Peter Cook visits the Venice Biennale
Asking whether the exhibits fit director David Chipperfield’s theme of ‘Common Ground’
Almost everyone wants to be loved; whether to have an easier conscience or an easier life, this need has become inexorably woven into our fear of the increasing threats to the comfort of our survival. We know that even the fanciest software has little answer to overpopulation or malnourishment yet we remain held back by blind reiteration of early 20th-century attitudes that are oh-so clever at reinventing themselves.
For the last four or more Venice Biennales such thoughts have passed through my mind as I read the Theme, the statement and (reminding myself of the personality of the director), take a gulp and then set forth anyway for the perversely magical city. With the Arsenale as the director’s main focus, the Central Pavilion containing the second-tier set pieces, then (hard to control from above) come the national pavilions in the Giardini. Afterwards come the rest: in former times a collection of modest or scruffy interlopers scattered behind some grand exhibits in grand palaces − that detachedly look down their noses at the attempt of the little exhibits to ingratiate.
In the Arsenale display, each presentation purports to comment on Director David Chipperfield’s theme of ‘Common Ground’, and you have to either admire the subtle inclusiveness of the title or despair of the ways in which exhibitors (as usual) have winked at it to show what they want to show anyway.
For me, the most impressive architects are Zaha Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron. Of course they grace every Biennale, but no matter and for each the ‘Common Ground’ can be taken on a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ basis. ‘Yes’ says Patrik Schumacher (on Zaha’s behalf) allying the recent structuralism that lies (parametrically or less parametrically − I don’t care) behind some of the key works and making intellectual − but also formal − links to Frei Otto, Felix Candela and Heinz Eisler.
‘No’ say H&deM, with a series of etched-foam pieces hanging evocatively in space while the mother of all wall-newspapers is ranged around the edge as a discourse of architectural incomprehension. Both might be said to be taking an elitist position − of concentration upon an internal culture or admission of a clash of cultures. In the end though, the actual stuff is worth the wafting, cutting, floating, carving and implicitly flies in the face of all those less talented worthies who use populism to hide lack of creativity.
I had the same sense of elation in the Nordic Pavilion, still the best room in Venice, which exhibited the work of 32 architects born after the creation 50 years ago of Sverre Fehn’s building. The theme of ‘light houses’ is suitably Nordic and in many ways far more evocative than the official theme, stimulating so many of them
to move out from the functional (and sometimes material) pressures of their regular work towards a rediscovery of that magic moment when the formed object has to engage, but only just, with the ground beneath.
While amused by the way in which FAT have become cannily middle-aged by reconstructing themselves as serious cutters and copiers of the Villa Rotonda − leaving behind their multicoloured giggles and entering a white-upon-white world − I was far more intrigued by the evolution of the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo
with a full-size reconstruction of the Wall House that she had designed 12 years before, imagining the possibly hilarious conversations between the Indian craftsmen and Australian architectural students who made up the team, and admiring her original ‘take’ on the combination of indigenous craft techniques and modern thinking. Not as pleased with itself as Studio Mumbai, though yet to become as naughty as South Africa’s Peter Rich.
One cannot just wander around the show without moments of intense rage: whatever Chipperfield’s reasons for presenting the work of Berlin’s Hans Kollhoff, it surely remains an affront to all that is liberal, sensitive, humane, delightful or responsive and seems to be waiting for a repressive regime to accompany it. On the other hand, one can be inspired.
The pummelled and emptied Spanish have responded to crisis by bringing really creative sets of architects to their pavilion: Selgas Cano (not on the intellectuals’ circuit, but watch them) who ingeniously spin plantations in space, Cloud9 who claim to use particle theory, or Fernando Menis from the Canary Islands who, like H&deM digs into solids, but far more manically and close-grainedly, and four more who legitimately live up to the optimistic title ‘Spainlab’ − in desperate times, don’t just sit there, do some research.
The first-day buzz suggested that Russia had left behind its detached Romanticism of other years and pulled off something pretty cool, and first impressions seemed good: a beautifully crafted glossy black dome invites you to examine the future of Skolkovo (Moscow’s silicon valley), so you pick up an iPad, scan in and discover the new Russia − but, oh (as Private Eye might say) shurely shome mishtake: it’s the usual suspects doing their thing again.
But no disappointment next door in the Japanese Pavilion.Indeed, for once I find myself totally agreeing with the ‘Golden Lion’ judges. There is, one remembers, a marvellous consistency of the Japanese Pavilions, Biennale-by-Biennale. They rarely falter and I can clearly recall all of the last four or five. Japanese Rule 1: get a really wise Commissioner; Rule 2: keep the team small; Rule 3: keep to a simple story; Rule 4: don’t be afraid of aesthetic quality (UK and many others please take note).
This year’s commissioner, Toyo Ito is brilliant and generous and sends a clear message: ‘“Home-For-All” may consist of small buildings, but it posits the vital question of what form architecture should take in the modern era and beyond.’ The task is to respond to the disaster of the tsunami at Rikuzentakata, still resonating in everyone’s mind. With the three young architects, Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata, Ito goes there, they discuss, ponder and design, mostly rough timber frames and witty insertions. In the Pavilion they place the models on timber stumps. The neat little catalogue is straight, essential but chatty, no jargon, no ‘look how clever we are’, eschewing all the miles of academic or quasi-academic rhetoric that wallpapers too many of the exhibits.
It can be argued that so many of the architects and not a few of the discussions exist in our favourite websites and magazines, or that the assiduous young lecture-goer can catch it in the flesh if they happen to live in London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo or Moscow. But the mixture of occasional theatricality (Petra Blaisse’s magic space-changing curtain); humour (Ireland’s see-saw); or adventurousness (Denmark at the North Pole) − each is worth the trip to Venice alone.
For the true investigator the richness of the event lies in the newer, try-harder corners of the small or fringe ‘Pavilions’: the inclusiveness of Hong Kong, the richness of international student work hosted by Slovenia, the arid audacity of Serbia’s white table. If trends continue, it will be here, at the ever-increasing edges, that the connoisseur will need to delve, and Rem Koolhaas − believed to be the next Director − might do worse than inflict his brilliant and creatively cynical persona onto the little places rather than the usual thumpers for an amazing next Biennale.
Venue: Venice Biennale
Dates: until 25 November 2012