“Strada Novissima” in “The Presence of the Past”

Architectural Section, Venice Biennale

As soon as I was immersed in the “marvel” of “Strada Novissima,” I asked myself if it was an exhibition of architecture or if it was architecture. While I contemplated the facades and the built structures created by the protagonists of architectonic post-modernism, this problem continued to plague me until I realized that it was this very ambiguity that was important.

An architecture exhibition usually “documents” work constructed elsewhere. It consists of residues—drawings, photographs, plans, models, theoretical writings—with which the architect can demonstrate that the ideas behind the built object are tied to a philosophical, political and social process. Such an exhibition “represents” architecture, but is not architecture. “Strada Novissima” reverses this practice and poses the ephemeral representation of architecture as architecture itself. Twenty architects were asked to design twenty facades to make up a street, which was then built (out of temporary materials) inside the Rope Factories of the Arsenale in Venice. Behind the facades were exhibitions of each architect’s work.

This is a festival in which the followers of Saint Architecture (whose body has for years been laid to rest in the dark crypt of modernism and the International Style) decided to canonize architecture so that it may ascend to the kingdom of the creator, that is to creativity. They have erected a multicolored catafalque of triumphal arches, balustrades and columns, exhibiting feats and virtues, present and past, extolling the heraldic symbols of the tympanum, the balloon frame, the pilaster and the tabernacle. It is not surprising that the director and scenographer of this spectacle is Paolo Portoghesi, expert on the Baroque and learned scholar of the “apparent cities” produced during the 1500s and 1600s—by Gianbologna and Buontalenti, Bernini and Pietro da Cortona—to commemorate the death or accession of a king or pontiff. “Strada Novissima” ’s arches and statues, columns and frescoes (in wood and painted canvas that look like gold, bronze and marble) also mark the passage from one power to another—in this case from modernism to post-modernism.

Since the 1970s the crisis in the building industry (and the consequent crisis of clientele) has reduced the architect, like the artist, to a parvenu on the cultural scene. The architect maintains a social position but has ceased to be able to leave any mark on the “real” environment; after a period of negotium (employment), there is now a state of otium (free time). To make up for this lack of activity, the architect is now occupied with the memory of building—rereading history, appropriating and transferring it to unrealized projects—into “ephemeral apparata for entering into architecture,” that is, triumphal arches honoring architectonic fantasies. Limited in what he can build, the architect has instead entered the realm of imagination, where cultural and economic chains to a client have neither weight nor meaning. No longer constrained by any uniform morphology, the architect can take pleasure in assembling references to everything from archeology to Constructivism, or creating hyper-realist realizations. And so an irreverence toward history is born. The construction site has become a scenography workshop, and socially unrealizable architecture is transformed through plaster and theatrical wings from an illusory presence into a reality—the simulated becomes the “original,” that is, the authentic.

Post-modernism preaches the mythical and divine function of architecture as the highest of all sciences of building. It presumes a relation between architecture and architectonic teleology, and considers only well-known and primary principles: sacred ideas and entities, discovered in the past and in history. Critical considerations aside, the “Strada Novissima” of post-modernism is important precisely because it concretizes artificial and ephemeral architectural construction. It therefore questions all “exhibited” presentations, exposing them as fictions and symbolically celebrating the identity of an architecture that has no identity.

“Strada Novissima” accepts the presence of illusion and the absence of the authentic and identifiable. Every imaginary edifice can make reference to every other; all things reciprocally cancel each other out to exalt the sacred “writing” of architecture. All principles of construction can be drawn from this encyclopedia of historical references.

On a more literal level “Strada Novissima” is Hollywood’s Century City of architecture. It was built by the Ente Gestione Cinema in the workshops of Cinecittà, and proposes the kind of two-dimensional portraits of edifices that give fundamental body to film scenes (from Western saloons to Roman temples to Egyptian pyramids to New York skyscrapers). In Venice these sets embody the recondite motivations of 20 contemporary architects. The reminiscences are interpreted differently by the individual architects (who, it is interesting to note, the valuable catalogue designates as “artists”), so that the same motifs, from column to tympanum, assume antithetical roles. In Hollein and Purini’s work they demonstrate the encounter between natural and artificial building morphology, while Venturi and Rauch employ them as Pop and hyper-realist icons. Others, like Bofill and Kleihues, use personal references to place the inhabitant of “Strada Novissima” into a fantasmagoria of imaginary projects and cultures which have left traces of their past memories. In the end the most radical intervention is decidedly that of Frank Gehry, the California architect, who has refuted monumentalizations and imitations by proposing a wood-frame skeleton through which to view the 16th-century architecture of the arsenal “in perspective,” thus turning this post-modernist rebirth into what might be called a “renaissance of the Renaissance.”

“Strada Novissima” ’s relation to the past and its revival of the ephemeral is underscored by its dialogue with the stupendous Venice Arsenale. During the 1600s and 1700s there was an “invasion” of this space spanned by Vitruvian columns; Venetian ships and galleys were built here in a matter of days. The speed with which these boats were built and readied for launching contrasted with the slow pace of Renaissance architectonic building; one could say that “Strada Novissima” belongs more to the building of the galleys than that of the arsenal. The show celebrates an architecture which is no longer rooted definitely in the ground, but which anchors there temporarily. It has become a nomadic form of construction, capable of surprise and improvisation. One finds oneself in front of a fantastic machine that makes architecture the metaphor of architecture. “Strada Novissima” serves as a theoretical facade; it does not accomplish anything stable, but remains deliberately unbuilt. The effect is openly skin-deep; like Aldo Rossi’s theater, anchored in the Grand Canal and then transported by tugboats along the Yugoslavian coast, it is a performance of architecture more than an architecture of performance. A phenomenon of surfaces, on land or on water, on paper or on facades, “Strada Novissima” remains a victim of a form of barren appearance, since (as architectonic postmodernism) it doesn’t manage to resolve the problem of its concrete role in history. It is motivated by illusions and apparent relationships, with abstraction at the core of the architect’s psychology and culture, (but not of architectonic production, which is left ever more frequently to engineers and industrial draftsmen). It is an architecture that aspires to seduction and attraction, tied not to any economy, but rather to fashion. It is no accident that the protagonists of post-modernism have built mainly for wealthy clients, collectors not only of paintings and sculpture, but of “signed” houses as well.

Finally, the work tends toward a retro appropriation of history; it is as though Venturi’s Greek-style Pop facade or Scolari’s axonometric image gives a “contemporary” reading of history, seeing it not in its existential origins but according to an intellectual embalming. Every project is based, beyond the evidence of references (from Palladio to Loos, from Bernini to Malevich), on the temporal fracturing of individual facades, so that architectonic moments from classicism to modernism can coexist. The contamination and fragmentation of cultural inheritances breaks up historical linearity: one could compare it to collage. The architecture is made up of broken images, thereby running the risk of reducing built form to illustrative flatness. According to this perspective, the architect would be called in to decorate the volumes of the engineer, offering a creative “facade.” The risk is considerable, because it relegates design to mere arabesque, entrusting the real work to technology and industry. Architecture would be reduced to Platonism, disassociating the idea of the beautiful from the useful.

Germano Celant

This review was translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.