Virtual Biennale

The 2016 Biennale Architettura in Venice runs from 28 May to 27 November, curated by Alejandro Aravena with the theme of Reporting from the Front. We were lucky enough to pay a visit in 2014, when I concluded that “a fine line was walked between the effective and the pretentious”.

In contrast to Rem Koolhaas’ 2014 erudite edition Aravena “pitches activism against starchitecture”. Olly Wainwright: “does it make for an engaging show, or a tedious traipse through holier-than-thou humanitarianism and architectural self-flagellation”? His review of the pavilions is headlined “a souped-up pre-school playground”, singling out Belgium and Switzerland for their “refreshingly narrow focus” and Poland for shining a spotlight on the labour conditions of the people who actually build architecture. (More pavilions: Dezeen’s top 10 | A+U.)

Sifting through the coverage from my filter bubble, Dezeen doubtless has loads of stimulating stuff but tl;dr. Worth a look though is the provocation from the Architecture Foundation’s Phineas Harper. Update: see also Cosmopolitan Scum.

After 2014’s Cliff and concrete cows this time Britain’s contribution (interview) is all a bit chest-beatingly downbeat. The curatorial team has come up with Home Economics, a reflection on the home as the contemporary frontline of British architecture, reimagined in timescales of days, months, years and decades.

Compare and contrast with Denmark’s all trumpets blazing celebration of self, entitled Art of Many and The Right to Space (interview). On #some Everything Goes and Art of Too Many have been suggested as alternative titles. The exhibition consists of a “wunderkammer of architectural prototypes”, an overflødigshorn of 130 recent projects from 70 practices, aimed at demonstrating humanism based on cooperation. The pavilion also boasts a video installation with (obv) Jan Gehl and a 520 page catalogue (cost: DK 320, a rather lower krone to page ratio than often seen).

the Danish pavilion (Carl Brummer, 1932)

As well as missing the inventiveness and humour of other contributions, it sounds a tad mundane, tapping into the oft seen Scandi “we know best” flaw. For coverage på dansk see Arkfo and Politiken, largely critiquing the Danish effort, plus commissioner DAC (dansk) bigging it up.

Bylyd has a recording from the launch debate, bringing up some interesting points which get behind the familiar soundbites:

  • Bjarke Ingels is a fan of generous (sic) spaces “proportioned for machines”, who knew, and wants architects to go beyond “little boutique statements” – go him!
  • Jan Gehl, marking his 50th anniversary in research, sees the right to walk as fundamental, preferably in public spaces – as ever, you can’t argue with that; as Gehl Architects’ Helle Søholt points out, public space is “challenged by increased security, climate adaptation, densification, commercialization and data” as well as the demon car (which brings to mind the segment on 9 June’s Urbanist where Skopje’s citizenry fight to retain their Brutalist buildings and wide open spaces)
  • we spend 90% of our time indoors, much of it sitting down, while 40% of the world’s carbon emissions come from construction, yikes
  • issues around professions working together rather than in separate ghettoes – echoes of #FLthecity

Denmark is not involved in the Nordic pavilion, achingly PC in 2014 and in 2016 curated by two internationals, ArchDaily founder David Basulto from Chile and Rotterdam based Brit James Taylor-Foster (interview). In Therapy presents 300 projects exploring architectural themes instrumental in constructing Nordic society with psychoanalysis as a framework, including an abstracted interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. In Dezeen: “the architectural heritage of [Norway and Sweden] is constraining the newest generation of designers”, with Nordic architecture “on the verge of stagnation”. Interesting.

The range of collateral events is overwhelming – see UCL Urban Lab’s Turning Tables and LSE Cities’ Conflicts of an urban age for starters. And whoa! Scotland has a presence under the banner of Prospect North, curated by inter alia Lateral North (Facebook) and part of a nationwide year long Festival of Architecture. The exhibition “delivers a series of innovative mapping strategies, individual narratives, portraits and evocative imagery highlighting Scotland’s place and identity within an economically emerging northern region”. Related events inevitably include How Nordic is it?.

See the Scotland on Sunday report, which highlights co-curator Dualchas Architects‘ accompanying book, in which ten Scottish writers (including Kathleen Jamie) provide contributions about Scotland “when the map is turned and the compass realigned” to remind us that the north of Scotland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. See also ArchDaily.

Russia’s Fair Enough, a fake trade fair riffing on the lifestyle of architecture, was probably my 2014 favourite. This time they’re exploring the proposed revamp of VDNKh (critique | Calvert Journal), Moscow’s Stalin era exhibition centre. Dare to dream! There’s lots more on the Soviet Union’s failed utopian architecture in Calvert22’s Power & Architecture season: see reviews/articles from Dezeen, PORT magazine and The Spaces. Plus “amidst all the bourgeois romanticism of the humble; amidst all the identikit, tired old dancing on the corpse of modernity, monumentality and utopia” we have in search of progressive architecture, on ‘palatial Communism’ in action.

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