Opinion

The 16th Venice Biennale for Architecture

Venice

31 May 2018

There is a lot to be learnt about the 16th Venice Biennale for Architecture through the awarding of the Golden Lion for Best International Participation to Switzerland. The Swiss pavilion in the Giardini presents the interior of a show flat jumbled with Alice in Wonderland proportions. Kitchen counters are too high to reach, while elsewhere doors require a crouch. It’s a straightforward punchline, a photogenic one at that, with no text involved and is understandably popular as a result.

Across the board, it is the pavilions and exhibitions spaces that present simple ideas via inhabitable installations which are the most successful at this year’s jamboree. Assemble’s Factory Floor, at the opening to the Freespace exhibition inside the Giardini, is another example. This, an installation in the most stripped-back sense of the word, consists of thousands of floor tiles made in Liverpool at the ceramics manufacturer set up by the collective in 2015. The tiles line the floor and provide a decorative platform upon which visitors can hang out. It’s a place one actually wants to spend time in.

This is highly significant at the biennale, although it should be blindingly obvious. Alongside the main exhibitions, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, which feature over 80 projects, there are 65 national pavilions and a handful of other “collateral” events and special projects. It’s too much, and everyone seems to know it. The vernissage is replete with knowing looks bemoaning how-hectic-and-dense-this-all-is-but-what-can-you-do-it’s-Venice, so it begs the question why does it keep happening in this way? This, the supposed apex of architectural display and discourse, where great minds used to ordering space with legible intelligence and sensory awareness gather, is a mess.

One result of the chaos, though, is that those pavilions and spaces which do grab one’s attention and presence for more than a couple of minutes are successful, almost by default. Pavilions such as the Bahraini, Indonesian and Argentinian take a complex idea – the Khutbah, or Friday Sermon, in the case of Bahrain – and elucidate it in simple spatial form.

An exception here is the Dutch pavilion. Curated by Marina Otero Verzier of Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut, Work, Body, Leisure is an extended research project on the history and future of the body and labour: the spatial dynamics of sex work; automation in major industries; the efficient design of offices. Considering its intellectual density and far-reaching, international content and contributors, it feels more akin to an exhibition at a major cultural institution than a pavilion installation. It also makes the most minimal allusions to the notion of the biennale’s theme, FREESPACE, of all the pavilions… apart from the Swiss.

Like the Dutch entry, the Swiss have largely ignored the central theme of the biennale, chosen by Farrell and McNamara, and seem to have been rewarded as a result. While the Swiss do have a reputation for simply ignoring biennale themes, this is also indicative that FREESPACE as a concept is so nebulous that one can actually ignore it and still respond successfully. This is not to say that the central theme should be the be-all and end-all of the biennale, more that it’s reassuring to imagine a meandering conceptual thread that does manage to run through the whole shebang.

The problem with FREESPACE (persistently capitalised by Farrell and McNamara) is that it is so open to interpretation it seems to collapse under the weight of its own vagueness. Despite their provision of a manifesto to clarify what FREESPACE actually means, the architects presented in the main exhibition (i.e. the section directly curated by Farrell and McNamara) seem to shoehorn the term into their project descriptions in order that they make sense as part of the divergent whole. For example, Flores i Prats Architects’ installation is “a replica of the Sala Beckett freespace in Barcelona”; while Peter Zumthor, who is represented via a large selection of intricate models, argues “the process of finding the right form is full of insecurities, of despair, pleasure and joy. And it needs Freespace to move and think.” Right.

The result, especially in the Arsenale, is a stream of projects – a feed, even – that feel more picked than curated. Some of the work is, of course, exceptional, although the highlights are isolated in discussion with themselves, as opposed to a broader narrative or conversation. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s display of their Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center in New York City comprises a split-screen film exploring the building from the perspective of two drones – one inside, one outside – is a jaw-dropper. FREESPACE here is interpreted as an attitude to flexibility, “one that emphasises spatial variety over one-size-fits-all adaptability”.

The film focuses on the so-called Study Cascade, a network of communal spaces that runs from street level up the building’s 14 storeys. If we were to pick out some themes-within-the-theme, then the study of communal, non-programmatic spaces is a prominent one. Francis Kéré’s ZOÍ installation, the Tila Open building by Talli Architects in Helsinki, a building for Piura University by Barclay and Crousse, and an installation by Amateur Architecture studio, as well as The School of Athens at the excellent Greek pavilion each provided a literal interpretation of the theme as free space.

That is, space without a prescribed function, as opposed to space which is free for all.

Considering the dramatic atria within Grafton’s own projects, specifically the UTEC and Universita Luigi Bocconi projects in Lima and Milan respectively, this focus is unsurprising. But these spaces, especially those within higher education institutions, come with significant barriers – namely tuition fees alongside other, more profound social exclusions. It is therefore disappointing to see scant critical discussion of what a free space might look like as a political aspiration, as opposed to a cavernous hallway (albeit a nice one).

Indeed, following Alejandro Aravena’s reminder, two years ago, that architecture is in fact politically powerful (although not politically powerful), the institutional sides of the 2018 biennale seem to be rejecting the politics of the built environment altogether. Returning once again to the Swiss pavilion, the jury’s decision to award the golden lion based on the installation’s tackling of the “critical issues of scale in domestic space” seems a laughable admission of the prize’s own irrelevance. Domestic scale is not a critical issue right now – just call it fun and leave it there.

One injection of unrehearsed boat-rocking did emerge on the Friday of the vernissage, in the form of a demonstration demanding greater gender equality across the field of architecture, led by Fashid Moussavi, Odile Decq and Martha Thorne. This welcome call, which included another manifesto was, however, met by an increased presence of armed police around the FREESPACE site, which is a very promising sign for the future of fragile masculinity.

Ultimately the most engaging, even exciting moments of FREESPACE are those looking seriously beyond the vernissage and the biennale itself. The Happenstance, a Scottish “collateral” pavilion curated by WAVEparticle is grounded in social and material collaboration with its neighbours on a site far from the Arsenale/Giardini hub. Here, a colourful wooden frame will undergo continuous adaptation, providing space for as yet unforeseen activities.

Elsewhere the Irish pavilion has plans in place to take its exhibition on market towns to those same towns featured and, a real fringe star, the Unfolding Pavilion – with no official connection to the biennale – had visitors flocking to the island of Giudecca to a refurbished flat in Gino Valle’s 1980s social housing for an exhibition reflecting on the structure itself. Once finished, the apartment will be made available as a home after five years vacant. Similarly, the Pavilion of Turkey, this time inside the Arsenale, revolves around a public programme – accessible on site and online – and a rolling group of architecture students responding to questions such as “Why does la Biennale exist?” and “What does La Biennale do?” Quite.