by Roderick Conway Morris

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Feting Architecture (or Is It Art?)


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 4 September 2011

 

Kazuyo Sejima won the Golden Lion at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale for her design for the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, and she is back this year to curate the 2010 Biennale, the first Japanese and first female curator of the event, now in its 12th edition.

Her choice of nearly 50 architects, engineers and artists, whose presentations fill the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in the Biennale Gardens and the Corderie, or Rope Walk, at the Arsenale, is above all marked by its diversity, unified under the usefully unspecific overarching title of ''People meet in architecture.''

This core show is accompanied by exhibitions at 53 national pavilions on the two principal sites and at scores of other locations around the city.

Some of the architects and engineers Ms. Sejima has invited to participate have created installations that would not look out of place at a visual arts biennial. At the Corderie, for example, the Spanish Antón García-Abril & Ensamble studio have made an imposing full-scale mock-up of the primary structural elements of their inside-out ''Hemeroscopium House'' in Madrid, which consists of gigantic gray concrete beams in the shape of outsized steel girders; from Germany, Transsolar KlimaEngineering and Tetsuo Kondo Architects have collaborated in ''Cloudscapes'' to build a looped walkway rising through a dense blanket of artificially generated mist; and the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in his pitch-dark ''Your split second house'' has produced another perception-bending experience of cracking spirals of light.

Ms. Sejima's ideas of what is relevant to architecture today are probably more eclectic than those of any previous curator of the event. A tiny space in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni accommodates a floor-to-ceiling selection of drawings from the notebooks of the visionary and influential English architect Cedric Price (1934-2003), creator of the famous kinetic aviary for the London Zoo, with a delightful video of him talking about them. In a large hall in the Artilerie at the Arsenale, meanwhile, an installation by the Canadian Janet Cardiff consists of forty speakers playing the individual sung parts of the 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis's ''Spem in alium,'' or ''40-part motet,'' one of the most elaborately ''architectural'' pieces of music ever written.

The enduring importance of drawing as the launching pad of the creative architectural process is vigorously advocated by the Hungarian pavilion, its internal spaces festooned with curtains of pencils, combined with videos exploring this form of human expression that stretches back to our distant ancestors.

Ms. Sejima has taken the opportunity to showcase some of her own recent projects. At the Palazzo delle Esposizioni is a joint project, currently under construction, with her partner Ryue Nishizawa to create a new form of museum integrated with the landscape and village houses on the small Japanese island of Inujima on the Seto Inland Sea. This will consist of a series of scattered exhibition spaces with a larger, semi-subterranean exhibition hall at the island's summit, blending with the local topography but affording views of the surrounding sea and countryside.

The landscaped qualities of her style, with its contours and undulating interiors reflecting the natural environment, are captured on a 12-minute film by Wim Wenders that shows her recently completed Rolex Learning Center at the école polytechnique fédérale in its hilltop position in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is screened in the Corderie.

Mr. Wenders's film is shot in 3-D, a form ideally suited to conveying architectural volumes that is also effectively employed in several other presentations, including those of the Danish and Australian pavilions. The former looks at Copenhagen, a city where hundreds of microarchitectural projects have been realized in recent decades but which has not had a grand plan since the late 1940s. This kind of macroplanning for the future is now under way and the various displays illustrate the sometimes radical transformations the city and its surroundings can expect to undergo.

A film at the Australian pavilion, watchable with the aid of 3-D glasses suspended from the ceiling, alternates between panoramic night views of the country's coastal cities (where 93 per cent of the populations lives) and the vertiginous open-cast mines in the near-uninhabited interior, from which billions of tons of raw materials are being excavated to build cities elsewhere, and which cover areas as large and as deep as inverted high-rise city centers.

National pavilion responses to the curator's theme of ''People meet in architecture'' are extremely varied. The Kingdom of Bahrain is at the Venice Architecture Biennale for the first time this year, and was awarded the Golden Lion for best participating country (the awards ceremony was on Aug. 28). Their ''Reclaim'' show at the Arsenale features three ''kabayen'' (or cabins, derived from the English word), ad hoc recreational huts built on stilts of drift wood and other odds and ends, and furnished with carpets and cushions.

Once an island of fishers and pearl divers, Bahrain is now highly urbanized and land reclaimed for building has pushed the coastlines further out to sea. But determined to maintain their littoral lifestyle, a number of fishermen and others have taken to building these structures along the shore, and they have become important places to meet, chat and socialize. As the newly reclaimed land is eventually developed, the cabin dwellers have to move on. One of the cabins on show had already been shifted to a new seaside location five times.

The Nordic Countries pavilion offers a broad survey of social gathering places, from squares and saunas to observation platforms and a moveable church. The Finnish pavilion presents some striking recent designs for schools, the places where many of us first encounter a wider world.

The design of domestic living spaces is the theme of many shows across the whole Biennale.

Estonia, with a population of under 1,400,000, offers a very positive environment to its many young architects, with 90 per cent of homes built to unique designs. In Japan, the rate of replacing houses is phenomenally high -- every 26 years, compared with 150 years in Britain -- offering ample opportunities for local architects to experiment and tailor their forms, typically within restricted plots, to the lifestyles of particular clients.

The Tokyo-based Atelier Bow-Wow's display, part of Ms. Sejima's exhibition, includes designs catering to an aspiring Tea Master, a journalist couple, a banker, an architect, and a woman who wishes to retire with plenty of space for her pet pony.

The architect Martin Rajnis's ''Natural Architecture'' fills and even erupts out of the Czech pavilion into the Biennale Gardens. To create his wood structures he seeks ''inspiration in the deeper laws of nature, which is an unbelievable treasure-house of ingenious structures, forms, colors, systems and chance.''

''The Ark. Old Seeds for New Cultures'' at the Greek pavilion also proposes a ''back to nature'' solution in the form of a symbolic but habitable wooden ark, stuffed with native seeds, plants and dried fruits, emitting a complex melange of contrasting aromas, with a functioning galley kitchen and sleeping area, a kind of refuge/meeting place/incubator for rethinking the relationship between city and country and the future of architecture in general.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016