PRINT November 2018



Vo Trong Nghia Architects, Bamboo Stalactite, 2018, bamboo. Installation view, grounds of the Arsenale, Venice. Photo: Francesco Galli.

SECURITY WAS TIGHTER than usual on the opening day of the press preview for the Sixteenth Venice Architecture Biennale this past May, the reason being—or so it was whispered—a planned visit to the Giardini by the Israeli ambassador to Italy, there to attend the opening of his national pavilion that afternoon. The topic of the Israeli exhibition (under the curatorship of Tania Coen-Uzzielli, Deborah Pinto Fdeda, Ifat Finkelman, and Oren Sagiv) was the division of holy sites in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank and the awesome warping effects on urban space that result; especially striking was a sequence of films and animated drawings showing the steady immurement of Rachel’s tomb, a pilgrimage destination in Palestinian territory now surrounded by concrete slabs and watchtowers and entirely inaccessible to Palestinians. As the gendarmes stalked around the entrance to the pavilion grounds, it seemed, at the least, a dark coincidence: The same culture of control and paranoia that was the object of the show’s critique appeared to have spilled over, on however small a scale, into the serene precincts of Venice, brought there by the critics themselves.

This is not the only paradox dogging a biennial whose very theme courts contradiction. “FREESPACE,” the title of this year’s exhibition, is the invention of curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the team behind Dublin-based Grafton Architects. Though much admired in the global architecture community, the Irish duo is little known outside it, and their selection by Biennale president Paolo Baratta came as a surprise to many design watchers, especially given the tenor of recent shows. The previous two editions were directed, respectively, by Rem Koolhaas, in 2014, and Alejandro Aravena, in 2016, both of them winners of the Pritzker Prize with emphatic polemical positions known to many. One therefore wondered: What would Grafton Architects’ argument be? Did they have one?

There are moments throughout Venice when the planets come into alignment, and the sense of architecture’s ineffable potential appears close enough to touch.

It rapidly became evident that this is the wrong question. As the pair explain in their “manifesto” for the show, “FREESPACE describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda.” With that as a lede, the document is hardly a manifesto at all—rather, the curators were determined to avoid the prescriptive route, preferring to step aside and let the contributors to the international exhibition, as well the various national deputations, simply do their own thing. In this, they evinced an enormous measure of confidence both in architects and in architecture in general. During a spring preview event in New York, an audience member asked McNamara whether the low valuation of design by the public was in any way the fault of designers. “No,” said McNamara. And that was that.

Appearing throughout the international section in the Arsenale and Central Pavilion—the creamy, rounded forms of Álvaro Siza’s amphitheatric Evasão, next to Valerio Olgiati’s Experience of Space, an eerie grove of matte white columns, complementing the Bamboo Stalactite from Vietnam’s Vo Trong Nghia Architects, a vast pergola crouched outside the Arsenale—are the Graftonians’ explanatory texts, which feature repeated appeals to “beauty” and “poetry,” to “optimism” and “atmosphere.” Reflecting on a piece from designer Marina Tabassum, the curators state their conviction that “seeing with innocence” is essential to “the architect finding a solution which is not pre-determined . . . often leading to wonderful results.” It is usually presumed that the Biennale, being architecture’s oldest and largest showcase, is meant to operate as the practice’s premier weather vane, one that offers a glimpse at where the profession is today and where it might be headed tomorrow. The implicit promise, as well as the appeal, of “FREESPACE” is its suggestion that, just maybe, the Biennale can be something else: an autonomous experience, apart from the profession as such, but disclosing moods and modes from which architecture at large can take not merely instruction but inspiration.

View of “Thoughts Form Matter,” 2018, Austrian pavilion, Venice. Photo: Martin Mischkulnig.

The curators’ prompt led many contributors to create their own free-ish spacelets—discrete enclosures inviting greater or lesser degrees of introspection. In the Arsenale, the Jakarta, Indonesia–based firm Andramatin’s Elevation takes the visitor up a miniature tower almost entirely encased in delicate Indonesian textiles; the Austrian delegation’s “Thoughts Form Matter” features an Escheresque combine of stairs and platforms, leading to a belvedere from which one peers down at one’s own reflection, shimmering in a mirrored surface spread across the floor. The already-cramped national pavilions don’t always benefit from all the subdivision: The Dutch pavilion is cordoned off into so many compartments (including one containing a full-scale re-creation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 “Bed-In” hotel room) that the theme is as hard to find as the exit, while the United States’ show, “Dimensions of Citizenship,” zigzags wildly from Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s reflection on the politics of energy (digital maps exploring the globe’s least-electrified communities) to Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez’s reimagination of racialized space (a flamboyantly crafted assemblage dominating the pavilion forecourt, made in collaboration with Shani Crowe). Given room to run by the Biennale’s organizers, everyone seems to have darted off in different directions.

That in itself is not always a bad thing, revealing as it does the diversity of the field in a way few Biennales have. But contradictions, as threatened, do ensue. “To those who have not been invited,” wrote the curators, “we would like to say that we have chosen ‘samples’ that hopefully express architectural values shared with you.” In refreshing comparison to the shows mounted by Koolhaas and Aravena, “FREESPACE” lacks macho bravura. Yet there are few plainly stated appeals to feminism: One of the preview’s more electrifying moments came when a large protest led by French architect Odile Decq descended on the Giardini in support of the #MeToo movement. Such are the perils of inclusion as a curatorial virtue: Someone is bound to be excluded—the capaciousness of any space, however free, is necessarily finite—and if the curators hadn’t made such very good choices (which, by and large, they did), it would be tempting to fault them for trying to sound like they hadn’t made any.

More fraught—though again, not quite blame-worthy—is the curators’ proposition that their openness extend not only to content but to spirit, yielding a program that is no more explicit than “generosity.” Still, there are moments throughout Venice when the planets come into alignment, and the sense of architecture’s ineffable potential appears close enough to touch: In the Central Pavilion, Peter Zumthor supplies a suite of project models recalling, in their sublime organicism, Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in which the poet dreams of retreating to a crude cabin “of clay and wattles made.” Even more transporting, the Holy See, in its first-ever Biennale appearance, has taken an unfrequented garden woodland on the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore and peopled it with structures by architects including Carla Juaçaba and Terunobu Fujimori, each of whom has designed a rustic chapel concealed behind the trees in a quiet, secluded glade. At times like these, the curators and contributors really do effect a welcome escape, taking us far from the arch-political heroics of Aravena and the analytical froideur of Koolhaas into a space that feels truly free. But such moments, as they must be, are fleeting, giving way inevitably to the world that architecture helped create. Eventually, we must return from the Lake Isle to the island in the lagoon, surrounded by jostling crowds and the stone-faced carabinieri with their braided epaulettes.

It seems unfair to issue a sweeping prognosis of contemporary design based on a show whose prime virtue is its calculated philosophical modesty. On the other hand, it’s impossible to look at the work of seventy-one architects, plus the contributors to sixty-three national pavilions, and not be moved to broader conclusions. So here goes: If, as W. H. Auden wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen,” architecture bears the glorious burden of making everything happen, including poetry. Contemporary practitioners would do well to embrace the openness and lyricism favored by McNamara and Farrell while remaining mindful that architecture’s poetry is always in heated contention with its power. The best parts of the current Biennale are those that foreground this balancing act, as in the Giardini’s finest show, the Greek pavilion. For “The School of Athens,” curators Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser created exquisite models of common areas from academies and universities around the world, mounting them atop narrow rods like a lepidopterist’s butterflies. It takes a second to get past the sheer visual pleasure to reach the conceptual zinger: The visitor is looking at how design shapes the way we think, while simultaneously looking at how the way we think shapes design. As the crowds gather on risers installed in the corners, the space begins to resemble a surreal operating theater, as if all were somehow complicit in the process. Which, of course, they are.

The Venice Architecture Biennale is on view through November 25.

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and design to The New Republic, Harper's Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker online. His next book, The Great Wall: Along The Barriers of History from China to Mexico, will be published by Abrams next year.