by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Tremor of Change in Architecture

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 November 1996
Isozaki Arata/photo Miyamoto Ryuji
Japanese Pavilion at Venice Architectural Biennale, 1996



Architects have far more effect than politicians on many people's day-to-day lives, and as the world's rural populations continue to flock into cities and architect-designed environments, the influence of the profession over the style and quality of life can only increase.

The Austrian architect Hans Hollein, the first foreign curator of the Venice Biennale's International Architecture Exhibition, the sixth since the event was instituted in 1980 (in the Castello Gardens until Nov. 17), takes as its central theme 'Sensing the Future: The Architect as Seismograph,' and Hollein's presentation of the recent and projected work of more than a hundred of his colleagues from all over the globe constitutes a thought-provoking overview of what architects today are planning to do for us - or, perhaps, to us.

The Japanese Pavilion might have seemed at first to suggest that the organizers had taken the exhibition's title with a kind of solemn literalism. For, instead of putting on a conventional show of Japanese architecture of today and tomorrow, they filled the building with smashed remains from the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995, in which 6,300 people died and 210,000 homes were destroyed.

Pulverized concrete, twisted steel reinforcing rods, broken tiles, dust-encrusted tatami mats lie everywhere, and a frozen cascade of broken timbers and masonry spills through a hole in the floor of the pavilion onto the ground below. Amid the ruins are scattered fractured power lines, melted computers and unhooked telephones emitting an eerie babel of static and fragmented conversations.

Gradually, the purpose of this macabre spectacle - which won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion - becomes all too clear: It is a colossal confession of the failure of modern architecture, a demand that in the future architects build not only some-thing safer but also less brutally ugly.

The Japanese architect Arato Isozaki, who is now in his 60s, has succeeded in forg-ing a unique personal style combining Eastern and Western elements. And given that architecture has become a truly international business, it is perhaps fitting that his presence here is somewhat ubiquitous, though benign. Iso-zaki is the commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion, and there are examples of his work in both the 'Architect as Seismograph' show (in the large Italia Pavilion) and in the U.S. Pavilion, given over this year to architecture commissioned by the Walt Disney organization.

One of Isozaki's most-recently completed projects is the Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art in Okayama, part of which consists of a giant brick cylinder resting at a gentle angle on a grassy mound, inside which there is a wrap-around, rolled-up Zen rock garden. At Okayama, Isozaki unabashedly blends traditional Japanese interpretations of the symbolism of the sun and moon, aligns the axis of the central building to the summit of the nearby sacred mountain, yet produces a thoroughly modern structure to show modern art.

The Millennium Tower by the British architect Norman Foster - also featured in the 'Architect as Seismograph' section - proposes an artificially created island in Tokyo Bay a 'vertical city' containing offices, shops, hotels and apartments, which would be four times the height of the average Manhattan skyscraper and twice that of the world's current tallest structure. Buildings such as these cannot function without air-conditioning and lose heat at a much faster rate than lower-level constructions. But unlike Isozaki, who declares himself committed to 'researching alternative techniques . . . to sustain facilities with as little energy as possible,' Foster and his patrons, who apparently share an admiration for the merely immense, still see the future in terms of power-guzzling behemoths.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023