words Kieran Long
If this is the state of the art, then it is a dispiriting picture. If there is one thing revealing about the sprawling, relentless exhibition that is the 2004 Venice architecture biennale, it is that a new architectural orthodoxy has emerged with such speed that it has exhausted itself within a few years of its inception.
The biennale is the world’s biggest and most important architectural event, with exhibitions in 29 national pavilions in the Giardini della Biennale and a curated exhibition in the Arsenale – a vast ex-military installation. It is designed as a smorgasbord – diversity is its strength. But this year has seen a curator (Kurt Forster, a distinguished academic and former Canadian Centre for Architecture director) strongly oriented toward a certain type of work, with just the illusion of diversity. It is no longer even interesting to think of a name for this movement, if indeed you could call it that. The speed with which the avant-garde of the computer generated quasi-organicists has seemingly become exhausted and cynical about the formal possibilities provided by the computer is astonishing. Called Metamorph, the show attempts to sum up “the transformations which over the past several decades have been so profound as to mark a momentous passage in the evolution of architecture.” The message from the Ninth International Architecture Exhibition in Venice is, yes, you can design and build any form you like – and isn’t it boring?
And in the end, it all hasn’t moved on from modernism. There are still the same lines about “inventing new languages” and “rethinking space”, as if there is anything that hasn’t already been invented. The overwhelming impression is that a constant search for newness characterises contemporary architectural practice, combined with an enduring belief in the architect’s role as shaper of environments and societies. This is an impotent fumbling in a artform that takes so long in the gestation that it is obsolete as soon as it is built. Much of the work here argues from a position of pseudo-scientific expertise and sidesteps dealing with culture.
This super-modernism is ugly in theory and often doesn’t work in practice. Take Foreign Office Architects’ Barcelona Coastal Park project, exhibited in the topography section of the main exhibition, Metamorph. This landscape is a series of undulating surfaces creating walkways and outdoor auditoriums at the north end of Barcelona’s seafront. The architects’ explanation of the project is that its form was inspired by sand dunes, but “fundamentally based on the analysis of the different sport and leisure activities to take place on the platforms.” FOA is proposing that a scientific, objective analysis of how people have a good time can be used to generate architecture that will make this enjoyment happen.
In the opposite corner are those whose analysis is so sensitive that it offers no intervention, just a whisperingly liberal social commentary. It is fascinating that the Belgian pavilion won the golden lion (the biennale’s top award), given that it proposes no buildings, let alone shapes of the order of those in the Arsenale. The installation, based around a kind of psycho-geographical mapping of the people and city of Kinshasa in the Congo, consisted of films of religious festivals, reruns of strange soap operas that demonstrate the pervasiveness of superstition in Congolese culture, and a room of portraits of children – all abandoned after being accused of being “witch children”. It is a brave critique and a wonderfully accessible piece of post-colonial investigation. However, it has been criticised for the curator’s implication that in the end, Kinshasa doesn’t need buildings, and that its architecture in fact resides in other locations than the built environment – the human body, for instance. Some critics have called this patronising, others unconstructive, but the analysis is a sensitive attempt of a nation to come to terms with its colonial past, and to offer a cross-discipline methodology of examining social and physical phenomena in cities.
However, in a world of strident proposition, this pavilion will make no more than a ripple. It is difficult to talk about locations where intervention is neither possible nor desirable. The analysis that “generates” the projects in Metamorph is predicated on form-making – the diagrams are often shaped like the buildings. But how to make form from the complexity of Kinshasa? The Hungarian pavilion had a beautifully observed photographic project by István Janáky about the built environment in rural areas of Hungary. The commentary was hand written in pencil underneath with self-effacing modesty – almost as if the observations would offend should they be made more permanent.
The hits of the Biennale do not struggle with this neo-liberal angst, nor do they pretend to be making everything shiny and new. Tezuka Architects’ Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Sciences was the project of the Arsenale, a beautiful snaking form of Corten steel in a forest landscape, with a tower at one end. The building is often completely covered in snow in the winter, and the entire structure is built to withstand 1.5 tonnes per square metre of pressure. It is a beautiful formal gesture, and the long, thin plan is prevented from becoming a corridor by using the building’s corners to make rooms. The tall tower of the building is like the trunk of an elephant breathing from underneath the snow. The architects’ elemental descriptions of their work posit the tower as a primal marker in a strange landscape – a spire-like object that orientates those lost in the snowy wastes of this part of Japan. The building is deeply of its place, very beautiful, tough and effective.
In fact, the Japanese projects were some of the most beautiful and successful in the exhibition. Toyo Ito’s building for shoe and accessory company Tod’s is like a synthesis of Herzog de Meuron’s Tokyo Prada store and Ito’s own Mediatheque in Sendai. As in the Sendai building, the structure refers to trees, but this time the silhouette of trees are cast in concrete and are flattened behind the outer skin of glass, becoming “both graphic and structural” as Ito puts it. SANAA – Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa – had two projects in the Arsenale. Their project for Valencia Institute of Modern Art, Spain, has one idea: a shaded, temperate public space that is clothed in a skin of perforated metal, allowing a view of the city that is filtered. It is an expansive space of entry into the introspective world of the art gallery.
After the route march of the Metamorph exhibition, you reach a part of the Arsenale dedicated to countries without pavilions in the Giardini. The best installation here was by the Irish. Designed by O’Donnell & Tuomey and commissioned by Shane O’Toole, the installation was about Letterfrack College – a former Industrial School in Connemara in the west of Ireland, transformed into a furniture making college. The installation had two main elements, both made of untreated softwood that filled the room with the smell of cut timber. The larger of the two is what the architects call the “open frame”, which hints at the proportions and angles of the Letterfrack building and displays a panorama of the village along with panels about the inspirations for the form and materials of the building. The other, more striking piece is the “crazy house”, which refers to the Industrial School’s troubled history of institutional abuse and confinement. The installation is dense with memory, human tragedy, redemption and beauty, as well as more conventionally architectural concerns. The opening of the installation, and the remarkable poetry reading by former industrial school inmate and writer Gerard Mannix Flynn was the moment of the biennale for me, linking Letterfrack and Venice, Dublin and Rome, abuse and redemption, birth and death for one electric hour.
As Tuomey says in the exhibition catalogue: “I think we’re slightly out of the contemporary discussion, which is concerned with things like data and self-replicating forms, or things that are the product of an automatic or artificial intelligence process. I think we are still romantic enough to attach to the idea of human questions – of character, soul …” The problem is that the practitioners who are interested in these things see themselves as marginalised romantics. It is those who are in this “contemporary conversation” who have the illusion of what Kurt Forster calls “incessant evolution”. Which really means the constant morphing of their work into ever more complex diagrams and geometries. In a sense, this is not a new situation. Tuomey could be said to be part of a tradition that Kenneth Frampton would call critical regionalism, or Colin St John Wilson would call the alternative tradition, which includes Alvaro Siza, Jørn Utzon, Sigurd Lewerentz and Alvar Aalto amongst others. It is a tradition that can not be shoehorned into the biennale’s abstract curatorial categories, and therefore remains outside the current orthodoxy.
Kurt Forster has failed to make many new friends during his tenure as director of the biennale. Although his texts introducing the various sections of the biennale are beautifully written and genuinely helpful, the categories are too broad and too abstract to include work that should be essential to a show that claims to be a snapshot of world contemporary architecture. But the most stunningly glaring omission is the lack of any projects in the Arsenale by Herzog & de Meuron or OMA.
There is also no Tadao Ando, no Peter Zumthor, no Glen Murcutt and others, but it is the absence of the most feted practitioners of the last two years that is striking. Forster was the curator behind HdM’s landmark Natural History show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 2002, and worked closely with them on the catalogue. Forster must know them well, and it seems perverse to omit the Swiss stars after two of their most prolific years, and in a period that has seen a transformation in their work.
Koolhaas’ omission is the more perplexing. There is a tacit attempt in the exhibition to rejig the history of architectural theory, orienting it towards the 1980s, placing Peter Eisenman’s work centrally in the last 25 years of architectural debate. The first room of the Metamorph exhibition contains video screens showing a short and snappy film describing the lineage that Forster is working within. Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Aldo Rossi, Gehry and James Stirling are cited as the essential practitioners and theorists of the Eighties, and are presented as the ones who realized “modernism’s potential for metamorphosis.” This is a revealing comment. What all of these practitioners were able to do was to move modernism into new formal territories, but did not resolve its big problems, most of all its denial of history and focus on abstract “programme”. Koolhaas’ theoretical work admits and examines the atrophication of modernism and the decline of the Western city, and although his non-participation was prompted by an argument between him and Forster, the area in which the biennale operates would have little for Koolhaas anyway.
Forster is the author of Eisenman’s complete works, and is clearly a fan – awarding him a golden lion for lifetime achievement. His installation in the Episodes section of the Italian Pavilion is an architectural fun house, a collage of abstracted quotations from Palladio, Piranesi, Terragni and Eisenman himself, manifested in a white, columnar space of slightly nightmarish proportions. The result places the rest of architectural history as a line leading to Eisenman – it is a narcissistic and hubristic moment.
One architect exhibiting in the Arsenale told me that the title of the exhibition had changed slightly, but perceptibly, about half way through its preparation from Metamorphosis to Metamorph. Whereas the former is a noun that describes a process of transformation, the truncated “metamorph” can only mean a shape, image or expression produced by morphing – a process carried out by a computer that results in an object. The Venice biennale shows us thousands of ways to morph, but no way of understanding the city.