Perceiving Space With All the Senses
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.
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.
Artist Philip Beesley transforms the fully darkened Canadian pavilion into a forest of mimosa-like, pneumatically driven swaying ferns of translucent synthetic leaves.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”