers useful background information. Only very few installations are self-explanatory, among them Toyo Ito’s Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, on which construction began this year. With the aid of models and diagrams even the design process is made clear. Despite Kazuyo Sejima’s assertion that “it is not easy to exhibit architecture; one cannot exhibit the original as with art objects, but only ever inpidual aspects”, Toyo Ito succeeds, and he does it with the everyday tools of the architect.
Spain presents the Solar Decathlon Madrid in a somewhat lacklustre manner; Jürg Conzett illustrates the history of Swiss bridge construction with few models and marvellous black-and-white photographs.
France and Denmark are among the few participants to tackle metropolitan regions this year. In this touch-focused Biennale, Dominique Perrault’s full-space projections on the mirrored walls in the French pavilion seem almost as anachronistic as the 3D presentations in the Australian pavilion. The US pavilion addresses “Green Architecture”. Featuring collages with arable fields, plant-covered facades and roof gardens in the middle of New York, it postulates a paradigm shift in architecture creation. It is unclear, however, what these visions have to do with the science-fiction-style atriums of John Portman, whose acrylic glass models are assembled in an adjacent room.
The German pavilion has drawn criticism for what has been widely perceived as a baffling interpretation of the theme of “Longing”, and the curators have neglected to provide comprehensible elucidations. Consequently, the lamps from the Palace of the Republic, the Venetian fabric walls of the Red Salon and many of the 180 architecture sketches framed in the Biedermeier style come across as empty decorative gestures.
Ole Boumann, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, has created an effectively staged model city of blue Styrodur, which is meant to symbolize buildings standing vacant in the Netherlands.
Using historical photographs and maps, the British cast a nostalgic look back at John Ruskin and the lagoon. The highlight of the exhibition, however, is in its interplay with its setting: the glass-enclosed loggia, which is normally curtained off, now affords a view of the lagoon. The map-as-wallpaper and the stuffed birds lend the loggia the air of a natural-history museum.

Artist Philip Beesley transforms the fully darkened Canadian pavilion into a forest of mimosa-like, pneumatically driven swaying ferns of translucent synthetic leaves.
Small-scale copies of OMA projects are spread across the wall as if in a living room, with labels scribbled on yellowed strips of masking tape. In place of a linear chronology, Koolhaas establishes a simultaneous “Cronocaos” of various epochs, explaining their phenomena via collages on A0-sized sheets hung like bed linen over poles. Finally, he has organized his own work according to a new chronology, based not on the completion dates of his buildings but on the inception dates of the existing structures on which he has worked.

Free Space

The Kitchen Monument by raumlaborberlin in the Giardini consists of an event space within a large translucent plastic balloon; it is rendered liveable by the refreshingly pragmatic do-it-yourself wooden seats set up around it.

National Pavilions

The prize for the best national pavilion went to Bahrain. Its three original fishing huts symbolize the decline of the traditional fishing and seagoing culture, which massive land reclamation and building activity in the kingdom have robbed of its foundations.

Belgium surprises as it did in the last Biennale, this time with the installation Usus/Usures: though sensuous, it has a melancholy undertone. Initially, visitors believe themselves to be in an art gallery featuring sculptures and murals. On closer examination, however, the slanted steel structure in the room proves to be a simple railing whose surface derives its appeal from the layers of paint that have worn off with use; the shimmering wood-toned mural consists of table tops that have suffered varying degrees of wear over the years.
The most emotional contribution in the Arsenale is without a doubt that of artist Janet Cardiff, set in an almost empty hall. When a chorale for 40 voices emanates from the oval array of nondescript speakers, the room is transformed into a musical instrument; the middle of the space fills with people lost in almost rapturous contemplation.
At the extreme end of the Arsenale the exhibition moves outdoors, where the materials theme dominates. The architects and artists of the Chinese national pavilion play with the dazzling light of the lagoon, with new interpretations of traditional Chinese garden art using polished and rusting steel surfaces, or with the surreal effect of a floating cloud of matte and transparent acrylic glass rods.
A wax-like plank by Peter Ebner and friends extends out over the quay wall like a ping board, pointing towards the historical brick towers of the old harbour entrance on the opposite shore. Its title, “Enjoy the View”, is certainly ambiguous; one discovers the reinforcement mesh within its murky mass only after one is informed by the plaque that the plank is made of translucent concrete.

Architectural Discourse or Sheer Rhetoric?

Where might one find the intellectual discourse among all these sensory experiences? Small screens distributed throughout the wooden floor broadcast Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s interviews with the participants. Another haven for architectural theory is provided by Rem Koolhaas, this year’s winner of the Golden Lion. Located on the midline of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, his contribution “Preservations” analyses the concurrence of preservation frenzy and destructive urges. Once again, the former spokesman of “Fuck the Context” manages to shake things up with a new exhibition format and an apparent change of heart. Where years ago giant photographic wallpapers showcased the boom of Dubai, exhausted visitors now lounge around on the original mattress of his historically listed House in Bordeaux, and students page through photo albums while sitting on 1930s wooden chairs from the Haus der Kunst in Munich, for whose restoration Koolhaas is submitting proposals.
Sejima’s overall concept manifests itself especially well in the joint contribution of Transsolar and Tetsuo Kondo. Winding up from the bases of the old columns to the capitals under the roof, their bold suspended ribbon of steel sheet leads through a warm humid fog that turns the rays of evening sunlight into natural spotlights. The informational aspect – the demonstration of current climate technology by means of an artificially created thermal layer – is secondary to the physical experience.
The installations often get in the visitors’ way, forcing them to detour so that even those inclined to hurry will eventually come to a stop. One finds oneself engaging with these exhibition spaces, gradually slowing down and opening up one’s mind. This sensitization turns out to be necessary, for subtle details abound. Junya Ishigami’s house of taut white threads is all but invisible; a wooden dome by Wang Shu consists of timber slats connected by tiny little hooks — an intricate structure that does entirely without a foundation but requires a highly practised team to put it together.
More Art than Architecture?

Sejima presented “People Meet in Architecture” as the leitmotif of the Biennale, a motto to guide not only the 46 invited architects and artists, but also the 53 national pavilions as well as the numerous external exhibitions and events scattered throughout the city and several islands. She underscored this convergence of various artistic disciplines by enlisting the participation of artists such as Wim Wenders. Wenders’ technically flawless but rather pathos-laden 3D film If Buildings Could Talk acts as a prelude to the show; visitors are treated to a virtual flight through the architectural landscape of the Rolex Learning Centre on the campus of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which was designed by Sejima’s firm SANAA. Right at the entrance of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, the second main exhibition venue organized by Sejima, artist Thomas Demand and architect Caruso St. John have built a full-scale plywood mock-up of the facade of a restaurant in China whose three-year-long resistance to a state-ordered demolition has made it into a celebrated icon; the building was to be recreated in Zurich.
Even though the exhibition areas were once again expanded this year, the largest and most important architectural show still seems pleasantly well laid-out. This is due in part to the generous space allotted to the inpidual installations (an entire room was made available to each team of architects), but also to the analogue form of presentation. The walk through the halls of the Arsenale, formerly the rope works of the Venetian fleet, becomes a lesson in seeing and hearing, in which Sejima places each inpidual emphasis with care. Overall, a meditative hush and sense of space permeate the almost hallowed halls, a far cry from the noise and sensory overload that have assaulted visitors in the past.
12th Architecture Biennale of Venice

With granite boulders to lie down in, glaringly backlit filigree ramps that pass through warm fog banks, concrete girders that float portentously overhead, and lashing water fountains that emerge from darkness lit by a stroboscopic storm, the 12th International Architecture Biennale is experienced primarily on a physical rather than an intellectual plane.

This was precisely the intention of director Kazuyo Sejima, who won this year’s Pritzker Prize: “Past Biennales have concentrated primarily on the global problems of metropolises; I wanted the architects to use materials for their presentations that represent the sensory experience of architecture and space.”

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