by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Architecture Biennale Grows in Stature


By Roderick Conway Morris
Venice 14 March 2015

 

Ceiling, window, corridor, floor, balcony, fireplace, facade, roof, door, wall, stair, ramp, toilet, escalator, elevator.

The Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, director of last year's Venice Architecture Biennale, went back to basics, creating an engrossing display of architectural deconstruction and analysis of the fundamentals of buildings. Historical, contemporary and sometimes futuristic, the show, "Elements of Architecture," was a collaboration between experts and researchers from academia and industry, yet it was highly accessible to a wider public.

By developing a careful mix of sophistication, education and entertainment, the Venice Architecture Biennale has established itself as the most important international event in its field. Like the first Venice Art Biennales, a century ago, it is a model for other such international exhibitions around the world.

The Venice event "has a leverage that is unequaled anywhere else," Valentin Bontjes van Beek, professor of architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, said by telephone. "It's also in a lovely location, and it is satisfying the way that it mirrors the Art Biennale."

Participation and attendance figures confirm the event's growing popularity: In 2014, there were 65 participating nations, and the number of visitors more than tripled since the 2000 edition, to 228,000.

Built for the Art Biennale, the national pavilions in the Giardini constitute a fascinating compendium of historical and national architectural styles. These run from the folksy, Art Nouveau-influenced edifices of Hungary, built in 1909, and Russia, built in 1914, through the United States colonial Palladian pavilion of 1930 and Greece's neo-Byzantine construction of 1934, to Alvar Aalto's miniature Finnish classic of 1956 and South Korea's steel and glass building of 1995.

The Architecture Biennale is a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps in part because the presentation of architecture to a general audience poses particular challenges. While intermittent and modest architectural shows were held under the aegis of the Biennale beginning in 1975, it was only with the appointment in 1980 of the Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi as its director that it became an autonomous Biennale sector.

Mr. Portoghesi used the abandoned Corderie at the Arsenale for the exhibition that year, "La presenza del passato," or "The Presence of the Past." This innovation — the opening up of a splendid hall, more than 300 meters long — had major implications for future Architecture and Art Biennales, affording exhibition space on a much larger scale than anything previously available. It also began the expansion to other disused buildings and green spaces in the city's historic dockyards to accommodate new national pavilions.

The Austrian architect Hans Hollein, chosen as architectural director for the 100th anniversary celebrations of the art Biennale in 1995, struck a decisive blow for the sector's long-term independence when he refused to hold the architecture show until the following year. He argued that it was underfunded and would also require the use of the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, which would be occupied by the Art Biennale in the centenary year.

The central theme of Hollein's 1996 exhibitions was "Sensing the Future: The Architect as Seismograph," and he invited more than a hundred of his colleagues to present recent and imminent projects.

After years of erratic programming, the Architecture Biennale has alternated regularly with the Art Biennale since 2000. The director that year, Massimiliano Fuksas, chose a theme titled "City: Less Aesthetics, More Ethics," which resulted in some modish installations of a type more familiar in the Art event. The Russian pavilion's commissioner, Gregory Revzin, said Mr. Fuksas's thinking was reminiscent of "a leading article from a Soviet architectural journal."

Subsequent Architecture Biennales have expanded the event's range and depth and encouraged the development of more imaginative means of presenting the subject to mixed audiences of professionals and the general public.


First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016