My first impression of the show was just how quiet it was. As you walk away from the hoards of tourists and approach the Giardini the crowds thin out to barely nothing, and the Biennale venue was an oasis of calm - your average punter isn’t interested in architecture and architecture superstars aren’t interested in them either!
Its not all about superstars though and that’s where Finnish Pavilion was a refreshing exchange of ideas. Featuring two huts made one made in Finland from spruce, the other in China from bamboo they both demonstrated the resilience of their materials and lets face it, The Finnish hut is an amazing bit of Scandi flatpack! Theres not a nail in it.
Inside the national pavilions each nation interpreted the brief set by this years curator Rem Koolhaas . Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014. I can’t claim to have looked into every pavilion (and with two small children that was never going to happen) but you can begin to understand where architects and the general public fell out with each other and the mutual fear and loathing set in. We love every other technological advance in the past 60 years, we love the designers and creators of our smart phones and tablets; we don’t have that same love for architects.
With the curator of the exhibition apparently throwing a mini tantrum at a journalist he thought was a member of the public attending the press preview (funny that he thought any member of the public would be interested!) you feel that they’ve lost touch with who and what they’re building for. Zaha Hadid shrugs her shoulders and has an attitude of ‘how very dare you’ at the question of her building for dictators (another of Jeremy Paxman’s fine interviews!) even as the death toll rises from her Qatar stadiums, apparently it’s not her responsibility. With estimates running at 4000 workers expected to die by the completion in 2022 of the World Cup Stadiums, architects are well overdue the kind of backlash that the fashion industry has received for their deathly sweatshop conditions. Architecture has a problem with engagement – and you feel like a huge exhibition like this is a missed opportunity to engage people in understanding how architecture can change and improve your life. Sadly whenever architecture really touches people its usually for the wrong reasons – who can forget last years ‘Death Ray’ from one of London’s newest buildings. Not content with killing workers they’re even taking it out on people walking on the street!
But back to the Biennale. With the focus being on the Modernist era and looking back rather than forward many of the Pavilions revisited the post war era; the desperate need for housing resulted in some huge concrete ghetto’s that replaced bombsites and slums with the promise of a new bright future.In every town across Europe we all have experience of the modernist experiment that went horrifically wrong and it’s jaded the opinion of an entire generation. Its almost as if the architecture community has had such a battering from the public because of these modern ghetto’s that they’ve retreated in on themselves; architecture is a closed community.
The French pavilion looked at how one such modernist housing estate in France was turned into an internment camp and the first stop before the gas chamber for the Jewish population of Paris.
But it isn’t all bad and depressing! I actually got nostalgic for some of the concrete buildings I’ve been in; my first schoolroom was in a concrete geodesic dome called the Bubble. It aged really badly and let in the rain from the very start and reminded me of the Canadian pavilion, similar vintage and aging in the same leaky way; but at least someone tried to build something fun and with personality!
In the British Pavilion, A Clockwork Jerusalem created by FAT Architects poked fun at our postwar experiment with concrete and the housing estates that became no go crime zones from day one. Its well worth checking out their interview with Archidaily . With the best of intentions architects tried to create new communities outs of bomb sites with very little money – hence the concrete. But we’re a nation of grey rain clouds why would grey concrete be anything other than depressing?
Having a look over FAT’s work you do realise that things can be different. They actually create buildings that are colourful, include pattern and reference local history. Buildings are about people and their surroundings not the architect’s ego.
The Hungarian Pavilion reminded me how pre-modernism there was a local interpretation of an artistic movement. Built in 1904 the Pavilion is Hungarian version of Art Nouveau, the iridescent tiles (pictured above) were wonderful and the shape of the building referencing Hungarian vernacular architecture - I haven’t used these word since uni and you do feel that the term is a huge no no in the world of ego architects. Inside they asked did at least attempt to engage with the visitors and ask them what we wanted for the future, even if you were supposed to fit it all onto a peg I liked the sentiment!
What I want is to go to Hungary and see buildings that are very Hungarian. I don’t care if a city has managed to get a building by a ‘star’ architect.
Reading through the notes for the show I found that Rem Koolhaas wanted us to look at how buildings from 100 years had visual references that gave away their nationality and how we have lost that sense of identity, and inadvertently I picked up on this theme whilst gazing at the old tiles of the Hungarian Pavilion. I just really hope architecture will learn to embraces local and national identities and finds a way to engage a wider audience; this felt like a show that was just for the small community of writers, curators and architects.
I did find it quite funny that on one of Venice’s biggest tourist attractions the Rialto Bridge, the Architecture Biennale banner was swathed over it, ruining the photo opportunity for many a tourist – it was almost a blatant ‘f**k you’ from the architecture community! Kinda ironic from and industry that needs to do a lot of bridge building!