By Neil McGuire
This article was written on the back of a trip a few of us involved with the Architecture Fringe took to the Venice Architecture Biennale in late August 2016. The biennale theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’ and was directed by Alejandro Aravena. This piece wasn’t originally intended as a reflection on the Architecture Fringe, and it isn’t really, but thought it might be worth posting here.
What is noticeable:
How white I am; (I mean *really* white);
that Venice is to all intents and purposes, a theme park - but a weird and interesting one;
that it is stuck in a 'catch-22', between water and a not very hard place;
that it’s both reliant on and destroyed by tourism;
that big, big boats quietly drifting past (and dwarfing) small houses is a fascinating sight;
that at night it empties;
that the Architecture Biennale seems like it landed from out of space;
that the biennale provides a window, through a weird prism, on the preoccupations of some of the worlds leading architects and architectural projects of note;
that it is a strange projection of nationality (and of ego);
that the Biennale is what it is, (neither better or worse than the previous one I'd seen), so epic in scale that for any individual curator (or their 'theme') to have a discernible impact on the overall experience seems an ask too far. (David Chipperfield described it, in 2012, as like trying to curate the whole of Oxford street, and I imagine this to be a good analogy).
In the face of this, any attempt to provide an overarching review or a meta-narrative that in any way summarises the broad range of exhibits, qualities or approaches that make up this festival of architecture would be an impossible task. What follows instead is an attempt to talk about some specifics.
While the official ‘core’ festival is vast, the broader selection of parallel shows is enormous. Part of that extra-biennale programme is a retrospective exhibition of the work of Zaha Hadid and her practice, curated, produced and presented by the practice itself. While you might expect the work of one of the pre-eminnent architects of her generation (and one of the key names to break out of architecture circles and into the popular cultural imagination) to feature somewhere in the official programme, it doesn't. Regardless of what you think of her work, and her studios output, their ability to divide opinion is beyond discussion.
The exhibition, given Hadid’s death earlier this year, and the way it was curated, was always in danger of becoming an extended eulogy – and this is the overriding impression that one takes away from it. Rich in visual material, from early paintings (for me the most interesting part of the show which illuminate a part of her practise that I was previously ignorant of) to models, to parametric prototypes and test constructions, the show feels like it is delivered with the volume turned up to eleven throughout - especially when also taking in the resplendent backdrop against which it is exhibited; the Palazzo Franchetti. Both models and images of projects are presented butted up against each other, leaving little room to step back and reflect, to really appreciate those astonishing buildings she has created, or to really make an assessment of where one ends and the next begins. But this visual energy is also perhaps one of the most intriguing things I took away from this show; the idea that architects able to operate at this level are essentially living out a complex set of ‘double-edged sword’ scenarios. They need to project the image of the single minded iconoclast but support and pay for an office of people to deliver the projects. They need to remain committed to their vision, but this necessary confidence brings with it (it seems) a fixedness of opinion and increasing inability to respond to context.
In a side room, an accompanying documentary by BBC sycophant-in-chief Alan Yentob which was playing on loop, did nothing to help lift the tone of worshipping at the altar. However it did (through its recounting of Hadids early career) serve as a reminder of how hostile the profession can be to outsiders - something important to be reminded of.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Hadid hasn’t had a massive impact on architecture at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century, but it would be equally ridiculous to discuss this without reference to the broader context of the practice as it developed and the way more recent work was sought and executed. The exhibition provided an insight in to this world, but due to its curation and curators, was weighted heavily towards the former rather than the latter.
From an established superstar architect, to the young architect-planners-come-curators of the British Pavillion. The exhibition ‘Home Economics’, curated by Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams sought to ask questions of domestic life - how we live today and how we might live in the future. Hyper-aestheticised, the sparse normcore design of the exhibit was a confident gesture but one that ultimately offered the viewer little beyond a cold and guarded millenial take on precarious work and its impact on the way we live. Organised around time periods - hours, days, weeks, months - the publication did go some way to fleshing out the premise and position of this installation, and was really an essential supplement. All the curators are good writers and connectors of content and ideas, but this seemed to be somewhat lacking here in a way that it isn’t in their other projects. The installation isn’t without its moments of lightness that give pause for reflection - the oversize Georgian-era door, or lyrical doormats - but these moments don’t seem to build to more than a succession of floating one-liners. Self and Bose are co-founders and editors of the Real Review, and some of the bite you might find in that publication would have gone a long way to engage the viewer and offer some routes in to the ideas and associated material.
While the British pavilion could be said to have been underloaded with content, the same couldn’t be said of the Baltic pavilion. Located in a modernist gym hall near the Arsenale, this had both a lot in common with some of the other ‘grand-overview’ exhibitions that make up a significant part of the biennale, but in another way was operating to an entirely different logic.
It was, on one level, a hotch potch of all types of content; photographs, artworks, scientific equipment, maps, videos. Focussing on the regions natural and man-made infrastructure (both its past and its future in a post-soviet context), this collaborative effort between the states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was enthusiastic and energetic in both the type of material it was displaying and the imaginative way in which it displayed it. It gave you enough information to want to find out more, in a space where you could easily linger. It was accompanied by a beautiful publication, and used variety and texture to draw the viewer in, rather than stretching towards an over-simplified narrative. Between all of these elements it managed to create an experience that was both pragmatic, imaginative and speculative.
The curation seemed influenced by recent turns in art towards the re-imagining and re-presenting of the 'archive', and the stripped back but often ingenious exhibition design (riffing off the context it found itself in) further enhanced the experience. Perhaps because thoughts of Brexit were front of mind at the time we visited, the idea of small independent states working in cooperation (with several projects looking further to links with Finland etc), served to re-affirm that (despite the political debates that probably arose from this attempt at a three-country pavilion) it was still possible to achieve something ambitious in cooperation - the whole, it seems, being greater than the sum of its parts.
To conclude, away from the national pavilions, another exhibit that caught my attention was by Forensic Architecture - a research unit based out of Goldsmiths University, London. This fully embodied ‘reporting from the front’ - the practice is involved with aggregating and analysing the multiple data streams and rich media sources that now emminate from warzones and international incidents, and reassembling these fragments in to narratives that tell us a lot about people and power. They have completed a number of significant projects, including a study of the ‘left to die’ boat, a migrant vessel left to drift in open seas with no country willing to take responsibility for its stricken passengers. The key to this exhibition is its accessible content, which simply makes the assertion, in an incredibly visceral but non-hysterical way, that a Hellfire ‘bunker busting’ missile is a contemporary architectural tool. What we take from this and how we respond would be the next good question.
Neil McGuire is a designer based in Glasgow