Biennale

Venice Biennale

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Watercolour from the proposal “A digital past + an analog present”, showing the “architectural past” on the upper level of the pavilion and “a garden of physical models” on the lower.

Watercolour from the proposal “A digital past + an analog present”, showing the “architectural past” on the upper level of the pavilion and “a garden of physical models” on the lower.

Sketch from the “Continuous Field” proposal, showing the temporary shell that would both enclose and infiltrate the pavilion.

Sketch from the “Continuous Field” proposal, showing the temporary shell that would both enclose and infiltrate the pavilion.

Speculation and analysis. Seven teams were shortlisted for Creative Director of the Australian Pavilion at next year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Laura Harding considers the proposals.

The RAIA’s call for submissions for the 2008 Australian Exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale asks the Creative Director to be “speculator and analyst of our culture, gathering the elements of story and envisioning the exhibition that reveals the story”. Seven diverse narratives for next year’s exhibition have been shortlisted from the twenty-nine submissions received.

A joint Queensland University of Technology/University of Queensland proposal seeks to exploit international interest in the cultivated mystique surrounding Australian architecture’s engagement with landscape and climate, but to ground it with sophisticated architectural analysis. Kathi Holt-Damant, John Frazer, Brit Andresen and Paul Memmott aim to broaden the accepted reading of Australian architecture’s regional diversity by examining the ways that landscape and climatic variance are articulated in terms of spatial structure and perception, rather than tectonics and form. This approach offers a tantalizing opportunity to break open the obsessive focus on the crafted qualities of isolated dwellings in dramatic landscape settings and to move the discussion to a much broader range of building typologies and urban/suburban realms. Frustratingly, the architectural content hinted at in the team’s stage 1 submission failed to capture this potential scope – remaining largely domestically focused and landscape-oriented – but the possibilities offered by this approach are indeed compelling.

The proposal titled “The Challenge of a Big Island: Beyond the Beach and the Bush”, by Fleur Watson, Martyn Hook, Ray Edgar and Stuart Geddes, also seeks to cut through accepted architectural cliches but does so without the intellectual rigour of the QUT/UQ submission. The authors suggest that their exhibition “may reinforce myths and play to stereotypes but in doing so require the viewer to address a new idea of what Australia might be”. Yet they fail to explain how these mutually exclusive positions can be reconciled. This team proposes to structure an exhibition around themes of landscape, politics and environmental conditions. These are all legitimate and pertinent areas of enquiry, but they are shackled to the questionable, overriding intention to “embody Australian values as manifest in architecture (sic) innovation, inventive propositions with plenty of self-deprecating wit”.

The Tone Wheeler, Jan O’Connor and Sue Barnsley proposal tackles the international issues of climate change and environmental sustainability. Its focus is simple and clearly articulated – identifying a “third wave” of sustainability in Australian architecture that surpasses the limitations of embryonic “bolt-on” technologies and embraces a more holistic approach related to a continuous landscape condition. The team intends to select projects for exhibition on this basis and to undertake works to the Australian pavilion itself, including the installation of water tanks, green walls and photovoltaic elements and the cultivation of an Australian garden. While improvements to the pavilion would be welcome, the nature of these works risks undermining this team’s reading of the third wave of sustainability, being more representative of add-on, “first-wave” technologies than of the more integrated approach they rightly identify and espouse.

The proposal by Lawrence Nield, John Gollings and David Pidgeon plays to international stereotypes by drawing upon Xavier Herbert’s novel Capricornia and its evocative imagery of the Top End to structure an exhibition. There is a neat parallel between the idea of Capricornia as an invented place and the constructed mythology that characterizes Australian architecture internationally, but the connection is not made, nor does it seem intended. Capricornia is merely a collection of quintessentially Australian images and phrases with which to draw together an exhibition of tropical and northern architecture, referencing “land and place, making and building”. The authors point out that the loose nature of this strategy gives them great flexibility in a short time frame. They anticipate that the design will need to be resolved within three months to facilitate production and transport to Venice by May 2008. They also see potential for marketing and sponsorship beyond the architectural community, citing literary connections, tourism and even the mining industry as sources for “synergies and opportunities to leverage”.

Two of the submissions dodge issues of content by focusing on modes of representation. “Continuous Field” acknowledges the Biennale as an opportunity for the display of the requisite “Australian story”, but also sees it as an opportunity for reflection by the architectural community on its own “aspirations and concerns”. If one overlooks the tenuous rhetorical link between the stated desire to address the “bifurcation between city and bush, cultural and natural realms” and the conception of the exhibition as a “unifying continuous field”, the proposed structure of the exhibition has great possibilities. It is conceived as a temporary shell that both encloses and infiltrates the pavilion – providing exterior surfaces for the projection and display of Australian architecture externally and room for a more reflective installation internally. Tom Heneghan and David Neustein are proposing to lead this team, working with the Melbourne-based practice BKK on the exterior exhibition and with Peter Corrigan on the interior installation.

The most spare submission is that titled “A digital past + an analog present”. It includes a small watercolour showing a digital installation on the upper level of the pavilion documenting “the architectural past”, and an evocatively titled “garden of physical models” below. This strategy suggests a shrewd way of taming the digital school’s attempts to claim ownership of contemporary architecture, while the garden below beautifully exposes the international audience’s penchant for an image of Australian architecture as idealized, jewel-like objects in landscape. The description accompanying this proposal is less than forty words but only three of these are of any consequence – Durbach, Lewin, Thompson. The prospect of a curatorial team comprising such distinguished architects makes the leap of faith required in relation to the unstated exhibition content a very modest one indeed.

The compressed time frame will favour those submissions that have chosen representation rather than research to make their case. Fortuitously, these are among the strongest of this year’s shortlisted proposals. As a corollary one wonders if a mechanism could be developed that extends the ethos of the RAIA’s brief by offering more time for speculation and analysis – allowing proposals with more ambitious research agendas, such as the QUT/UQ submission, support for development over a longer period for future exhibitions. With the Biennale now clearly piquing the interest of our best academics and practitioners, it can only be beneficial to offer time for the development of an erudite and nuanced story about Australian architecture – one that has as important implications at home as in Venice.

The outcome of stage 2 of the selection process was not known when this commentary was written. The process is now complete and Kerstin Thompson, Wendy Lewin, Neil Durbach, Vince Frost and Gary Warner will be the creative directors for the Australian Pavilion at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale. The seventh shortlisted team, Merrima design in association with Markham + Steudle/tUG Workshop, declined to make their proposal available for this review.

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Published online: 1 Nov 2007
Words: Laura Harding

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Architecture Australia, November 2007

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