Biennale of Architecture

The Giardini di Castello and the Corderie dell’Arsenale—the traditional exhibition spaces for the visual arts section of the Venice Biennale—were used for the first time for the architecture section. The layout echoed that of the art exhibitions: the Corderie contained “Schools of Architecture,” young architects who, like the artists in the Aperto, presented new directions in architecture; the Italian pavilion contained, in addition to national figures, theme shows, in this case the results of an international competition, “A Gate for Venice,” and another, invitational competition for the renovation of the Italian pavilion itself. Finally, the national pavilions presented the work of architects chosen by each commissioner. Among the myriad projects, the architecture Biennale also presented one built work, the pavilion designated for the sale of books and catalogues, designed by James Stirling. Its structure follows an elongated plan, with a steeply sloping copper roof that completely shades the windows, which run along the entire building. Problems in the realization? Certainly: state funds were lacking, and the project was brought to completion thanks to the help of the publishing house Electa.

The catalogue expresses the hope that some day the commissioned works will be built, and that the architecture Biennale itself will continue to exist. The chronic disinterest of the political powers, the lack of funds, and bureaucratic delays have often made the Venice Biennale seem ridiculous as a cultural institution. For example, the projects for the new cinema building, exhibited at the Corderie, are very fine. The competition was won by Rafael Monea, but Stirling’s project—with its glass walls that allow one to see the interior atria, bring to mind rationalist architecture of the 1930s—and Jean Nouvel’s aerodynamic project are also extremely noteworthy. The new Italian pavilion, designed by Francesco Cellini, has an enormous flattened arch over the entrance. Both new buildings radically change the preexisting sites, which lacked an organic structure due to successive additions over time. The new projects turn them into optimally functioning spaces, providing services that were missing before.

The “Gate for Venice” competition almost meets one of the functions that the architecture Biennale wants to fulfill, namely the preservation of the city. The competition focused on the reorganization of the Piazzale Roma, a main entrance to the city. With little sense of fantasy and an excessive dose of futurism, most of the 270 projects envisioned an anonymous and chaotic space reserved for bus parking.

The Biennale’s other function is more theoretical, to make the public aware of current international architectural debate. This function was turned over to the national pavilions, beginning with the Italian one, which showed recent works of 40 architects and architectural firms. Post-Modern statements in the neo-Classical vein of Aldo Rossi persist: exposed brick, sloping roofs, arches, pilasters, columns, and square windows. All this leads directly to a claustrophobia of closed, heavy, suffocating structures—of which Marino Narpozzi’s project for a theater is the most didactic and alarming example. There is also the stylistic pastiche, borrowed from a completely different tradition, against which post-Modernism revolted. Indeed, it seems that the Poles are the only ones who still believe that Le Corbusier and Stalin bore the same totalitarian vision of the world; as one might guess, they offered projects for dreadful Catholic churches. Likewise, the Belgians quote Adolf Loos (the house of Josephine Baker), the Israelis are rethinking Antoni Gaudí (unsuccessfully), and the Brazilians are redoing Brasilia. The Dutch have taken up the clear and simple forms of Modernist rationalism, and the Spaniards do high-tech, with a fine exhibition of a new urban plan for Barcelona.

Perhaps the architecture of the near future will be a revival of the ’50s and ’60s. The most advanced technology and the search for the greatest functionality produce organic forms, curvilinear outlines, assemblages of irregular volumes, lurking surfaces, in the most radical refutation of Cartesian principles, and manifest a desire to establish an almost symbiotic relationship with nature. Thus Renzo Piano makes a direct comparison between his stadia, commercial centers, and spaceships, and Frank Gehry proposes a Walt Disney Concert Hall that evokes the Berlin Philharmonic.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.