At the Biennale Architettura

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what news on the Rialto?

Day 2 in Venice took us to La Biennale, this year in its architectural guise. While the art biennale has been taking place since 1895, its architectural sister has only been running since 1980, with this 14th edition curated by Rem Koolhaas.

The venues are an attraction in themselves. Biennale HQ is Giardini, a park including a large hall housing the main exhibition and 30 national pavilions – Belgium’s was the first to be built in 1907. From 1980 Arsenale has been used as a fringe and overspill venue for countries not represented at Giardini, who may also exhibit in other venues across Venice. The number of countries represented is still growing, with 66 in 2014, 10 of which were exhibiting for the first time.

It’s all a bit Eurovision and tending to the random, with some pavilions subject to care and attention from a national hero (Finland’s timber hut was designed by Alvar Aalto) and others sticking with the neoclassical, on the outside at least.

Arsenale is Venice’s answer to Copenhagen’s Holmen, a complex of former shipyards and armouries off the typical tourist track looking for a 21st century identity. Photo heaven at dusk, after we’d made it through the lengthy exhibition.

On the content side a fine line was walked between the effective and the pretentious – it all depends on where you are coming from and how far you will go. The  main exhibition, elements of architecture (book), explored the historical and current components of 15 items such as the floor, the door, the wall, and was nicely done, but the main event had to be the national pavilions addressing absorbing modernity 1914-2014.

Here’s a round up of some of the national contributions – we had an afternoon, but you could spend days taking it all in. For the record, the Golden Lion went to Korea, with Russia (and Canada) receiving jury prizes.

  • Bahrain – not short on ambition, the exhibition consisted of a map of the Arab world surrounded by a circular library containing a brick sized catalogue topped by a dome supporting projections of a reading of 22 national anthems
  • Germany: Bungalow Germania – the 1964 Kanzlerbungalow in Bonn recreated inside the 1938 pavilion, featuring an ingenious toilet roll dispenser style handout machine
  • Great Britain (sic): A clockwork Jerusalem – exploring the diverse cultural influences that shaped and were shaped by British modernism in the post war era and over the last 100 years; the most accessible contribution of the lot, including Cliff and concrete cows, or dumbing down?
  • Korea: Crow’s eye view: the Korean peninsula – inspired by a poem by Korean architect/poet Yi Sang, “the crow’s eye view points to the impossibility of a cohesive grasp of not only the architecture of a divided Korea but the idea of architecture itself”; a prologue for an as yet unrealised joint exhibition of the two Koreas
  • Kosovo: Visibility (imposed Modernism) – massive kudos for the Shkami tower and the postcard wall, “720 images showing Kosovo and particularly Prizren, the most typical Kosovar city in two states, before modernity and after, showing slow but absolute erasure of regional identity”; which one to choose?
  • Netherlands: Open: a Bakema celebration – a critical rethinking of the idea of the open society through the work of Jaap Bakema
  • Nordic countries: Forms of freedom: African independence and Nordic models – “exploring and documenting how modern Nordic architecture was an integral part of Nordic aid to East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s”, or jaw dropping Scandi arrogance in Africa which resulted in some nice buildings?
  • Russia: Fair enough – 20 projects from the past century updated and offered as imagined companies in a trade fair setting to showcase the enduring value of their architecture; the trade fair ‘opened’ in the first week of the biennale then gradually shut down, leaving an abandoned environment to explore…genius!; see also Moskva: urban space, a collaterial event
  • Switzerland: A stroll through a fun palace – the work of Swiss economist and sociologist Lucius Burckhardt, known for developing strollology (the science of the walk), presented alongside selections from English architect Cedric Price’s projects, including the unrealised Fun Palace
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