PRINT September 2016


the Venice Architecture Biennale

Gabinete de Arquitectura, Breaking the Siege, 2016, brick, mortar. Installation view, Central Pavilion, Venice. Photo: Francesco Galli.

CONTEMPORARY ART at its worst is rarely so naive as contemporary architecture at its best. Because it operates so closely to the machinery of power, the design profession has been known to occasionally confuse design with power itself—to believe that architecture is politics—an idea that dates back at least to 1923, when Le Corbusier famously posited a choice between “architecture ou révolution,” as if they were commensurate political pursuits. Alack, they aren’t.

This tendency has reached a new pitch with the latest Venice Biennale of Architecture. Crusading curator (and winner of this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize) Alejandro Aravena has marshaled projects from eighty-eight participants plus sixty-five national pavilions in an effort to prove once and for all that architecture is—and ought to be—a field for political action. In the process he appears to have pushed the profession to the absolute horizon of its social potential. Having sailed thus far, the discipline is faced with a choice of either circling back on itself or falling off the map altogether.

The title of the show, “Reporting from the Front,” gets us in the right heroic mood: Bucklers are about to be swashed. In every corner of Aravena’s installations in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion, the visitor finds diagnoses of contemporary political conditions as dire and disparate as the immigration crisis in Belgium, water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa, and housing shortages in Portugal alongside proposed interventions in response, from concrete public market stalls to conical water towers to living spaces made from sewer pipes. Continuing a trend set by 2014 curator Rem Koolhaas, Aravena has given his theme as a mandate to the country-by-country delegations, whose individual pavilions are devoted to similarly weighty matters of state in their respective homelands.

The advance rap on Aravena’s high-minded premise was that it was going to be, well, boring. Patrik Schumacher, longtime partner of Zaha Hadid—and now, following her death, heir to her office—has been the most vocal critic of what he’s called Aravena’s “gesture politics.” “Of course these are issues of concern,” he said in a recent interview, referring to such ongoing crises as urban overcrowding and resource scarcity. “But these are not the issues that concern architects.” Call it callousness, call it what you will, but Schumacher’s is only a somewhat grouchier version of Woody Allen’s advice to comedians: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” You don’t have to be an arch-formalist to believe that architects’ first duty is to build newer and stranger buildings, harnessing the currents of technology and culture to forge a newer and stranger world. Absent that animating spirit, Aravena’s Dudley Do-Rightism could easily have subsided into a long, baleful parade of dull statistics and tiresome nostrums in foamcore.

Except that the spirit isn’t lacking, and the show is often astonishingly beautiful. Spanning high overhead near the entrance to the Central Pavilion is a massive parabola, fashioned entirely of bricks and mortar, the work of Paraguayan studio Gabinete de Arquitectura, led by Solano Benítez. Standing on a balcony overlooking the piece, the architect explained that the form emerged from years of research into simple, sturdy structures that could be built cheaply by nonexpert labor, with prospective applications in housing, infrastructure, and beyond. It also just happens to make for a fine and fittingly symbolic welcome to the Biennale, arches being a common processional device since before the Romans started triumphing. The piece won the Biennale’s top honor, the Golden Lion, and deserved it.

Over in the Arsenale, on one of the outdoor paths by the old dry docks, Russian architect Alexander Brodsky’s Shed (2016) is composed entirely of recycled components, a temporary structure that bespeaks its own ephemerality with a cockeyed envelope that looks like it’s about to topple over. Suggestive of a makeshift dwelling, the building is really more like an architectural folly, an essay on the affective possibilities of the reuse of materials that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing reconstituted into forms that conceal their trash-heap origins (as we do in the Aravena-designed anteroom of the Arsenale, which features a ceiling of tinsel-like fixtures made from scraps left in the wake of last year’s art Biennale). Brodsky suggests a more appealing, and more emotionally charged, solution for sustainable construction, one that finds mystery in simplicity.

Steps away, the Droneport Prototype Shell (2016), produced by the Norman Foster Foundation with Redline-EPFL and Ochsendorf DeJong & Block, proposes a network of clay-brick canopies—reminiscent of the elegant domes of Spanish Mexican engineer Félix Candela—as infrastructural nodes to help distribute food and medicine in the African interior. Back inside the Arsenale proper, the American firm Ochsendorf DeJong & Block, working with Block Research Group and the Escobedo Group, demonstrates the efficiencies of compression-only continuous structures—which can be used to support buildings but use 70 percent less material than typical reinforced concrete piers—via a sequence of soaring baldachins. There’s even one straight-out-of-the-grad-student-lounge foamcore mock-up, German firm BeL Sozietät für Architektur’s Neubau (2016), and it’s not bad: An urban-scale model for new immigrant housing, it’s big, blue, and as Instagram-friendly as this kind of thing gets.

Anyone who thought Aravena couldn’t pull off a show that was both earnest and entertaining might not have been paying attention. The principal of Santiago, Chile–based office Elemental, Aravena has done his most publicized work in the field of social housing, as exemplified by his “half-of-a-good-house” projects, semistructures that furnish low-income occupants with the rudiments of a home they can then finish themselves. He may not be a gee-whiz formalist in the mold of Hadid, but he’s no Savonarola either. “We can’t forget beauty in our battles,” he recently told The Guardian, and he seems to mean it. That an architect should be the Pritzker laureate in the same year that he serves as the Venice curator is unprecedented, and in the media spotlight that’s suddenly found him, Aravena has shown tremendous facility as a pitchman for his ideas. Presentation was never going to be the problem.

There are other issues, though. In a refrain that opens his Biennale catalogue essay and also turned up in his Pritzker acceptance speech, Aravena has said: “Architecture is about giving form to the places where we live. It is not more complicated than that, but also not easier than that.” Not easier, no. More complicated? Maybe.

The national pavilions, reflecting Aravena’s unifying concept, succeed and fail in degree with their organizers’ creativity in interpreting it—though the prize jury didn’t seem to agree. Spain somehow managed to win a Golden Lion with a fairly rote presentation of recent building projects around the country, while the Belgian team was unfairly passed over despite a sly bit of display-craft that paired photos and full-size mock-ups to reveal the sublimity of everyday architecture. After a lot of bad jazz stateside, the American show—a suite of schemes for some of Detroit’s grimmer quarters—wasn’t ambitious enough to justify all the fuss of Motor City locals who objected, albeit not without reason, to having their city used as a sort of medical cadaver.

The real coup in the Giardini is the one presentation that seems to carry the enterprise to its logical yet absurd conclusion. Uruguay’s pavilion, under the direction of Marcelo Danza, presents the visitor with a room that is nearly empty—save for a hole in the ground and a sketch on the wall. Toward the door, behind a curtain, there’s a closet filled with the disjecta membra of the Biennale itself: champagne flutes, hors d’oeuvre trays, printed matter, the odd shoe. These are gifts from visitors, who have been invited to steal from other pavilions and render their purloined booty unto the Uruguyans, who will be taking all of this debris back to Montevideo. Finally, here was a tactic that felt like it belonged to an actual front; significantly, it was one that had to bypass the primary constraints of architecture in favor of something more like art. (Advantage, Schumacher.)

At a cocktail function at the Hotel Bauer during the preview week, Paola Antonelli, senior architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gave a tidy one-sentence summary of Aravena’s curatorial objective: “It’s architecture without architects, with architects.” The reference is to Architecture Without Architects, Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal 1964 text in which the author presents an array of folk architectures as alternatives to a profession that by midcentury had grown obsessed with signature styles, hypertrophied, and overly technocratic. Taking a page from Rudofsky, Aravena has made his game that of reviving modernism’s social purpose while jettisoning the technocracy part, making designers mere mediators between the public and their environment. Piecemeal pragmatism will win the day, and the architects will have helped. Not only will the world be saved, but—bonus!—so will architecture’s authorial prerogative.

The question is not so much whether this is possible—it may be so, one can certainly hope—as whether the argument laid out in the Biennale is intellectually honest. Architecture has a notoriously bad track record of complicity in regrettable political projects, a phenomenon that is not the fault of a few bad apples rattling around the discipline but is rather inscribed within the DNA of architecture itself. Their autonomy always and already circumscribed, their products subject to contingencies beyond all reckoning, architects’ claims to authorship are deeply suspect, and their efforts to assert it frequently even worse. We see an admission of this only once in Aravena’s show, and it almost feels like it was let in by mistake: An incredible one-room exhibition in the Central Pavilion features the original schematics, signed and stamped as per professional standards, for the slaughterhouses of Auschwitz. In the old slasher pics, the victim realizes with dawning horror that the killer’s call is coming from inside the building. In this instance, the call is coming from the building itself.

Architecture often creates the theaters for its own disasters, and insisting as loudly as possible that it has real social agency does not break (and perhaps even intensifies) this cycle. A reflexive critique of the discipline as a whole, possibly even one embodied in architectural form, might be a useful tonic; but that is not Aravena’s mood, nor is it the mood of the field at large. Schumacher would like to think of himself as Aravena’s opposite number—his midnight Venice panel conversation was titled “The Dark Side Club”—but the curator’s true doppelgänger is more likely Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect whose own conception of practice counters Aravena’s utopian positivism with a playful Scandy hedonism, one that cheerfully assumes no conflict between the economic interest of clients or developers and the good of the public his buildings are supposed to serve. As Koolhaas recently said, “Bjarke is the first major architect who has disconnected the profession completely from angst.”

During the preview, Ingels sponsored a massive party aboard a pair of pirate ships fitted with outboard motors; hundreds of slightly sodden architects eagerly scrambled on board as the sun set over the Grand Canal. A group of spectators watched them sail away: No one was really sure when they would get back, and no one was really sure where they were going.

Ian Volner has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, and the New Yorker online and is a contributing editor at Architect and Surface.