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Critical nostalgia in the Padiglione Centrale

The sombre works in the Padiglione are welcome relief from the clamour of the Arsenale, writes Gary Boyd

The Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini offers a counterpoint to the heat and clamour of the Arsenale. If in the latter installations and exhibits are compelled to rise above the cacophony of each other and the relentless linearity of the Corderie’s martial architecture, then the Padiglione Centrale offers a more cerebral and, perhaps, a more convincing exercising of the theme of Common Ground.

Occupying a more traditional museum or gallery-type building of cool white walls and air-conditioned rooms, participants here seem to have found a space in which to reflect more and install less. The result is a series of rooms of often confident and unexpected exhibits, where explicit self-expression is eschewed in favour of a more sombre, curatorial approach to the idea of architecture as a collective endeavour that engages with history, culture and other landscapes.

One sub-theme is the historic inevitability of idealism within architecture and its subsequent tensions within reality. Diener & Diener’s exhibit evokes the distillation of cultural identity embodied within the nearby national pavilions of the Giardini, most immediately through the photographs of each pavilion’s facade by Gabriele Basilico. In the next room, Fulvio Irace and Pino Musi consider the facade of modern apartment blocks in 1950s Milan as the site of the shared will of a generation of Italian architects as well as an expression of faith in Modernism.

Drawings of facades by architects such as Gio Ponti and Vico Magistretti sit opposite a series of black and white photographs. The latter, containing no people and occupying the viewpoint of a drawn elevation, emphasise the surface articulation of these buildings and confront the viewer as abstract forms, conveying the tension between lived space and composition seen elsewhere in the Arsenale in the perspectival photographs of Thomas Struth.

Elements of this relationship are also explored in Crimson Architectural Historians’ installation, which traces, through a series of iconographic triptychs and other statistical media, the collective experiences and histories of a series of planned towns from the 20th and 21st centuries as they spring from architects’ drawing boards into collective dwelling places. OMA provides perhaps the most unexpected exhibition on a similar theme, a paean to the architecture of civil servants arranged in a series of European case studies.

This is a moving elegy, expressing critical nostalgia for a type of architectural production which is fast disappearing, the architecture of municipal socialism, cornerstone of the spatial project of the Welfare State, whose motives, forms and organisations were often aligned with the tenets of Modernism and whose destruction parallels the development of neo-liberalism.

It is interesting to pass from here to Grafton Architects’ Silver Lion-winning exhibit, which features beautifully compelling models - at large and small scales - of buildings by Paolo Mendes da Rocha as well as its own project for a university in Lima, Peru. Intimating at shared influences and a global collegiality between the two practices, the exhibition also examines the idea of built landscape using the ancient examples of Machu Picchu and Skellig Michael as references. But the Lima project also evokes the spirit of OMA’s exhibit, the cliff-like Modernist dwellings of Neave Brown, or the mega-structural forms admired by Reyner Banham.

The most evocative pieces in the Padiglione Centrale - and the Caruso St John, Thomas Demand, Toshiko Mori exhibits can be included here - seemed to be those remaining within the narrow, traditional confines of exhibiting architecture: photography, drawing, model, text. That one might find, within these often rarefied techniques familiar to all architects, the means to discuss the spatial articulation of wider social and environmental concerns feels central to Chipperfield’s curatorial intentions, if not his architecture.

Gary Boyd is senior lecturer at Cork Centre of Architectural Education

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