Written by Darrel Ronald

What Happened to the Venice Architecture Biennale 2008?

What Happened to the Venice Architecture Biennale 2008? by Darrel Ronald

“What’s Left” installation view of graphic design carpet by Thonik, Photo by: Darrel Ronald

Excitement for the idea – Potential of the idea

What happened to the biennale was the main question running through my head the whole time inside the main pavilions this year. The theme, Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, is loaded with intellectual potential and openness of interpretation, and yet did not seem to unite the chosen content exhibited. It is possible that the theme developed by Aaron Betsky was too broad and not accurately defined, or that it was too ambitious without the right resources.

While the biennale is somewhat desynchronised every year –due to the individual country pavilions running with their own themes- this only emphasizes the need for strong curation of the main exhibition pavilions. The Arsenale Pavilion overall read more as a who’s-who list of architects than an intentional presentation of relevant work. Add to this the fact that many pieces of the exhibition where older, well-known works, they were unable to inspire surprise.

Dysturb.Link: For a full set of photographs from the Venice Architecture Biennale 2008, visit our Dysturb.Net FlickR Set

An Te Liu in the Arsenale Pavilion; Photo by: Darrel Ronald

While the Arsenale had a number of well-executed pieces, the overall sequence of the exhibition seemed broken and detached. Within the Arsenale was a sub-exhibit entitled Roma Interrotta / Rome Interrupted, a fantastic set of original urban plan drawings originally produced in 1978 for one of the “International Art Meetings” conceived by the architect Piero Sartogo. The beauty of the plans are not overshadowed by any hype, and the spatial experience is completely discontinuous to the next room, Uneternal City. The experiential contrast of the two rooms, even though the theme is continuous, asks the simple question “Is the Uneternal City more hype than content?” There is a small project by BIG Architects in Uneternal City that proposes a “Pizza Plan” for Rome. While it is funny, it is only that, it doesn’t go further.

Herzog & DeMeuron and Ai Weiwei in the Padiglione Italia; Photo by: Darrel Ronald

The Padiglione Italia within the Giardini felt more successful. The pavilion was tightly organized and the overall sequence was more fluid and continuous. There was more play within the source of content and the type of representation. Photo-collages, installations, sculptures, videos, models and drawings are all put at the service of what each architect/office has been investigating. There is less burden of trying to “go beyond” while still playing with the theme itself.

The theme in its context

When the theme was originally announced, I questioned the theme in a previous post. The uncanny similarity to themes already investigated by Volume magazine are in the least humourous, but also question the originality of the curating. To quote Betsky’s text from the exhibition catalogue:

Out There: Architecture Beyond Building
The 11th Architecture Biennale, entitlted Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, points the way to a beautiful and critical architecture arising out of the tomb of building. It starts out by pointing out what should be an obvious fact: architecture is not building. Buildings are objects and the act of construction leads to such objects, but architecture is how we think and talk about buildings., how we represent them, and how we build them. More generally, architecture is a way of representing, shaping and offering critical alternatives to the built environment. In a tangible sense, architecture is that which allows us to be at home in the world. In our society, buildings are too often the residue of the desire to make another world -a better world, open to possibilities beyond the everyday.

This year’s theme seems uncannily similar to the manifesto of Volume magazine, published by Archis:

About Volume
Volume is an independent quarterly magazine that sets the agenda for design. With going beyond architecture’s definition of ‘making buildings’ it reaches out for global views on designing environments, advocates broader attitudes to social structures, and reclaims the cultural and political significance of architecture. Created as a global idea platform to voice architecture any way, anywhere, anytime, it represents the expansion of architectural territories and the new mandate for design.

We are architects = Are we architects?

I applaud this theme absolutely, and hope that the idea resonates for a long period within the discipline, and within the public. It is obviously a theme that is widely felt within the Netherlands, especially because of the work of offices such as AMO. Their work literally goes beyond the architecture of buildings, but it is important to remember that AMO is often filled with people that have mixed experiences, with backgrounds often more broad than architecture.

Nonetheless, the larger debate about how architects and architecture can go “beyond architecture” is not so widely established within the discipline, and such an exhibition could do well to help establish a strong theoretical and strategic understanding of just what an architect can do in society if it is not building. For this reason, Volume magazine is an enormous contribution to architects opening our vision towards a broader implication in the world.

One danger to taking architects out of our domain is that our talent seems to be neutralized and even made somewhat banal. There are pieces in the exhibit that seem to only reproduce ideas already explored in other fields. One such example is MVRDV’s Skycar City that appears to be a terrible remake (not remix) of what Science Fiction artists have been imagining for over 100 years.

Our Favourite Pavilions!

Poland Pavilion
One of the best projects from the biennale is in fact a series of photo-collages produced in collaboration by two photographers (not architects), Nicolas Grospierre and Kobas Laksa for the Poland Pavilion (no link). The work takes existing photos from well-known buildings in Poland and reimagines the same project in 50 years. The images portray both utopia and dystopia for future urban scenarios. The projection of utopia and dystopia permeates the biennale overall.

Nicolas Grospierre and Kobas Laksa; Photo by: Darrel Ronald

Swiss Pavilion
Some of the most “revolutionary” work (if such a thing exists today) was shown in the Swiss Pavilion. The research at the ETH Zurich in the DFAB unit in collaboration with Gramazio & Kohler Architects proves a totally reinvention of how to build architecture by employing industrial robots. If something isn’t more revolutionary in terms of building construction methods, economics and social norms, I don’t know what is. The swiss have also compiled the work, Design Explorations, into a very beautiful book and useful website.

DFAB research from the ETHZ; Photo by: Darrel Ronald

Japan Pavilion
The Japanese pavilion exhibits the very subtle and sensitive work of Junya Ishigami. He has been recognized for his inventive recent project, the Kait Workshop on the campus of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Japan. For the exhibition, 20 students meticulously hand-drew plans and landscapes onto the gallery walls in pencil. The work is quite magnificent, and a small installation behind the pavilion resembles the Kait Workshop.

Junya Ishigami & Associates; Photo by: Darrel Ronald

Danish Pavilion
Curated by the Danish Architecture Centre, the Danish Pavilion has created Ecotopedia, a broad initiative to educate people about environmental initiatives. While I’m sure that many people are either overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the constant debate on environmentalism and sustainability, the Danish pavilion is very ambitious and they deserve credit for taking the pavilion exhibit to another level. While the exhibit is full of data and interactive programs, almost no one has the time and energy to spend reading and absorbing the content. On the other hand, the content is online and preserved for future reference. In the 2006 biennale, Denmark also created a fantastic exhibit, showing the ambition of the country in design. How about a trip to Copenhagen?

Danish Pavilion; Photo: Piero Codato

Dysturb.Link: For a full set of photographs from the Venice Architecture Biennale 2008, visit our Dysturb.Net FlickR Set

  Comments ( 2 )

  1. Thanks for all the pictures on flickr! It sure doesn’t seem like any of the pieces in the main show offer any insight on what architects can do to go beyond architecture or even what architecture could become beyond what we understand it to be today…

  2. Charles: I’m glad you like the photos, I think we have one of the most complete image packages online so far.

    The exhibit is funny, because I really support Betsky’s idea to increase the scope of architecture and architectural thinking. He supports his idea, but the work, as you say, doesn’t going beyond what we already know today. I’ve been fortunate to work on most design scales, from graphic web interfaces, to small and large buildings, to urban design and masterplanning. My previous experiences have also been in photography and writing, so in my own practise, I see all of this in some ways as integral to my “architecture” and working process.

    The projects that do offer insight into going beyond architecture, are also somewhat familiar -like art installations, videos, sculptures and so forth. What struck me was the power of photo-collage and how we as architects almost only use photo-collage for marketing/selling. In the end, some of my favourite projects from this biennale are in fact architectural -such as those in the Swiss Pavilion.

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