The theme of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale – Out There: Beyond Building – is the latest in a long line of propositions that define architecture in excess of “mere” building. For Alberti, architecture was decorous construction. For Claude Perrault, architectural knowledge could only be cultivated through understanding architecture’s conventions, which were beyond the physical attributes of building. For John Ruskin, ornament was the “sacrificial share” that transforms building into architecture. For Nikolaus Pevsner, architecture requires the presence of aesthetic intention – York Cathedral is architecture while a bicycle shed is not, no matter how attractive the shed. For Beatriz Colomina, the presence of discourse distinguishes architecture. And so on. In each of these formulations, architecture is found in the relationship between building and a supplement: building + something = architecture.
Aaron Betsky, director of this year’s biennale, also finds architecture in the stuff around building: “It is the way we think and talk about buildings, how we represent them, how we build them. This is architecture.” At the same time, however, he seems tempted to remove buildings from architecture: “Buildings are not enough. They are the tomb of architecture.” His idea seems to be that architectural thinking can offer ways forward to another, better world, but that buildings themselves are so caught up in the codes that produce them (building codes, financial codes, computer codes, codes of appearance) that, by the time they are realized there is no “architecture” left. In seeking to remove building from the equation, Betsky leaves us with only the supplement, the “+ something”. (Witness the installations by the “experimental” architects he invited to exhibit in the Arsenale).
But what is it to take the “building” out of architecture? What are we left with? It seems to me that a key skill of the architect is the ability to work simultaneously with many different issues and in many different registers – to successfully juggle ideas, function, ambitions, discourse, need, aesthetics and all those codes that Betsky deplores. Of course the outcome isn’t always a building, but the architect’s facility with buildings and the built environment is a major aspect of the contribution we make. Yes, architecture is more than building, but equally, if it is building-less it becomes something else and, I think, something lesser.
Of course, part of the fascination of architecture lies in contemplating just what that something extra is that transforms buildings into architecture. This “more than” aspect is especially refined in those buildings premiated in architecture awards, and is not necessarily the same for each project. As we look at the outcomes of this year’s National Architecture Awards, presented in this issue alongside coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale, we might consider just what this extra quality is. What contribution do these buildings make? What makes them special?
Such questions also recently exercised the jury of the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work. We assessed both “paper” works that deployed architectural knowledge to polemical ends, and proposals for buildings, in which we sought strong ideas as well as competent buildings. The outcomes of this will be fully covered in the January issue of Architecture Australia.
Justine Clark, editor Architecture Australia.