What is a country’s architecture? That is the question that the Venice Biennale's International Architecture Exhibition asks every two years, as any nation with the wherewithal and the will to fill either its own pavilion or a rented space in the Most Serene Republic flaunts its constructions or constructional aspirations. It is rare, though, that such displays give a true portrait of what is going on or will be built in that country. In most cases, countries show work on the margins, projects that represent their hopes or fears, or give a commentary through the medium of architecture on the state of the nation.
This year’s architecture biennale is, despite its emphasis on “common ground” and its call for a return of the real, no different. That is to a large extent a function of the fact that the biennale’s director, though he or she can set a theme, doesn’t control these spaces. I will not dwell on the many boring displays of earnest construction that fill many country’s spaces (though I will note that the American pavilion once again exhibits our lack of investment or concern about how we appear by showing countless very nice projects on pulldown panels that made it impossible to truly enjoy or understand them), and only note some of my favorites.
First, there is the Dutch Pavilion. Having been commissioner for the Gerrit Rietveld–designed space three times, I was especially delighted by the clarity of this year’s entry. In “Re-set,” the whole building is empty save for a curtain with various geometric patterns that moves on mechanized tracks throughout the space. In a programmed rhythm, the pavilion becomes one, two, three, four, or five spaces. It recalls the moving walls in Rietveld’s most famous design, the 1923 Schroeder House. Designer Petra Blaise did Rietveld proud.
The official Italian pavilion, which is usually a disaster of calls for monumentality and vernacular mindlessness, this year is only half that. The other half consists of a moss and fern garden, creating a green alternative to the dusty halls around it. One corner of the space shows a film about the industrialist Olivetti’s ill-fated foray into politics. The connection is a bit obtuse, but the combination of forest oasis and a bit of history offered an alternative view of Italy’s past and, perhaps, future. The green patch has a counterpart in the Angolan pavilion on San Giorgio Maggiore, where Stefano Rabolli and Paula Nascimento have created a forest of fast-growing grasses in a wing of the Cini Foundation to illustrate their proposal to plant such patches to clean air and water in Luanda.
The Polish pavilion is empty, or so it seems. Katarzyna Krakowiak, in “Making the wall quake as if they [sic] were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers,” has not only plastered the walls, she has also tilted them slightly, and inserted a wood floor. He then worked with Ralf Meinz and Andrzej Klosak to explore and enhance the room’s acoustic properties, amplifying random sounds to create an atmosphere you only hear, but which changes everything about the space.
The Russian pavilion exhibits the plans for Skolkovo, a new city for which I am on the Supervisory Council. I will not comment on what was on display, but the mechanism is ingenious: walls and a complete dome are covered with QR codes; you receive a tablet at the entry, and view the projects by activating the codes. It is a bit of magic that I hope will someday be matched by the appearance of the buildings there.
I enjoyed the trinkets for sale in the Israeli pavilion, the high-tech green displays in the Spanish pavilion, and some of the experimental work, as well as the architect-designed fussball games at the Australian pavilion. The Golden Lion, awarded for best country participation, went to Japan, where Toyo Ito has installed hand-built models that help inhabitants understand how the areas devastated by the tsunami can be rebuilt. This is architecture at its most sincere and honest, but the forms in which it appears is affecting and, in the lack of polish, a welcome alternative to the rigidity and heaviness dominating the biennale’s official section.