Venice Architecture Biennale | icon 041 | November 2006

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pic: Cristobal Palma

words Kieran Long

The Venice Architecture Biennale is the biggest, most important exhibition about the state of architectural culture worldwide, and this time there was almost no architecture in it.

Ricky Burdett’s curatorship of the Biennale this year was all about context. And by and large it was about the kind of massive context that architects cannot affect. Economic prosperity, crime, national and international mobility, ecology, literacy and population growth were the main parameters the exhibition was interested in, all things that more typically occupy geographers, sociologists and politicians.

Many at the opening in September saw Burdett’s approach as an implicit challenge to the creators of one-off architectural icons, a reproachful reminder after the previous two Biennales (which had both foregrounded buildings by famous architects) that there is a world out there that is bigger than the individual author. The theme is the development facing the world’s major cities over the next half century, with the 16 exhibited here (Barcelona, Berlin, Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Milan/Turin, Mumbai, New York, São Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo) being presented as the most pressing examples. Solve these basket cases and we’re on the way to Arcadia, it seems to say.

The Venice Architecture Biennale is always huge, but this one is relentlessly so. Each hall of the 300m-long Corderie dell’Arsenale exhibition space is taken up with a set of pictures and statistics about one of the cities. Accompanying the empirical data are films that are, I guess, supposed to give a more street-level view of these places. But the quality is patchy, and often montages of cliches with a soundtrack much like a corporate video. In any case, statistics dominate the content, making the exhibition interesting in the way that an encyclopedia is interesting.

Any of the facts displayed here could have been gleaned from a few minutes on Wikipedia. One prominent critic and friend of Burdett told me that what distinguished the Biennale’s stats was what he called “real research”. I’m sure that’s true, given Burdett’s roots as founder of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics, but it only takes one wrong statistic and the whole premise begins to seem questionable. The most talked about was the one stating that a baby was born every 20 minutes in Cairo. In fact, buried in the catalogue is what I assume to be the correct stat: a baby is born every 20 seconds in the Egyptian capital.

This example reveals how perverse it is to base an exhibition about cities on numbers. Why does Burdett think we will trust his statistics over anyone else’s? It is, of course, because he is an advisor to the British government. He is as complicit with the powerbrokers as any curator of the Biennale has ever been, and it is thus no surprise that explicit censure of any city is strictly forbidden. Hence critique and polemic are left implicit. In the catalogue Burdett writes about a new park in the dense context of Cairo: “Over 60% of the population lives in informal settlements with buildings up to 14 storeys high in a city with only one square metre of open space per person (each Londoner, by contrast, has access to 50 times that amount). Thus an intervention like the Al-Azhar Park, a green lung at the centre of Cairo’s old city, offers a social value that transcends its aesthetic merits.”

This paragraph gives no clue as to how the public space it measures is arranged and used. Does “public space” include the many private enterprises (particularly cafes) that constitute the major spaces of social exchange in a city like Cairo? I don’t know, because Burdett doesn’t go into even this amount of depth. His text implies that Cairo should become more like London. But is that really true? A correspondent later in the book writes that Cairo is “one of the world’s safest cities because of the … overwhelming presence of witnesses.” And when Burdett writes that “Industrial activity [in the Lea Valley in east London] is being rationalised”, we are all left wondering why he didn’t just say “moved out”. If I were a tabloid journalist, the word “rationalised” would scream at me as a sure sign of someone with an agenda to hide.

Finally, to say that the Al-Azhar Park’s “social value … transcends its aesthetic merits” is crude. I have only the vaguest idea of how North African culture has considered the garden throughout its history, but if this park did not at least acknowledge that value system I’m sure it would be unsuccessful. Burdett’s opinions sound disturbingly like the mediocre arguments proffered by most property developers: a development is worthwhile just because it is there rather than because it has any meaning or quality. One might ask why, then, the flaccid symbol of Blairite public life in the UK, the Millennium Dome (designed by Burdett’s friend, Richard Rogers, winner of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in Venice this year), is a wasteland. It is a question of symbolism and quality of place as much as infrastructure.

In fact, while certain superstar architects (Odile Decq, Wolf Prix) were bewailing the fact that the exhibition considered architecture a dirty word, Burdett’s exhibition is paradoxically frank in its positive attitude towards the interventions made in the exhibited cities. You could say that the few bits of architecture that are included are presented in an absolutely orthodox way – they are all problem-solving exercises carried out with absolute success by their planners.

We were told without irony that a new gym in Caracas (by brilliant Venezuelan architecturepractice Urban Think Tank) has seen crime in its surroundings drop by 45% since its completion. The exhibition text about the Brooklyn Academy of Music master plan in New York describes it as “vibrant” and “catalyzing”, words most familiar to me from corporate architects’ press releases. The statement that New York’s East River master plan will “alleviate physical and psychological barriers to the water’s edge” reveals nothing.

If it were simply that the exhibition was under-editorialised, that would be one thing. But there is a more extreme problem. The Biennale’s approach is a return to a view of cities as empirically observable places. Except that unlike the modernist period, when architects made the hubristic error of presuming themselves to be masters of all they survey, we are now told that city mayors, planners and administrators can be. “Only governments can turn the principle of a new urban agenda into action, enlisting the services of designers and planners in the process,” says a text in the final room of the Corderie. It has been a long time since I trusted a government enough to decide principles on my behalf, and this exhibition did not increase my faith.

Out in the Giardini, the national pavilions don’t provide much in the way of answers to the apocalyptic dilemmas posed in the Corderie. The most enjoyable are temporary interventions that foreground sociability and put form and function into the background. The most extreme examples of this are the French and German pavilions. The French, one of the most popular, consists of a series of scaffolding structures built within and above the neo-classical pavilion that house a bar, a sauna and a dizzying viewing tower that sways alarmingly in the wind. The German pavilion has also created a staircase that makes the roof an impromptu terrace. If it lacks some of the brio of the French effort, it makes up for it in structural stability.

The pavilions you might expect to excel are very boring. Spain has a series of slick and corporate videos, the Netherlands is showing a historical set of drawings from the NAI archive, and the UK’s pavilion, themed around Sheffield, feels more like a fine art degree show than an architecture exhibition at the world’s premier city showcase.

The Rosetta Stone of the Biennale, the link between the statistics of the Corderie and the liberal arts approach of most pavilions, is Rem Koolhaas and AMO’s room in the Italian pavilion, which is a digest of their research on cities in the Persian Gulf. Although AMO apparently takes an observational approach to data, it frames the statistics with a polemic, commenting: “The Arabian coast provides examples of urban conditions that defy western standards for urban growth. [Our] analysis of a coastal region reveals new orders of regional and global competition.” AMO is saying that the West needs to take its medicine –without a spoonful of sugar. The exhibition’s message is that this world might not be tasteful to you, but it is a reality that has been ignored and patronised by occidental critics.

Burdett’s mistake is to make the information so seemingly comprehensible that all of the cities appear similar. In doing so he allows the Western exhibition-goer the illusion of expertise about all of these places. It is striking that the photography in the exhibition is largely taken from a god’s eye view, enjoying the aesthetic of the strange physical habitats of a termite-like humanity. In the end, though, it doesn’t prove that architecture has disappeared, but that it begins where this exhibition ends.

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