Wandering through this year’s architecture 13th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, I was reminded of the words of Jean-Francois Lyotard, written almost 30 years ago: “This is a period of slackening; I refer to the color of the times. From every direction we are being urged to put an end to experimentation in the arts and elsewhere.” For this year’s director, the search for a “common ground” seemed to mean finding a shared legacy of forms and structures, and then inhabiting it as quietly and thoughtfully as possible. There is nothing wrong with that. It is just that I believe that such an affirmation of the existing social, economic, and physical status quo is deadening.
I was not the only one who did not quite feel at home at this Biennale. Wolf Prix, who did not even bother to come down to see the show, published an e-screed decrying the “Banal of Venice.” A mutual friend agreed and texted me, when I said that the show, despite that, should prove popular because of its familiarity (and so far has indeed attracted visitors and critical approval): “So is Walmart.” When I spoke to Professor Prix, he complained of his age and the passing of a certain energy in architecture. “Come to Venice,” I urged him; “You can judge for yourself, and you will feel as if time has stopped, so you will feel 30 years younger.”
Truth be told, the nice thing about the Venice Biennales is that they excite passions, exactly because they are such complete and sprawling statements of architectural or art visions. This year’s director, David Chipperfield, was not above baiting the critics, calling his biennale an attack on the “starcitecture” system (though he included quite a few such recognizable names) and a supposed avant-gardism. When I directed the affair in 2008, I attacked what I felt was the entombment of architecture and weathered a few rather violent attacks, several from the stars of this year’s show. As the wheel turns ...
So what did the Biennale mean or offer this year? Mainly it offered diminutive section models, mock-ups of parts of buildings, explorations of historical structures, and lots of photographs. When the latter were by Thomas Struth, documenting anonymous buildings in silent and empty early morning streets from Peru to Germany to China, their power gave lie to the dynamic diagonals many architects used to try to enliven their stolid and solid boxes. Chipperfield sprinkled the Struths liberally around the Arsenale, one half of his showcase (the other being the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, or gardens, where the country pavilions are also located), and here I think I got his point: It is not the exceptional or the unusual, the innovative and the experimental, but the inherent beauty and familiarity of an architecture that is not quite a vernacular, but a transformation of orders and styles into ordinary and repetitive structures, that gives force our urban environment.
I would have been happy with such exquisite documentation. It was when architects such as Grafton, who won the Golden Lion for promising young firms (though, in keeping with the tenor of this Biennale, they have been in practice for several decades) attempted to rarify such beautiful banality, or when Norman Foster tried to elevate his own hyperarticulated and hyperexpensive structures to the level of common ground, that I felt as if the call back to order became an excuse for a parade of repressive forms.
It was fitting that the other two Golden Lions (other than a lifetime achievement one to Alvaro Siza, picked by Chipperfield before the exhibition began, and justified by a nice little installation the Portuguese master made of red walls winding around a few trees in the Arsenale’s rear garden) went to the Japanese pavilion, where Toyo Ito collected proposals for housing in the areas devastated by the tsunami, and to Urban Think Tank, whose project I described last week. It seems that common ground can still provide a place for documentation, experimentation, and social action.