Kazuyo Sejima transforms the Venice Biennale into an architectural fairground steeped in playfulness and sensuality, reports James Pallister
The weather was hot and expectations were high. But over the Venice Biennale’s opening weekend, curated by SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima, it became clear that this year’s architecture exhibition would be a success.
The theme is ‘people meet in architecture’; open-ended and a nebulous conceit, but also one tipped toward exploring architecture’s public role. In the catalogue, president of the biennale Paolo Baratta writes that the theme is a conscious shift ‘back to a more serene faith in architecture’ and a belief that it has a real contribution to make to society.
This contrasts with Aaron Betsky’s 2008 biennale. Remembered for a pair of lolling nudes and an explosion of globular forms, it was criticised at the time for portraying an almost decadent architecture, one seduced by its own commodification (AJ 18.09.08).
If the 2008 biennale was, as Baratta wrote, ‘joyfully pessimistic’, Sejima’s swaps nihilism with an upbeat playfulness. Many of the exhibits are interested more in ephemera, experience and impermanence than in bombast, bling and lucre. Even the British Pavilion’s Stadium of Close Looking, a timber 1:10 model of a section of London’s Olympic Stadium, was not built to celebrate the grandeur of the venue itself, but to host debate.
In a sensual and dramatic procession of rooms in the Arsenale, Wim Wenders’ 3D film of SANAA’s Rolex Learning Centre is followed by Cloudscapes, a collaboration between architect Tetsuo Kondo and engineer Transsolar, in which a metal spiral walkway passes through an artificially generated cloud. Walking into the mist, you can feel the shift in temperature and humidity, and the visibility changes.
Hans Ulrich Obrist used his room to record and broadcast a series of interviews with biennale contributors, as part of an ongoing interviews project. I caught him mid-way through a talk with Adam Caruso, the two men in a kind of boxing ring composed of camera crew, boom mikes and mixing desk, in the middle of a phalanx of 45 SANAA-designed ‘bunny ear’ chairs facing screens replaying interviews.
Obrist’s relentless interviewing can seem unsettlingly monomaniacal, but as a spectacle this setup is excellent, though not without its farcical qualities. You can imagine Obrist sitting in the same seat at 3am, long after everyone has gone home, persuading the boom man, the camera man, the sound engineer – anyone – to sit for him, for just one more interview.
Equally unsettling, though for much more visceral reasons, Olafur Eliasson’s room sends a whip-cracking strobe-lit spiral of water onto the hard floor beneath. You emerge wet and blinking into Wang Shu’s unfinished dome. Two rooms later, you arrive at Janet Cardiff’s installation of 40 stereo speakers playing renaissance music. Navigating between them, you can hear each choral part or, in the intervals, shuffles and throat-clearings.
It’s easy to read this tendency to create experiential environments as contrary or indulgent – shouldn’t they be showing architects’ work, built or speculative? Yet fist-sized models and A2 panels don’t work in this scale of setting. And where architects have pursued creation rather than representation, they have played to their strengths.
It wasn’t all sensual spaces though. In the Giardini, an eccentric public park home to an accretion of follies-cum-pavilions, the Sejima-curated Palazzo delle Esposizioni included more theoretical work. OMA/AMO stole the show with its investigation into the role of conservation, ‘the arbitrary morality of what is preserved and what is not’. In the second half of the installation, a sequence of graphics show the history of conservation legislation, weaving in Rem Koolhaas’ current preoccupation, the adulation of the starchitect combined with the simultaneous erosion of their power.
All this lay in contrast to the Bahrain Pavilion. It was the first time the country had shown at Venice, transporting a series of timber fishing shelters from their original sites. Video interviews with fisherman – whose livelihoods are threatened by overfishing and overdevelopment – play inside, discussing the huts’ meaning in a way that was engaging yet avoided sentimentality. It seems appropriate then, for a biennale characterised by thoughtful work that you can lose yourself in, that Bahrain won the Golden Lion award, given to the pavilion deemed best in show.
As a British architect in Venice said to me: ‘Some countries had a room to fill. Bahrain, it seemed, had come here with something to say.’