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Betsky's Biennale is a decade out of date

On my first night in Venice, just before the biennale opened, I bumped into some friends who were drinking with Bill Menking and Teddy Cruz, curator of and exhibitor in the American pavilion, in a bar in a scruffy bit
of town.

The rest of the week pretty much carried on from there. The Americans surprised even themselves, I think, by showing Cruz’s projects for Mexican barrios and Rural Studio’s work on community projects in Alabama, eschewing the formalist endgame of the Ivy League. It felt a long way from the baby-boomer psychodrama of Peter Eisenman, Jeff Kipnis, Mark Wigley et al, echoing Barack Obama’s critique of the Clintons’ generation in an exhibition based on hope instead of hype.

Everyone from Menking’s colleagues at The Architects’ Newspaper to Christopher Hawthorne of the LA Times recognised that Aaron Betsky’s curation of the Venice Biennale this year ‘seems nearly a decade out of date’. Far from Asymptote’s ‘Stormtroopers’ cod pieces’, as a friend put it, and dreadful dinners where another friend claimed that ‘the only intelligent person present was the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon’, the rest of the biennale was enjoyed by perfectly ordinary people, whose only identifying characteristics seemed to be a willingness to drink all night and talk to anyone.

Students from our office mingled quite happily with well-known architects, and everyone bought rounds. Just being in Venice talking about what we love created a proper party atmosphere. It reminded me of an old-fashioned ‘winter school’. We cavorted quite happily in the knowledge that the overbearing power of the star architects and their awful work and their hateful egoism had finally shown itself for what it is – selfish, brain-dead and deadening.

Some urgent new jokes emerged. You’ve probably heard that the Estonians erected a yellow pipeline between the German and the Russian pavilions (Astragal, AJ 18.09.08). But even better were the inflated balloon and army backpacks dumped nonchalantly next to the pipeline by the Ukrainians, so that you had to step over them to enter the Russian exhibition. From afar, the balloon looked like a tongue of flame; an explosion waiting to happen.

Right beside this cartoon tomfoolery was Sverre Fehn’s 1952 Nordic pavilion, effortlessly sucking all the sighs from passers-by like the seriously sexy temple she is. Trees bend through the thin narrow beams, emphasising the artifice and intelligence of the building, reminding us that architecture is not ‘flow’ or ‘second nature’ or ‘biomorphism’, or any of the ghastly phrases blurted out in lieu of elegance and poise.

The second best thing I saw was Corb’s project for the Venice Hospital, presented by Joseph Rykwert and Tim Benton in the ancient Ospedale. Four hours’ sleep did not prepare me for the wonder of this floating garden on sticks.

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