Out There in Venice’s Lagoon: New Directions at the Biennale di Architettura

The 11th Mostra Internazionale di Architettura, a sprawling exhibition of the latest trends in architecture and urban planning opened in the midst of a torrential downpour in Venice on Saturday September 14th. Running through November 23rd, it is comprised of two curated exhibitions, and fifty-six national pavilions, of which thirty are located in the Giardini (the verdant open-air exhibition grounds located at the far end of the Riva degli Schiavoni) and the rest interspersed in various locations around the city and its islands. In addition, there is a program of over thirty collateral events, installations, lectures and performances explore themes and document projects crucial to architecture across the globe.

Curated by Aaron Betsky, currently the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and formerly curator of Architecture, Design and Digital Projects at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the overarching title of this year’s proceedings is Out There : Architecture Beyond Building. As the title suggests, it focuses less on the built environment and its traditional forms than on « other worlds, other relations and other spatial possibilities acting as critical alternatives to the world we inhabit. » Betsky invited fifty-five international architecture studios to contribute temporary structures, urban interventions and visionary projects in order to present the « range of means architects are using to analyze, cope with and develop suggestions for the complexity of cities and designed environments. » Betsky has long been interested in a broader definition of architecture, one that encompasses but also exceeds spatial relationships. Among his many important publications, he has authored a treatise exploring the inter-relationships between aesthetics, psychology and human sexuality as they pertain to architecture. Social networks, commerce and the environment structure Betsky’s world as much as building projects do.

As one might imagine, the theoretical bent of Betsky’s approach has already generated some trenchant criticism. The Swiss architect Mario Botta, for example, dismissed the intermingling of performance, collage-like installations, and undulating sculptural displays, all of which demonstrate the intermingling of architectural theory and the staples of contemporary art, as a sensationalist American-style amusement park. Indeed, the Biennale has been faulted, in the Italian press at least, as privileging a patented « American » approach. This nationalistic lament has become a journalistic refrain at every Venice Biennale, including those dedicated to film and contemporary art, and is without real foundation. While the curator is certainly American, one of the most remarkable aspects of the exhibition was the strength of visionary contributions by innovative young architectural firms based in Italy. Stellar contributions by such firms as Studio Ma0/Emmeazero and Ian+, both from Rome, and Avatar from Florence demonstrate how ideas such as those espoused by Betsky are as as deeply entrenched in Italy as they are on the other side of the Atlantic.

Established international names were not absent from this year’s Biennale and its various side-shows. The controversial bridge designed by one of these « star-chitects », Santiago Calatrava, was inaugurated with much less pomp than might have been expected given Calatrava’s international renown. In deference to acrimonious political squabbles, technical problems and expensive delays, the ceremony was decidedly low-key, and the Spanish architect himself was absent supervising work at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Nonetheless, Calatrava’s aerodynamic modern design curves elegantly over the Grand Canal linking the Piazzale Roma to the embankment leading to the Santa Lucia train station. It is only the fourth bridge to span the Grand Canal in a city where architectural innovation is usually confined exclusively to the Giardini during the Architecture Biennale.

Another monumental figure, Frank O. Gehry, the author of the celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain,  was honored with the Leone d’Oro for his distinguished career. Beautiful, spontaneous drawings by Gehry, doodles tracing the development of his sculptural ideas, can be seen in the « Padiglione Italia » in the Giardini. The improvisational aspect of Gehry’s work was also featured in his « Ungapachket » in the Arsenale, a massive, spiraling framework of timbers supporting panels of cracked clay. The title comes from a yiddish word meaning « thrown together ». During the vernissage, artisans kneaded slabs of wet clay and applied them to square plates, which dried as they were affixed to the structure. Closely linked to a building Gehry has conceived for Moscow, the installation evoked the collective labor behind Gothic cathedrals and nineteenth-century monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty, with its sculptural shell supported by an underlying armature. Gehry was also undoubtedly inspired by similar structures by Russian Suprematist artists Aleksandr Rodchenko and Kasimir Malevich, whose modernist designs blurred the boundaries between building and sculpture.

Also identified by Betsky as one of the « masters of the experiment », Zaha Hadid, born in Iraq and now based in London, is best known for her fluid designs for large civic buildings and their free-flowing re-conception of space. These include her project for the MAXXI, the national museum for XXIst century arts, which is currently nearing completion in Rome. Paper cut-outs of the models for this and many of her other designs are on display in the Giardini. Not far away in the soaring spaces of the Arsenale, Hadid is once again represented by an installation entitled « Lotus », a sinuous, undulating structure, part piece of furniture, part house, which seems to unfold endlessly into a variety of alternating spaces and interstices.

Other stand-outs in the Arsenale, the former Armory of the Venetian Republic, included « AIRXY », an interactive video installation by M-A-D., Erik Adigard and Chris Salter, from Sausalito and Montreal. Probing the sensitivity of design to surveillance in the era of Google earth and other satellite tracking systems, AIRXY stimulated the awareness of being watched. Sensors picking up the movement of the spectator track his or her approach. Confronted by this work, one is made uncomfortably aware of the expanding confines of what constitutes space and defines human relationships « beyond » the building. Another witty take on the increasingly abstract space characterizing contemporary life, Droog and Kesselkramer’s « Singletown » proposed a series of implements and connective technologies belonging to a prototypical community of individuals living in an « atomized environment. » They envision a world in which traditional social networks have given way to temporary, mediated and highly contingent connections  with objects as much as with other people. A semi-inflated chair drew lots of spectators during the vernissage, who plumped down and watched, amused, as stylized rubber dogs connected to the chair by tubes gradually filled with the air expelled by the weight of the seated body. Surrounded by such accessories, the « singleton » (to borrow a term from the Bridget Jones lexicon) couch potato needs never to leave his or her perch in order to walk the dog.

In a nod to a theme dear to Context and its sustainable travel initiative, this year’s Biennale put a strong emphasis on sustainability, re-use techniques and proposals for a new urban ecology redefining the public sphere. Avatar, from Florence, offered an engaging collage installation predicting the merging of architecture and nutrition, proposing a self-sufficient lifestyle in which dwelling and food production become inextricably linked. Several firms are grappling with the loss of viable public space in the modern city, a problem that is particularly critical in Italy, where rampant development has sacrificed green areas for housing behemoths and American style shopping centers accessible only by car. Ma0/Emmeazero, a studio in Rome, presented a project called « Footprints », an interconnected park-like grid creating conduits through the urban fabric. In their view, green areas should not be purposeless terrain vague, that which remains unbuilt between one building and another, but the actual circulatory system of the city. They aim to re-establish a functional continuity between buildings and the environment via « ecological passageways rooted in the city’s key areas. » In the section of the Padiglione Italiano entitled « Italia cerca casa (Italy seeks housing) », Ian+ contributed a beautiful plan reconciling the architectural framework and heritage of Rome’s historic center with the demands of an ecologically responsible modern city. Encased in the imposing facade of a traditional Roman palazzo, Ian+ conceives of housing units equipped with terraces and green public space. It is a solution that marries civic and environmental responsibility to the pre-existing architectural fabric of the eternal city. In South America, Husos designed the prototype for a garden building covered in host and nectar plants in Cali, Colombia. Part of an urban reclamation project on an ecological model, this housing unit would attract and sustain Cali’s butterflies, acting as a biometer in a sensitive natural habitat undergoing unprecedented development. Certainly the most poetic display in a national pavilion, Junya Ishagami’s ephemeral greenhouse structures surrounding the Japanese pavilion in the Giardini blur the traditional distinctions between interior and exterior, proposing a low-impact botanical architecture of subtle manipulations of landscape and perception.

The contrast between Venice’s venerable cityscape, the fossilized remains of a resplendant golden age of architecture, and the theoretical proposals on display in the Giardini and the Arsenale may seem jarring. But there is perhaps no better city to host an exhibition of visionary architecture. The same pioneering spirit animating this year’s Mostra di Architetura is not so different from the one displayed by the early settlers of the Venetian lagoon as they developed the means to turn a series of low lying mudflats into one of the most glorious architectural marvels in the world, one that remained attuned to its imposing and life-giving natural environment.

La Biennale di Architettura
Open daily 10 am – 6 pm
Tickets: €15
Vaporetto: Arsenale or Giardini