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Venice Biennale: Five points towards a new architecture

The marginal role of the contemporary architect is central to David Chipperfield’s show, says Rory Olcayto

At this year’s Venice Biennale you’ll see Norman Foster giving the finger to the Eiffel Tower, a building-sized sculpture by Álvaro Siza and models by Zaha Hadid that look like flying meringues. There’s FAT’s Villa Rotunda as a cave and a ruin, a Wim Wenders promo about Peter Zumthor (that feels like an ad for American Express) and countless Thomas Struth photographs of city blocks and facades. There are huge model fragments of buildings in London by Eric Parry, Haworth Tompkins and Patrick Lynch. There is O’Donnell + Tuomey’s wooden temple to the architectural id (alongside technical drawings that show how to build it) and a slideshow of patterns by Farshid Moussavi.

And there is more, much more, in this year’s show, themed Common Ground by director David Chipperfield. There are reprints of newspapers with damning headlines on the fraught construction of Herzog & de Meuron’s concert hall in Hamburg and a huge table covered with inspirational images chosen by architects Chipperfield rates the best in the world.

Ben van Berkel shows an insect wing, Kazuyo Sejima a photo of Monet’s waterlilly garden, and Richard Rogers a medieval tower with a tree on top. There’s even a partially reconstructed house by Indian architect Anupama Kundoo which, despite taking three months to build, felt more like a ceramics showroom mock-up. So where’s the common ground? Everywhere. Somewhere. Nowhere. It’s up to you.

It is this first impression of vagueness that has so much angered Wolf Prix, who has called it ‘hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring… a compromise [that] cannot get any worse!’ (This might be a case of self-loathing. A few decades ago, Prix was setting homemade aircraft wings on fire to make a point. Now he designs keynote buildings for BMW and the European Central Bank). Anyway, Prix is largely wrong. Exhausting, yes. Boring, no. Because, if you take time to explore the show, five clear points will emerge.

Architects are a luxury we can do without

This point was made clear when the Golden Lion for the Best Project of the Common Ground Exhibition was handed to designers Urban-Think Tank, photographer Iwan Baan and journalist-curator Justin McGuirk for their pop-up Venezuelan restaurant in the Arsenale’s Corderie. Their project showcases the vertical shanty town occupying unfinished Caracas skyscraper La Torre de David.

In one of the more ridiculous statements issued during the three-day press view, the winning team said the restaurant, called Gran Horizonte, ‘brings a taste of public life in Caracas to the Arsenale exhibition’. Thankfully without the lingering smell of human waste. Apparently, due to a resident-installed sewage pipe in one of the elevator shafts, when the wind blows through the unfinished atrium it actually rains shit. And it’s dangerous: one girl has fallen to her death from its unprotected heights.

Yes, there’s something awesome, something very Mad Max about the squat, which is exciting and sad at the same time and it does spotlight the global housing crisis, but celebrating it with a pop-up restaurant in an avant-garde art show seems wilfully crass and exploitative.

As well as awarding the prize to McGuirk and the São Paulo-based studio, the citation honours ‘the people of Caracas and their families, who created a new community and a home out of an abandoned and unfinished building… with flair and conviction’. But what is the jury, which included Robert Stern and Alan Yentob, actually saying? That construction is good enough? That you don’t need architecture - or architects - to make a meaningful place?

The architect as saviour was the last big idea

Norman Foster’s installation in the Corderie is dazzling, angry, and magical and, despite its hi-tech dressing, spells out an old-fashioned message: Architects make cities great. Architects bring meaning to urban life. Architects are essential. It’s the first thing you will encounter in the Arsenale and its vital message will stay with you, even as a succession of installations seek to chip away at Foster’s argument that says architects are, or should be, always at the centre of all things.

It takes the form of a darkened room, lit up with overhead projected images of great buildings (sometimes, for reasons unclear, pictured alongside a thrusting middle finger) bustling cities and the occasional urban riot, with the names of great architects - Corb, Mies, Sinan, Kahn and hundreds of others - projected over the floor, columns and visitors alike. The effect is beautiful; it has a magic carpet feel. And a powerful soundtrack, of serene music whenever great buildings are flashed up, and of a chaotic din when shanty towns and riots are displayed, makes the overall experience thrilling. The message is blunt, but very well put. Long live Howard Roark!

Facadism is the new fetish

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s ‘Vessel’, a nine-metre high timber lattice structure is one of the Biennale’s sculptural highlights. It’s beautifully made, uncanny to behold. What the hell is it? It’s not quite a building because, as you appear to enter it on steps up one side, you pop straight out the other end. It’s three-dimensional but there’s no inside, an architectural vision with its own dream logic: but the elevations fold in on themselves, collapsing the potential for space.

Is it really just a facade? This sets the tone for a number of other shows, such as FAT’s Palladian villa riff on the role copying plays in architectural culture, but also a sign of the trio’s own lack of interest in creating spatial experiences at the expense of a good facade.

Following suit are Berlin city architect Hans Kollhoff’s work in model form, where the elevations are finely wrought, and the inhabitable 1:3 scale models by Haworth Tompkins, Lynch and Parry, which are only inhabitable in a Wild West cartoonish kind of way, in that there is nothing to see behind the reconstructed facades. Struth’s photos, too, are relentlessly perspectival, a pattern book of elevation studies for architects bored with shape-led icons.

Communication technology is supplanting architecture in the shaping of public space

During the Biennale most visitors experience the space and the exhibits through the screens of their phones, or tablet computers, or camera lenses. The mind boggles at the number of images of the Arsenale already in circulation around the world. Whether those images will influence architectural thinking in the schools and offices they find their way into is another matter, although the nature of their transmission, through hand-held devices, is the bigger point to consider, and one brilliantly captured in the Russian pavilion in the Giardini.

Every surface inside the top floor of the pavilion is covered in QR codes, which visitors decode using Samsung tablet computers (the Russians would never use Apple in their national pavilion) to explore ideas for a new Russian city dedicated to science. Even the domed interior space that dominates the building has been plastered with the pixelated black and white squares - it looks like the Pantheon by way of the Matrix.

It’s gorgeous to look at. And everywhere you turn you’ll see people framing the codes with the tablets and then gazing at the information transmitted to their screens - but not for long. Capturing the project data is more fun than digesting it. For better or worse, this process could be read as a neat encapsulation of how most of us engage with the Biennale experience and, increasingly, public life in cities around the world.

Architects don’t know who their audience is

Unlike the insiders who colonise the Arsenale and Giardini for the first three days of the Venice Biennale, the majority of visitors to this year’s show, which runs until the end of November, will have no interest in whether director David Chipperfield has awoken a profession from its zombie slumber or relegated it to the level of sheet music and poetry slams. And that’s because they’re schoolkids from the surrounding region. Like this reviewer, however, they’ll probably enjoy Foster’s audiovisual barrage and the Russian pavilion more than anything else on show.

Venice Biennale 2012, 29 August to 25 November 2012 labiennale.org

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