This year’s edition of the architectural biennale was gently optimistic and touchy-feely and unusually coherent, writes Rob Wilson
The Freespace title of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, is as typically vague and open one as for previous editions – an umbrella term for exhibitors and visitors to interpret as they wish.
Yet the event is, in fact, one of the most tightly curated and reigned-in Biennales for years, with the two main centrally curated venues – the Corderie (an old rope-works) in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini – feeling highly coherent in terms of common threads between exhibits and installations, if without the fireworks of previous years.
This coherence was in large part down to a curatorial statement and manifesto that qualified and amplified Farrell and McNamara’s thinking behind the title. These articulated ‘Freespace’ as, among other things, ‘a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity focused on the quality of space itself’; an ‘opportunity to emphasise nature’s free gifts … sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials’ and ‘the freedom to weave the archaic with the contemporary’. Providing poetic threads as much as pragmatic guidelines, the manifesto helped orchestrate both the physical cue and imaginative glue that holds this enormous exhibition together.
Source: La Biennale di Venezia
For a start, the emphasis on generosity, materiality and light is reflected in the curators’ approach to the dressing of the two main venues themselves, which is kept minimal. So compared with previous years, the central 300m run of the Corderie stretches out, open and unencumbered ahead of you as you push past the rope curtain to enter the show. Equally, with a noticeable absence of dividing plasterboard walls and with elements such as an original window designed by Carlo Scarpa revealed for the first time, the sequence of rooms of the Central Pavilion has a far more open and naturally lit feel than before. In both, the existing quality of the space itself is brought out.
As a result, with noticeably little theatrics of lighting, the appearance of large-scale black-box constructions or video projections, the emphasis is thrown much more on the materiality and construction of the displays and physical models of the exhibiting architects and practices themselves.
Fitting with this emphasis on a literal physicality of light and space and place, Farrell and McNamara have, for the main part, selected architects whose work is mostly from the haptic, hands-on or poetic end of making buildings – if differing hugely across the spectrum of practice.
So there is Peter Zumthor showing a balcony-full of beautiful visceral models in the Central Pavilion of both real and imaginary projects, texturally rich almost metamorphic in their use of material.
Source: Gili Merin
With Álvaro Siza, it’s large gnomic marble blocks, stilly defining a space created around a pool of light from one of the windows of the Corderie.
Anna Heringer, meanwhile, has also created a space, but a more ephemeral if equally textural-feeling one, enclosed by a series of racks of hanging sleeping mats made by a community she is working with in rural Bangladesh. These mats, traditionally made from worn-out clothing, bear the mark of life and use. Heringer is using the opportunity of the biennale to launch a kick-starter campaign to help support the women who produce them to adapt the technique to manufacture new clothing for sale, enabling them to gain income while still supporting their families at home.
Nearby, Francis Kéré has installed the elements of a structure that forms a temporary stage-like space, designed by him as a shared focus point/meeting/performance space for the refugee communities currently housed in old airport hangars of Berlin’s Templehof airport.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
This sense of engagement with the human and the particular represents a gentle refocus back on architectural essentials. It’s very different from the clarion call to arms of Alejandro Arevana’s 2016 event, which focused on architecture as a mass tool for social justice. This is a biennale with the emphasis firmly back on the stuff of building and making spaces.
The very direct physicality of this engagement is nicely reflected by many architects having chosen to make installations intended specifically to encourage viewer participation.
So Níall McLaughlin has designed a finely detailed rotating timber table – like a giant lazy susan – on which sit models of the communal spaces or ‘halls’ found in his projects. This you are invited to push around, the action activating a series of lights that mimic the changing light conditions experienced within the spaces throughout the year.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
There are other ingenious contraptions: Salter Collingridge Design has created a wonderful double ‘conversation’ seat, beautifully wrought in timber and red lacquer, in which you can chat, separate or be trapped depending on the cranked and rotating arms – comic and slightly sinister – for which he credits Duchamp as an influence.
Another Duchampian armature-cum-machine is that of Riccardo Blumer where steel frames continually dip and pull out of a pool of detergent-rich water, constantly creating momentary walls formed of molecule-thick detergent bubbles, forever making and bursting enclosures.
Hall McKnight meanwhile has constructed finely tooled timber-boxed ‘viewing instruments’ in which you look through holes into models of interior spaces from their projects.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
The one ‘viewing instrument’ technology ubiquitous inevitably throughout this Biennale is that of the drone. But Diller Scofidio + Renfro with its penchant for technical gymnastics, takes their use to another level, in two extraordinary films, played simultaneously. These show the everyday occupation of their recent Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center in New York spookily observed internally and externally by drone cameras.
Particularly immersive is Alison Brooks’s contribution: an elemental series of ‘totem’ spaces which you actually walk or slide yourself bodily into: threshold, passage, roof-space. These riff off corners from her housing projects – with mirrored walls and ceilings which complete the spatial experience, visually leading off into infinity around you.
Indeed with McNamara and Farrell’s manifesto referencing the small humanising and uplifting moments of architecture that enfold or empower their occupiers – a Jørn Utzon seat in Mallorca: ‘a “word” of greeting, of welcome’ or a Lina Bo Bardi belvedere in St Paulo ‘for the citizens to overlook the city’ – a large number of installations include some seat, bench or belvedere or stairs up to a platform. The resulting profusion of in-between pockets of space this creates –, of small ‘free spaces’ of passage or rest – makes the whole exhibition feel a bit like built illustrations for Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
Even the films on show, few and far between, are mostly quietly intense, installed to create contemplative corners, each with requisite carefully placed seat: such as Ben Rivers’ film of 6A’s Churchill College Cambridge or Jonathan Sergison talking on his teaching practice in Mendrisio.
The downside of so much contemplation and tan timber structures and steps, especially in the long drag of the Corderie where exhibitors are regularly spaced out like serried rows of market stalls, is a slight monotony by the end. Few installations engage with or leach into each other; everything is little too tasteful – more architectural aesthetics than well-paced or punctuated curation.
Exceptions as always prove the rule: so Flores & Prats’ beautiful installation based around their project to rework an old co-operative club into the Sala Beckett theatre is a joyous mix of model, drawing, graphic, half archive/half atelier in its rich encrustation of stuff.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
In general, big new-build projects are scarce. The largest are often those from the past being retrofitted for the present – freespace as the reprogrammable/transformable kind. This includes inevitable past master of the genre of refit and strip-back Lacaton & Vassal, but also a convent reworked by Souto de Moura, and the extraordinary reworking and imagining of the landscaping and common ground of an over-2km-long 1970s housing block near Rome by Laura Peretti Architects.
Outside the main curated spaces, the Freespace theme became more of a free-for-all. Its flexibility as a theme means that even the Swiss Pavilion, which was commissioned before the theme was announced, seems to sit happily under its umbrella. Indeed, the empty bright white labyrinth of perfectly over-scaled and under-scaled Swiss domestic space won the biennale’s Golden Lion award.
Elsewhere, many installations and pavilions riff more directly off elements of the manifesto. There are the haptic and contemplative spaces in the surprisingly impressive series of 10 Vatican pavilion-cum-chapels, commissioned from international architects. From Norman Foster’s jasmine-covered transintegrity structure, framing a Cezanne-type view, to Sean Godsell’s gold-lined shute, pointed heavenward, which opens every morning like a flower, the scale and quality of these structures reflect the deep pockets of the Catholic Church and is a biennale highlight.
Source: Gili Merin
Freespace applied to unprogrammed spaces of passage and the inbetween spaces is found again in the Greek Pavilion’s The School of Athens. Here, delicate models delineate the shared circulation spaces of major education institutions worldwide; throwing the focus on these as key spaces of exchange and learning. Meanwhile, the French pavilion also presents an engaging display of models, with tiny videos and walls of everyday ephemera, tracing the retrofit and reanimation of several disused public buildings around France.
Longer-term research and ambition for change, meanwhile, mark the nicely judged Free Market installation at the Irish Pavilion, with its interrogation of the marketplaces of small-town Ireland – both their decline and possible routes to regeneration.
The creation of literal 1:1 multiprogrammable ‘freespaces’ and structures is popular too – especially the model of a belvedere/viewing platform, seen in both the Hungarian and British Pavilions. With the latter, entitled ‘Island’ and curated by Caruso St John and artist Marcus Taylor, an extensive timber-lined platform on the roof, with a great view of the lagoon, leaves the pavilion resonantly empty below. This carefully calibrated juxtaposition of generous and bleak, empty gesture for visitors – nicely tuned as Brexit looms – has rightly garnered a biennale honourable mention.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
Outside the pay-to-enter confines of the Giardini and Arsenale, the most successful example of ‘freespace’ created is The Happenstance, the Venice + Scotland pavilion this year. It takes the form of a framework-cum-catwalk structure in the courtyard of a crumbling palazzo owned by the Armenian community. It is designed to be both staging and adaptable armature for a series of events and activities, many locally generated ones. Judging by the many links with local individuals and groups forged over several months, this is one example of so-called ‘community engagement’ that seems set to have real legs over the coming months – a free-space mixing of local and biennale.
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Source: Andrea Avezzù
Elsewhere, set against the perceived neo-liberal privatisation of space prevalent today, there is a perhaps inevitable tendency that the recent wave of nostalgia for the Modernist public projects of the past has now moved on to the public spaces created around them.
For example, the Luxembourg Pavilion, stating the bald premise that only 8 per cent of space in the country is now public space, slightly randomly illustrates this with a collection of impressive 1:20 models of unbuilt Modernist behemoths of the past and two contemporary proposals. The only linking factor is that all the projects are raised up in classic Le Corbusier-style on piloti or central core, allowing free flow of public space below.
The most powerful installation in this vein is ‘A Ruin in Reverse’, the V&A’s special project at the biennale. This is a beautifully curated paeon to the care, thought and passion that went into the design of Modernist social housing; focused here on Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, currently under demolition. Accompanied by a video of the Smithsons in silver ties and jackets, and a mesmeric film of the building’s current carcass by artist Do Ho Suh, a three-storey chunk of façade complete with its section of ‘street in the sky’ sits outside by a dock, hitched up on a scaffold structure designed by ARUP with muf architecture/art. These fragments of the building, additional to those which the V&A has accessioned to its collections at the original suggestion of muf, is surprisingly moving. Details such as the concrete threshold to one of the flats witness both the thoughtfulness of the designers, but also the presence and passage of the residents’ footprints, engrained in the lino that still adheres to it.
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Source: V&A Museum
Of course this doesn’t hide the ultimate failure of this block and others, in part because people did not really take ownership of the common ground of raised walkways or the free spaces around point blocks. The equating of the common space of public housing and shopping centres with good public freespace is not a default one. It was the very unprogrammed and undifferentiated nature of such spaces that contributed majorly to the failure of the Modernist project in the first place. Surprisingly, there is little focus as a whole on looking at these issues and suggesting how good design can mitigate them. Such perhaps is the fear of any taint of neo-liberal designing out of inconvenient behaviours.
Overall though this is a gently optimistic showing of what good architecture can do, with a welcome nod to the value of beauty – indeed of what architects themselves can realistically do, not as social engineers but as builders and designers, to make the world a better place.