Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Venice Vedi Vici

Unlike Expo 2010 Shanghai China, where the great attractor is iconic pavilions void of content, the Venice Biennale is a banquet of architectural treats set within the majesty of Venice a city that has been on every great architects road map since the Grand Tour was established. Venice an inspiration for architects for centuries, firstly great magpies Sir John Soane followed by John Ruskin, whose ‘Stones of Venice’ became the pattern book for Victorian architecture. Later, a setting for Italian rationalism and urbanists such as Aldo Rossi, whose ‘Theatre of the World’ (1979) floated up the Grand Canal. Post modernist James Stirling’s Bookshop Pavilion (1991) adorns a Venetian ‘Central Park’ and modern master Carlo Scapa exquisitely detailed Querini Stampalia (1963) a select few recent interventions in the city itself. Venice, a set piece for study, has resisted contemporary architecture, with noteable recent exceptions, Tadeo Ando’s ‘Punta della Dogana Museum’ (2009), Santiago Calatrava’s bridge ‘Ponte della Costituzione’ (2008) and David Chipperfield’s ‘San Michele Cemetery’ (2007) though iconic still seem hidden by the overriding existing city image.

The Architecture Biennale, festival of culture continues this pattern of cultural inquisition and experimentation as if Venice were a sacred land and place of cultural worship. Now in its 13th presentation the Architecture Biennale is just getting into its stride catching the established Art and Film Biennales now in their respective 55th and 59th exhibitions. For architect David Chipperfield, director behind this year’s theme 'Common Ground' the Biennale is a 'church' in which Anglo-Saxon practice is put under the spot light. There is something of the crusader spirit in Chipperfield's attempt to reveal, "our struggle - to find commonality in the process of building - certainly in Anglo-Saxon nature and immediate war between architect and contractor". Conflict is seemingly invited for Common Ground to mediate in its very curation. In briefing, participants were asked "what are your prime issues?', to try and make a confessional for believers and non-believers, who "If we can talk better amongst ourselves maybe we can discuss it better with society”.

The act of curation whilst striving to give an exhibit a timeless quality is a statement on occupancy and territory rather than a programme announcing a particular style or approach. Arguably the first curated architecture exhibition was “This is Tomorrow” (1956 and replayed by the ICA 1990) an exposition of work by the Independent Group a mix of artists and architects, including architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and curated by critic Reyner Banham, where each exhibitor was asked to put forward their own interpretation of the relationship between architecture painting and sculpture. In exploration of this field of ideas existed the borderline world between architecture and the arts. As did critic Kieran Long in curating the Biennale who toyed with juxtaposition and placement of each exhibit, bringing Zaha Hadid and Hans Kolhoff together, a deliberate to attempt to highlight personal and public sparring.

So what is this shared place? Territory that is Common Ground?  Like a pop festival the Biennale has moved in the intervening half-century, from small, impromptu, mildly subversive gathering to major landmark on the media sponsored calendar drawing together vast swathes of International designers as well as diverse population. Established firstly to further the debate, as of 2010, a festival that attracted 170,000 visitors. Writer Rob Young, in ‘Electric Eden’ talks of the British Music Festivals and “how in microcosm, it has enacted many of the ancestral tensions in the relationship between the people and the stewards of the land, between commons and private ground.” In many cases, the Biennale festival has also provided the opportunity to “test legal limits, flout property rights and set up encampments that permit a brief taste of alternative modes of living.” The British Pavilion “Venice Takeaway” participants embraced this ‘joie de vivre’ more than many, notably architects dRMM learning from a small floating community in Ijburg, Amsterdam and architects Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu examining the positives in a deregulated building code in Lagos, Nigeria.

In Biennale the Common Ground is populated by research reflecting the current trend for architects to both teach and practice, increasingly common and fuelled by a the recent global demand and expansion of higher education. The idea of ‘wissenschaftlich’ or 'research' came to be grafted onto the native traditions of teaching and scholarship in later nineteenth century Anglo - Saxon universities. Here universities 'credentialise' the profession, a mechanism for assuring society only those with approved qualifications are allowed to practice architecture. The imperative to pursue the fuller understanding of any subject matter once established, as part of an academic discipline constantly tends to exceed and subvert the imperative to meet immediate or local needs. Architecture departments with sub disciplines such as history and critical theory have became accepted parts of the syllabus signaling a pull away from the practical to forms of enquiry with their own protocols and ambitions. The same drift is very evident in the history of science faculties so often established with the hope of benefiting local industry through inventions and other technological advances, but in time passing over into what is now often called blue skies research. Enquires driven by intellectual logic of the discipline rather than by the imperative to address an immediate practical problem. Research has become a way of extending architects authorship, striving for perfection and masking further commercial gain in the shared global arena of trans-regional research.

The flight to research and quest for perfection takes us away from architects subject core values and so Chipperfield’s Common Ground affirms the inherent paradigm in the praxis of architecture, "If we only show beautiful objects then we continue the myth of self interest that separates us from society". On the way to perfection architects have lost the ability to engage the low code that once partnered the high code and along the way alienated society. Who can forget modern architect Alison Smithson writing on Beatrix Potter or the late great architect critic and writer Katherine Schofield babbling about the merits of popular ‘Carry On’ films and actor Sid James, both championing changes in established patterns of working by attempting to change the public perception of architects.

The universal ideas that bind architects to society seemingly emerge only in a moral code where freedom is impaired something Richard Sennett, the first to politicise space, showed by unpacking plans of the Roman Forum in “The Spaces of Democracy” (1998). The Japanese pavilion exhibition 'Home-for-All'  by architect Toyo Ito makes a case for architecture replacing what is lost and reinstating democracy, "'Since 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", Ito by inverting the digital media that globalised the Japanese tsunami is now harnessing the FaceTime generation so architects can now include communities in complex design discussions and filling the contemporary void created by declining architect authorship. A very human response to a social need and a worthy receipt of the Golden Lion for the Best National Participation awarded to Japan.

Now in the Common Ground what do we do? The role of the curator in exhibiting architecture is now sealed, research is trans-national and shared, what about the development of a universal moral code in which the architects sense of right runs parallel to societies, to a vanishing point at which a shared sense of freedom appears? Answers may lie with Rem Koolhaas, rumoured to be director in waiting of the next Architecture Biennale, who in his thesis ‘Delirious New York’ (1978) saw Venice as a Blueprint for modern prophecy, a “Culture of Congestion will arrange new and exhilarating human activities in unprecedented combinations. Through Fantastic Technologies it will be possible to reproduce all ‘situations’ – from the most natural to the most artificial – wherever and whenever desired. Each city within a city will be so unique that it will naturally attract its own inhabitants”.

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