In the age where cultural production has usurped industrial production as the driver for Western economies, the Venice Architecture Biennale represents a special kind of affair. This three month-long bonanza of architecture and urban design represents a collection of diverse principles produced under a unified curatorial umbrella. Despite the trash-talk that has proliferated in certain circles since the opening of the event in late August, this year’s Biennale doesn’t have much to be cynical, negative, or nasty about.
For those of us who had been wondering over the past few years if we were due to weather another lost decade of architectural excess, the work in the 2012 Venice Biennale is forward-thinking and optimistic, favoring a sobering amount of creative stratagem and diligent projective research, over form-driven follies or software-focused materialist mantras. The Biennale Awards Committee seemed to agree. The Gold and Silver Lions, the Biennale’s top two awards, went to a Toyo Ito-led team from Japan and the Venezuelan collective, Urban Think Tank, who used their pool of creative talent to change lives and improve communities, rather than bask in the elitist glow of architecture’s often emotionally-distant jet-setting avant garde. Even the United States got its first award in the Biennale’s history, a remarkable coup, since the U.S. Pavilion features virtually no buildings, but rather promotes a diverse collection of urban interventionist tactics and their impacts on contemporary metropolitan life. With so many countries focused on solving real social or environmental problems, almost all of the work on exhibition in the Giardini and parts of the Arsenale seems to ooze cooperation and unity, a rare quality in a discipline known its emphasis on ruthless competition and star-fucking notoriety.
Japan’s Gold Lion winning entry, entitled Home-for-all, is a response by architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, and Naoya Hatakeyama. Produced in the wake of the devastating quake that struck the country in 2011, and led by architect Toyo Ito, the team proposed novel housing solutions for the city of Rikuzentakata, after it was virtually wiped off the map by the tsunami which followed the initial tremors. Reusing cypress logs swamped by the tsunami as a conceptual theme, the team developed hundreds of process models for necessary civic programs such as housing and schools through a seemingly endless dialogue with community members. Rather than presenting themselves as an exercise in doting compromise, each proposal expresses a vibrant creativity, thereby demonstrating that when given the opportunity to lead through design, architects are often more sensitive and conceptually nimble than government bureaucrats in presenting humane solutions to housing communities displaced in the wake of a disaster.
Conversely, OMA presents research work in the main Biennale Pavilion which celebrates an array of social housing projects produced in Post-War Europe, all by the very type of bureaucrats we designers have been taught to fear. One part nostalgia, one part critical commentary, Public Works: Architecture by Civil Servants demonstrates that when the hard economics of private development take a back seat to improving civic space for the greater good, innovative design can still result. In a similar vein, Crimson’s The Banality of Good: New Towns, Architects, Money, and Politics exhibits the cynical, finance-driven realities and conservative philosophies of contemporary building models within the public sector. Displayed as a series of Renaissance-era triptychs, Crimson’s research material deftly exhibits the cruel mathematics that have replaced optimistic Post-War social models of civic improvement and social housing, thereby providing a dark epilogue to the nostalgic dreams of OMA’s utopian-minded bureaucrats and their Brutalist urban projects arrayed in the mezzanine above.
In the Danish Pavilion, a newly thawed Greenland is layered with ideas for new development post-global warming, while the British Pavilion promotes the work of ten architectural teams who have gathered a compendium of “imaginative responses to universal issues”. Entitled Venice Takeaway, the show exhibits a seemingly endless array of research themes or exploratory organizations who’ve made documenting global marginalia their focus. The resulting exhibition functions more as research library than spectacle and one that no doubt will provide countless doctoral students and community activists the opportunity to learn about themes tangential to, but not saturated in, architecture and design. Across the Biennale’s gravel promenade, Germany is showcasing methods for recycling existing buildings into new construction materials, thereby demonstrating that yesterday’s GDR platenbau could be the aggregate for tomorrow’s kindergarten. Meanwhile, not to be outdone by its EU neighbors, France is hawking strategies centered on finally transforming the suburban periphery on the edge of Paris.
But the 2012 Architecture Biennale isn’t just about solving problems. For those in the mood for a wink, there is a healthy balance of fun amongst the furrowed brows. FAT Architecture partnered with San Rocco and Ines Weizman to supply smart laughs with a Museum of Copying, while the Romanian Pavilion sported a stunningly beautiful, but seemingly frivolous array of built icons and quotes from starchitects throughout history which can be embossed by visitors onto scraps of colored paper using an amplified version of the architectural stamp. There is even Folk in a Box- literally a musical bard ensconced into a miniature portable garden hut, designed as a sensorial commentary on the architect’s propensity to enclose human interactions, by DK-CM Architects. Back in the main Biennale Pavilion, Steve Parnell showcases an absolutely delicious library of architectural magazines going back to 1896, while upstairs in the mezzanine, a display of white paper architectural models culled from architecture schools around the world, entitled 40,000 Hours, illustrates the masochistic work ethic of aspiring young designers in academic institutions everywhere. Israel even poked fun at its co-dependant political relationship with the U.S. with Aircraft Carrier. One part exhibition, one part pop-up shop, Aircraft Carrier eschewed the space of buildings for the space of politics, illuminating the complex socio-political relationships that exist within the embattled Middle-eastern country and its physical contiguity to internal and external military conflict.
The U.S. produced a cunningly assembled and wonderfully egalitarian exhibition entitled, Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good. Led by Cathy Lang Ho, and with the input of a curatorial team that included Architect Magazine editor Ned Cramer, and urban critic Michael Sorkin, the installation features the work of over 100 entrants, each a unique strategy for transforming today’s metropolitan context into a more communal environment. Deftly arranged on movable armatures by Freecell and M-A-D, the scale of the projects is as diverse as the backgrounds of the designers, artists, and activists involved. In addition, the opening week featured a formidable schedule of talks, demonstrations, and panel discussions about architecture’s role in the urban environment. While many of the projects can be criticized as being “design-lite”, their impact on the communities they serve is both palpable and inspiring. What sets the U.S. Pavilion apart from many of the other countries and groups in the Giardini, was that so few architects are at the helm of the featured projects. While the lack of aesthetic integrity might be disturbing to a profession already laid low by the recession, the real message is that architects need to become more involved in their local communities. Many like my office Urban Operations, whose Parkman Triangle parklet is featured in the exhibition, are deeply involved with our communities. However, as much of the architect-less work in the U.S. Pavilion demonstrates we need more practitioners to drop their pretentious attitudes toward pro-bono public work and pick up the cause of civic interventions, even if the economics aren’t in our favor with respect to fees.
Biennale Chief-Curator David Chipperfield has been criticized about his theme for this year’s Biennale, most notably in an emotional pre-opening rant written by Wolf Prix denouncing the event as a “Sinking Gondola”. However, when one reads much of the objective reporting from critical journalists, Chipperfield appears to be vindicated. If one were to cast the blame, it would be on the fame-seeking culture currently saturating architecture these days, and the press that largely condones it. If avant garde aesthetic content indeed has the weakest presence in this year’s exhibitions, then perhaps the definition of what constitutes ground-breaking architecture or design needs reconsideration. After spending four days at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale as both an exhibitor, critic, and journalist soaking up the inspiring work from around the world, I can’t disagree more with Prix’s conservative assessment. Buildings don’t define a city, people do, and the fact that such a high-profile event named after the art of building showcases projects centered on the human condition, rather than ornamental excess or dogmatic manifestos, is incredibly refreshing. With cities around the world searching for novel ways to redevelop themselves, without simply turning to private developers to gentrify their social problems out of existence, there are a lot of projective alternatives to be considered. If any criticism is to be leveled however, then it would be that for every project proposed, or every social-problem temporarily resolved, there are many more out there in need of skilled designers. There is lot of common ground indeed being explored in this year’s Biennale, but what we need as a profession is for the concepts and philosophies to coalesce into a movement, rather than the moment that is on display in Venice right now.
John Southern is an architect and cultural critic based out of Los Angeles. His office, Urban Operations, specializes in design/build projects, installations, and research endeavors which seek to expand critical discourse within the design profession. The firm’s work has appeared in ...