Of all the critiques of this year’s Biennale, there was one that was particularly hard to miss: “This event is an expensive danse macabre. In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative charged with feigned meaning.” Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Wolf D. Prix came under fire for this attack (especially when it was realized he didn’t even set foot at this year’s Biennale). And yet, had he written this critique for any other Biennale, he wouldn’t have been so far off. The Biennale is, after all, an expensive affair of prosecco-filled parties and, often, inaccessibly esoteric exhibits. Prix hedged his bets that this Biennale, with its fluffy-sounding name, “Common Ground,” would be just like its precedents. Unluckily for Prix, it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the most politically-engaged Biennale yet. But its Gold Lion winners, including an informal settlement and post-Tsunami shelters, have made some architects ponder what has never been pondered of a Biennale before: Was this year’s Biennale too political, after all?
As Director David Chipperfield said of his chosen theme, “Common Ground,” in his counter to Prix’s attack: “This year’s Biennale, with all its weaknesses and mistakes, was above all conceived and realised in a spirit of generosity, optimistically proposing that there is an architectural culture bound together by shared intentions, influences and disappointments and that even the most celebrated protagonists of our profession are capable of engaging in such a dialogue.” Chipperfield’s Biennale encouraged collaboration and aimed to disassemble the “starchitecture” culture of Biennales past; to shift focus from the individual architect to the architecture itself. And it was a more socially-oriented, public architecture at that – as the theme “Common Ground,” referring not only to philosophical “common ground” but also to physical “common ground,” led to an exploration of the public spaces we all share. Exhibit after exhibit addressed architecture’s (oft-forgotten) purpose: to account for the needs of the human inhabitant. But was it too successful in its aims? You could argue that, with its many touchy-feely, humanitarian themes, this year’s Biennale strayed too far from what it is meant to be: a show of architectural innovation. No matter how stunning, inventive, or game-changing their exhibit, many felt that – next to a compassionate look at the perseverance of Venezuelan squatters, for example - there was no way their display could possibly have won.
However, I would argue that this year’s politicized exhibits and forums were a vital step in the Biennale’s evolution and reflected a sea-change happening in architecture itself. Spain’s exhibit showcased young architects, with little chance of employment, holding models of architecture icons past. Even Russia’s i-city pavilion, more visually than socially-oriented, was inadvertently “occupied” by the political in the form of Pussy Riot protestors. Even if, as Jaakko van ‘t Spijker claimed in “Questions without Answers,” most of the exhibits were overly “safe” and politically correct, after years of architectural self-indulgence, the Biennale began to touch ground, to concede our altered reality, and incorporate (to use Prix’s words) “lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture.” I will admit that within this socio-political context, which emphasized architecture’s power to solve many of our world’s problems, some exhibits strayed to the optimistic (a kind of optimism not seen in architecture since the early 70s. See: OMA’s nostalgic retrospective). For example, Ateliermob’s vision, although admirable for taking on the idea of the architect as luxury commodity, turns him into a social super-hero: equal parts designer, financier, mediator, and community-organizer.
This is not to take away from any of the good work Ateliermob has done in Portugal. However, their proposal not only asks too much from the architect, it places him as the (dare I say genius) agent responsible for bringing change to humble communities. The “starchitect” in altruistic clothing. However, the majority displayed an optimism tempered with realism, admitting both an awareness of our economic reality as well as the architect’s potential role as facilitator, an expert who can use his/her knowledge to aid a community. I’m thinking here of the U.S. Pavilion’s urban interventions; ELEMENTAL’s community-led design interventions; and Village Health Work’s technological solutions for a third world community. And then, of course, there was the controversial Gold Lion winner,Urban Think-Tank and Justin McGuirk’s installment of a Venezuelan café, which put forth a provocative stance: perhaps the architect isn’t necessary at all.
The café re-created elements of an informal community that has set up camp within Torre de David, a 45-story, unfinished skyscraper (with no elevators) in Caracas, Venezuela. The café’s conceit was that, beyond viewing images, you partook in the experience by eating food, listening to music, dancing. Steve Rose, critic for The Guardian, described it as “a celebration of improvised resourcefulness.” And yet, for others, the café left a rather sour taste in the mouth. Writing for Architect’s Journal, Rory Olcayto felt that, within the context of the wealthy, avant-garde Biennale, the café came across as “wilfully crass and exploitative.” Indeed, the curator for the Venezuela Pavilion, Adreina Agusti, told AFP that “It is an interesting idea but it distorts reality because it is a reductive vision.” After all, a taste of an arepa cannot convey the lived daily struggles of the impoverished inhabitants of Torre de David. However, short of transporting the Biennale Visitor to Caracas, there is no way that experience could ever truly be relayed. Perhaps the café was a reduction of this informal community, but at least it represented them as legitimate, of equal importance to a formal, designed community. And, importantly, it forced us to consider: if the architect isn’t truly necessary in community-building, what is his role? Or, at least, what should it be?
While the café left that question conspicuously un-answered, Japan’s Pavilion took it head-on. “Home for All,” curated by Toyo Ito, showcased the work of three emerging architects rebuilding public space in Rikuzentakata, destroyed after the 2011 tsunami. Ito, in his eloquent description of the Pavilion’s context, explained that, traditionally, architects have been complicit in top-down plans that reconstruct at the expense of “historical legacy.” “Home for All” architects, however, sought to respond to the needs of the residents; the resultant designs were the immediate consequence of a “meeting of minds and hearts.” Ito explained: “Since the onset of the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its individual originality. As a result the most primal themes – those of why a building is made, and for whom – have been forgotten. A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is.” And that is exactly what this year’s Venice Biennale was – and should be. Not just a display of architectural ingenuity but a “fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is.” Even if was at times reductive or idealistic, the Biennale grappled with our political reality, reflected our cautious optimism, and put forth the question of our decade: what purpose do we serve?