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Playing with preconceptions

How has Scotland’s Venice Biennale exhibition translated to Glasgow? Paul Marsh finds out

‘I always thought this place was a nightclub,’ says the fifty-something relative who accompanies me to the Critical Dialogues exhibition at the Lighthouse, Scotland’s centre for architecture and design. As we stroll through the futuristic lobby I realise I’ve only been here once myself. I assume the 2012 Venice Biennale, the subject of the show we’re about to see, was a kind of knees-up for architects. But the event is also billed as ‘exploring the social role of the architect’.

I assume the 2012 Venice Biennale was a kind of knees-up for architects

Inside the gallery the first exhibit I look at is a table with the title ‘Deriva Veneziano’ (‘Venetian Drift’). The monitor sitting on its surface seems to offer a view of the Clyde through the eyes of a concussed seagull. Or maybe one dosed on ‘Bucky’, the caffeine-rich tipple local politicians like to get lathered up about. A jerky, rotating shot of the brown waterway swirls before me. The footage actually comes from a camera mounted on a helium balloon, I read. A long tether attaches it to a boat below.

The blurb tells me the creators (DO Architecture) are trying to take the viewer on a journey through the city, ‘illuminating the often invisible and unseen activities that make up urban life’. A curved lens has been used and the wobbling, eye-like shape formed by the banks of the river seems quite surreal and hypnotic. Maybe more MC Escher than alcoholic seagull, I decide.

Next to it is another screen taking us through Venice in a fast-forwarded, Benny Hill-style sequence. A gondola whizzes through a labyrinth of colourful waterways. Side-by-side like this, Glasgow and Venice almost look like they come from different planets, or different regions of the colour spectrum, at least.

The next exhibit I see is a table with a couple of place settings on it. I assume ‘Banchetto: “A Play in Three Acts”’ from Pidgin Perfect, is trying to reproduce the experience of dining at an evening event at the Biennale. But the nature of the event seems mysterious, and the blurb doesn’t really enlighten; something about ‘two worlds’ and ‘meeting on common ground’.

On a pair of headphones I listen to what sounds like an Oscar’s speech for architects. Large photographs on the wall show thoughtful-looking diners sitting at long tables in some kind of mediaeval square.

Maybe this exhibit is a subtle skewering of architects’ professional role

It all looks very pleasant if you were there. I try to remember a quote I heard recently about how fame is like being shown a picture of a hamburger rather than actually getting to eat it (from Yoko Ono, it turns out). Maybe being a successful architect is like that, I speculate. Or maybe this exhibit is a subtle skewering of their professional role, their inability to satisfy people’s expectations.

Maybe not, I decide. I read a nearby book, which tells me Banchetto was an attempt to bring people together, both architects visiting the Biennale and local people. Well… I suppose it’s nice they’re trying to democratise what they do, bring people into the loop.

There’s also a dolls-house-sized representation of it on a nearby table, the surrounding buildings rendered in fragments of brown cardboard box. There are cut-outs of the diners, one standing louchely near a stairwell, wine glass in hand. It’s quite cute and makes me smile. Though again, I’m not sure if there’s a serious point.

I make for a timeline on one wall of the gallery. Hopefully this will clear things up a bit. It’s showing the progress of Scottish architecture since the 1970s, alongside parallel developments in society and culture. My stomach sinks initially as it seems there’s a lot of assumed knowledge. Something called “Landforms” by Nord has a photo of what look like space-age pinball tables arrayed within a stone chamber.

But there’s familiar stuff too, like the campaign to save Govanhill swimming pool in Glasgow. And nearby there’s some explanation of ‘The Parallel History of Urban Resistance’, which traces a continuous line from 1980s popular movements like those against the poll-tax evictions to present day protests against developments by the likes of Donald Trump and Tesco. Yes, I can get excited about this. My mild resentment of elite architects and their Venetian jollies is lifting. I can almost feel it.

Next up I decide to approach the huge polystyrene igloo – well, cylinder, and about the size of a minibus – which dominates one end of the gallery. This is the ‘Transient Gallery’ from GRAS, the name proclaimed in large lettering on the side. The walls have been cut crudely to give a kind of cave-wall texture. A boy of about five scrapes against it as I enter a passageway in the side. Journeying within I eventually come to the centre of it, and find a water cooler.

The monitor and text outside enlightens. The igloo-like objects were used at the Biennale to create a gallery-like atmosphere around some of Venice’s ancient wells, objects regarded as almost invisible to the locals and which are under threat. Seems a good idea, I think. And so the water cooler I’ve just seen is a kind of visual pun.

I’m left with a new sense that architecture can be an anti-establishment thing

Maybe the exhibition is intended for subtler sensibilities than mine, and would be more rewarding for someone involved in architecture or design. But I’ve gotten something from it that’s hard to pin down. I leave pondering the strangeness of our planet, and the different types of environments human beings have created for themselves.

And I think I’m also left with a new sense that architecture can be an anti-establishment thing. As someone who follows the sector only vaguely, high-profile projects like the Shard seem very obviously conceived by people with lots of money. But buildings are still designed by human beings, and some of them do seem to have an interest in making the world better for the rest of us. I can believe it.

‘Critical Dialogues: Scotland + Venice’ is running at The Lighthouse in Glasgow until 10 April

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