Wednesday October 13, 2010

In Venice, world architecture’s grand show

Cloudwalks and whipping snakes of water are unusual sights to see at the world’s largest architectural exposition on architecture, the Venice Biennale for Architecture. I was invited by Domus China to present at this year’s 12th Biennale a westerner’s views of Chinese culture and the challenges U.S. architects face in designing buildings there. (Villas we designed are now under construction outside of Shanghai.)

Set against Venice’s luminescent backdrop, the Biennale for Architecture opened to the public displaying mostly conceptual installations by a cross section of architects and artists. It is the oldest and largest international architectural exposition in the world. This year there were 53 countries represented and approximately 50 works from top artists and architects in the world’s oldest and largest exposition concerning architecture and the built environment.

Over Venice, NASA

The Biennale takes place in two large venues. One is the original exhibition space in Giardini, a group of 27 permanent pavilions in a park-like setting about one mile east of Saint Mark’s. The other venue is the centuries-old Arsenal, a collection of large brick buildings with enormous spaces of decaying walls and exposed trusses that offer dramatic backdrops for the installations. One Seattle connection is the work of Dale Chihuly, who installed 14 monumental glass chandeliers across the city in 1996, in a project called Chihuly Over Venice.

The first Biennale took place in 1895 and for decades was exclusively an art event held on the odd years. Over the years other art forms were added including music, dance, and cinema. Architecture was added in 1980; and the Bienale for Architecture is held on the even years. It has developed a strong international following.

For each Biennale a guest director picks the theme and curates the participants. This year the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima was selected, becoming the first female director. Her firm Sanaa is best known for the New Museum in New York and the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne. She was this year’s recipient of the Pritzker Prize and only the second woman selected for this prestigious award.

A prize-winner that tried to remove structure from architecture.

For her theme “People Meet in Architecture” Sejima intended for participants to explore social interaction. “The idea is to help people to relate to architecture, to help architecture to relate to people, and to help people relate to themselves,” she said. Her show has been getting high marks from architecture critics, in part because she is a practicing architect, not a theoretician.

Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Split Second House” assaults all of the senses with several whip-cracking snakes of pulsing water. Their mercurial forms are captured only for a moment by strobes in the otherwise cavernous blackened space.

“Cloudscapes” is another powerfully poetic piece, created by Transsolar Engineers and Tetsuo Kondo Architects; Kondo is a former Sanaa architect. Together they created a continuously forming cloud of steam that hovers ten feet about the floor. A super thin plate of curving steel forms a ramp and leads one from below, up through, and above the cloud. The heat and humidity change as one ascends. The tactile and ephemeral qualities of the cloud excite the senses; and are a very satisfying work for all of those who, while in an airplane, have wished they could be outside and feel what is like to actually pass through a cloud.

Passing through "Cloudscapes"

The Golden Lion prize for best project was awarded to Japanese architect Junya Isigami (another former employee at Sanaa) for the skeleton-like frame made with exceptionally slender, clear-resin columns and beams. The “structure” was about 12 feet high and 50 feet long but unfortunately stood erect for only several hours coinciding with the judging. The narrative that accompanied the construction was beautifully written and described the architect’s lifelong quest to remove all structure from buildings leaving only air. He reasoned that since air is made up of physical components including molecules, sub-atomic particles, and vapor the inhabitants would be enveloped by an invisible continuous structure. When I saw it, it was a nearly invisible ruin within a giant industrial space. Despite the irony, the installation seemed to excite everyone for its unusual view about architecture.

The Golden Lion award for best participating country was awarded to Bahrain for its installation called “Reclaim.” It focused on the undesirable environmental and social consequences surrounding land reclamation from the sea. Reconstructions of temporary shelters made from discarded materials and interviews with the fishermen who lived in them drew a counterpoint to the advancing urbanization and environmental degradation. It also illuminated the positive social interactions that occurred in these shelters, and the way they espoused the benefits of living simply.

Some installations commented on environmental issues such as the loss of the ozone layer, while others envisioned new forms with swooping shapes and gossamer skins of woven metal.

My trip provided a stimulating opportunity to walk through the city’s mysterious maze of carless pathways, and to cruise up and down the Grand Canal in vaporettos while experiencing the exquisitely designed palazzos made more astonishing by the shifting light of Venice’s ubiquitous water. The contrast of the shockingly modern installations of the Biennale against this timeless backdrop made the experience all the richer.

by Stuart Silk

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