Incidental Space: Inside the Swiss Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale

Incidental Space: Inside the Swiss Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale

As part of ArchDaily's coverage of the 2016 Venice Biennale, we are presenting a series of articles written by the curators of the exhibitions and installations on show.

All architecture is exhibitionist. Exhibitions are not simply sites for the display of architecture, they are sites for the incubations of new forms of architecture and new ways of thinking about architecture. [1] – Beatriz Colomina

An architecture biennale can be more than a place to simply represent and celebrate the status quo in architectural production. The Biennale’s state of exception and its spatial distance from where people normally work open up a space for examining and critically questioning the conditions of everyday work and production. Although, technologically speaking, more is possible today than ever before, in recent years architects’ creative latitude has been greatly reined in by an enormous—and growing—burden of rules and regulations. Against this background, the architectural exhibition is becoming an ever more relevant medium for a critical practice of architecture. Understood in these terms, an exhibition is no longer just a place for representing architecture ex post facto, as it is still often treated today. Instead, the fact of the exhibition space’s autonomy, and its distance from the “real” world of public and private architecture, has a potential that is increasingly being recognized and put to use. Exhibitions are becoming a place for researching and producing an experimental and critical architectural practice: a place not for the presentation of finished products, but for the production of content. The simultaneous limitations and license to experiment lent by the exhibition space focuses the object of research, allowing for the emergence of new insights, interpretations, and meanings. This calls into question the supposed boundary between architecture and the exhibition. Inquiry becomes a form of display.

«Incidental Space» A project by Christian Kerez / curated by Sandra Oehy. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

Thinking Incidental Space: The Exhibition as Inquiry

Even today, Biennale pavilions tend to stage more or less classical architectural exhibitions using models, drawings, and photographs—media, in other words, that refer to a reality outside the exhibition space. But architecture can also be represented using the medium of architecture itself. This is where Christian Kerez enters in: for him, the exhibition Incidental Space stands on equal footing with his other architectural projects. In any of his projects, Kerez’s central concern as an architect is the knowledge to be gained through architectural means.

«Incidental Space» A project by Christian Kerez / curated by Sandra Oehy. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

It is in pursuit of this knowledge that Kerez, for the exhibition in Bruno Giacometti’s Swiss Pavilion in the Giardini, has built a space as an architectonic project. This space is an event that takes place at a specific location and justifies itself there. This space is meant to stand only for itself, as a claim or a thesis; not to serve as an illustration of some other space beyond itself, or gesture toward some particular tendency in architecture. It is not a reproduction or portrayal; instead, it is a process and an ephemeral manifestation. This space is an experiment: a fundamental research project investigating how architectural spaces might be conceived and might be built, both in the imagination and in technical terms. In this experiment, space has primacy above all else: space as a concept, as an idea. But the physical manifestation of the space is also meant to be an event, one that gives every visitor a means of accessing the project. In this way, the Swiss Pavilion becomes a place of direct architectural-spatial observation and experience; in the Giardini, architectural space as such is put on display. In this beautiful and unique location, surrounded by old trees, Incidental Space engages in a dialogue with its contextual location, commenting on the architectural domain of follies, whose only purpose is to enhance and accentuate the uniqueness of the landscape. At the same time, it reflects on the location’s connotations as a historic exhibition space, a place where architecture surpasses the limits of everyday architecture, bound as it typically is to functionality, permanence, and communicability. 

«Incidental Space» A project by Christian Kerez / curated by Sandra Oehy. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

With this as a starting point, Kerez’s Incidental Space attempts to explore the outer limits of what can be achieved in architecture today—in terms of both technical feasibility and the limits of our own imagination. How can you use the medium of architecture to contemplate an architectural space that is entirely abstract and as complex as possible? How could this kind of imaginary space even be visualized, and how could it be produced? The goal of this project was not to create a built space using any specific construction method, design method, or spatial program. Instead, with the help of an abstract architectural objective, it aimed to produce an “atomized” space, a small space with maximum possible complexity and with infinite interior extension—a space whose visual character cannot be something easily decoded, that doesn’t depict or represent any other space, that defies univocality and withdraws from any unambiguous legibility. In short, Christian Kerez sought to create a space that in no way corresponds to what architecture has hitherto considered to be architectural space.

«Incidental Space» A project by Christian Kerez / curated by Sandra Oehy. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

An assignment formulated in this way demands a design process far removed from the intentionality of artistic sovereignty. For Kerez, the actual work of architectural design isn’t found in drawing, model-building, speaking, or writing. Instead, it is fundamentally about making decisions:

On architectural design: every construction is the outcome of a series of traceable decisions. But for many buildings, these decisions all just accumulate without any relation to each other. The finished building, to a certain degree, represents a catalogue of the measures that were taken. But a holistic spatial experience or a cogent architectural statement can only come about when all the decisions in the design process are reciprocally determined by one another. In that way, they take on their own imperative. In other words, a decision no longer becomes a question of personal taste, but one of architectural consistency. It is no longer a question of personal authority; the decision takes on a generally valid character, comprehensible to anyone. In this way, the search for criteria becomes the actual work of design; decisions result from this. These criteria of judgment can in turn only be derived from an overall architectural problem, an idea, which must be further reconsidered with every successive decision. Every new architectural problem demands its own specific means of investigation and specific means of reflection for valid criteria to be derived from it. And if, for us, the architectural problem includes the search for alterity, or for the enigmatic, that changes nothing in this definition of architectural design. On the contrary, it confirms this definition by different means.

Many buildings, particularly in contemporary architecture, achieve a holistic character via a shortcut in the design process: they borrow from architecture that has already been built, from something that has already been holistically worked out. This was precisely the shortcut that was precluded for us in our contribution to the Biennale in the Swiss Pavilion, since we didn’t want the built space to refer to some other space. We didn’t want it to atrophy into mere illustration. Instead, the space was meant to assert itself as an event at a particular location, for a particular time. For this reason, there was no option to depend on any existing work of architecture to attain some measure of certainty and efficiency in the design process. Instead, with our goal of generating new experiences, we were forced to understand architectural design as an intellectual adventure, full of risk. Nonetheless, Incidental Space is emphatically not a space that has been created at random, or worse, a space that has generated itself.

In contrast to an architecture of disconnected elements, a holistic approach to architecture can only come about through the simultaneity of all forms of representation and all modes of looking. This means that all decisions, even if they were reached sequentially, must nonetheless coincide in the moment of looking at the structure. This precludes a linear design process, in which decisions are made independently of each other in disconnected sequence. - Christian Kerez

«Incidental Space» A project by Christian Kerez / curated by Sandra Oehy. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

As an architectural project, Incidental Space attempts to overcome the contradiction in terms between the enigmatic and the technically precise; it seeks to tease out a wayward space using a method that insists, as one of its criteria, on the maximum possible complexity. The space results from a deliberate combination of disparate processes. The character of this premise is not aesthetic or creative. Yet at the same time, the space doesn’t emerge by itself, it is not discovered; instead, it is sought out and then developed. By linking digital with manual processes, with the help of a variety of technical tools of translation, a highly detailed architectural space is teased into existence. It is transformed into a space created and formed by the caprices of the incident, where incident is understood in the sense of an “occurrence of an action or situation that is a separate unit of experience,” or as “something dependent on or subordinate to something else of greater or principal importance.”  In other words, it becomes an Incidental Space. 

[1] Beatriz Colomina, quoted on the back cover of Exhibiting Architecture: Place and Displacement, eds. Thordis Arrnius, Mari Lending, Wallis Miller, Jeremie Michael McGowan (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014). 

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Cite: Sandra Oehy. "Incidental Space: Inside the Swiss Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale" 07 Jul 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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