NOTES ON THE VENICE BIENNALE, BY ANDREW BENJAMIN.
WHAT DOES HAPPEN NEXT? Once this question is asked, the range of possible responses will always oscillate between another version of the same, or an interruption in which other possibilities may have a real effect on how projects are perceived. This question determined the curatorial policy behind this year’s Venice Biennale, titled Next. “Next” was, however, interpreted in a precise sense. Director and curator Deyan Sudjic’s strategy was to insist on the relationship between plan and realisation. The immediate effect of this insistence was to charge both the models and the plans – even the more abstract diagrams – with a sense of immediacy. The projects selected were buildings, or master plans, that have actuality precisely because they are to be built or realised next. These projects were then incorporated within carefully determined programmatic locations, so that each location provided a delimited range of architectural undertakings. What was on view was precisely what is happening next.
Insisting on the centrality of program meant that architects were always subordinated to their work, and then the work to the programmatic location. While this curatorial strategy may look like simple pragmatism, it is not. This insistence on program should be welcomed.
Not only does it privilege the work over the architect – so that architecture as an activity predominates – it also sets up sites of judgment and evaluation. So, while it is possible to see the display as a simple catalogue – more book design than architectural exhibition – such a response misunderstands the effective nature of the display. Once the move is made away from either the star architect or the signature building, where both would exist as ends in themselves, other possibilities occur. These occurrences cannot be readily separated from current modes of architectural production.
Questions of production, and therefore of materiality, were strongly present in the exhibition, if understated. Part of the force of contemporary architecture is that the line between the purely experimental and the built is crossed continually. This is due to the use of the computer within the design process and the possibility of greater experimentation and innovation on the level of both materials and engineering. At one extreme is the challenge of the purely experimental and, at the other, the effacing of architecture in the name of building. However, there will be important moments where experimentation and construction coincide. And yet, there is more than one way to escape prediction. Next was curated to allow a range of possibilities to be seen together. That simultaneity allowed program to set the scene of evaluation.
“Museums”, one of the most exhilarating and challenging programs, showed the current state of architectural thinking and design within museum construction. Rather than being seen as eclectic, the displayed projects need to be viewed as an attempt to address the question of the museum in terms of both its programmatic constraints and its presence as a contemporary monument. So, while Denton Corker Marshall’s Stonehenge Visitor Centre (Wiltshire, UK) and Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Museum Expansion (Denver, USA) could not seem more different, that difference is mere appearance. The former is cut into the terrain, such that it blends with the contours, becoming part of the landscape. If there is a way to think of landscape architecture – where landscape is taken literally – then a project of this nature leads the way. Both technically and programmatically it is appropriate. However, the nature of the appropriate – in terms of formal presence – was not determined in advance.
This work is its own idea. It does not mime an idea external to it.
In contrast, Libeskind’s project appears, at first glance, to be a dramatic gesture that refuses its location. Yet the opposite is the case. The envisaged relation to the pre-existing building; the use of material to work with the climatic conditions in the area; its positioning from outside in relation to a natural environment (the Rocky Mountains) and the built environment (the continuity of Denver’s urban transformation) all mean that it too is appropriate. What can be abstracted from this observation is that questions of the appropriate, and with them the question of style, have to be concerned with local conditions.
However, that concern cannot for a moment be constrained either by national sentiment or by vernacular architectural traditions. Nor, however, is the ubiquitous white box appropriate.
When given the freedom of loosening both these constraints – while retaining the constraint of function – invention starts by reinventing the local (and thus by extension the locale). This modus operandi is also evident in Tschumi’s projects for New York and Athens and in Sejima and Nishiozawa’s extraordinary Glass Museum in Toledo (Ohio, USA).
Invention that is neither mere speculation nor utopian projection is evident in the display of “Masterplans”. Here there was a productive movement between analysis that has an open relation to building – Zaha Hadid’s Singapore One North masterplan – and reconfigurations of a more determined urban field that have an immediate relation to building – for example, Lab Architecture Studio’s Federation Square. The importance of both projects is considerable and it is of great significance to see them juxtaposed. That juxtaposition allows for the question of the masterplan – and by extension an urbanism driven by architects and not developers – to be posed emphatically. This is the curatorial insight.
This is not to suggest that the exhibition is without its low points. “Towers” included works that were, for the most part, a political and aesthetic embarrassment.
The national pavilions presented another interesting challenge. If all that allows works to be grouped together is “national identity” – a term whose viability continues to be contested – then on what basis is a curatorial decision to be made? Some countries engaged with the curatorial practice in productive and interesting ways. Others provided a simple survey.
Perhaps the most architecturally important display was that of the British Pavilion. Here, the Yokohama Port Terminal by Foreign Office Architects (FOA) was the only work presented.
FOA had curated their own presentation and the challenge of that project came to life in the display. The choice of FOA was the result of a competition organised by the British Council and the architectural community.
In general, the commitment of government funding bodies to the presentation of architecture predominated. The one major exception was the Australian Pavilion. Even though there had been a considerable effort to enlist the support of government, nothing was forthcoming. The locked building, when seen in the context of the strength of the work originating in Australia, makes the priority of the current government clear. Contributing nothing and yet championing success is the easy option that, in addition to generating the contempt it deserves, refuses architecture a cultural presence. The work presented in Venice underlines the ineliminability of architecture within culture and, especially, architecture’s place in the production of culture. One of the challenges is to reposition architecture as a central element in any cultural policy. Exhibitions of this quality assist this process.
Andrew Benjamin is professor of critical theory at Monash University and visiting professor of architectural theory and history at the University of Sydney.