Nigel Coates critiques Monditalia at the Venice Biennale, an exhibition on the culture and history of Italy
As the Grand Canal widens out to the Bacino, the view across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore hurts with Stendhalian sublime beauty. Yet behind this scene men are on the make; the unique weighty significance of Venice can’t help but be a living lesson about all cities. Woe betide any architect who does not study its every detail. That means business, and where there’s business in Italy, opportunism is never far away.
We’re talking the most recent episode in Tangentopoli, the exposure of the dark force of self-interest that has plagued this country since the early 1990s. The latest scandal involves the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, who is accused of using dirty funds to get elected, and a bevy of regional officials who siphoned off funds from the sea defence project currently under construction.
To focus on Italy at the Arsenale is undoubtedly a brave move, and not one that would be willingly undertaken by the Italian status quo. Neither of its curators, Ippolito Pestellini nor Rem Koolhaas, depends on Italy’s culture of sweeteners for their professional livelihood. They want to stir the pot, and go beyond the tourist clichés of gondolas or pizza, the Colosseum or the Ponte Vecchio. The Biennale organisation, an ‘independent’ foundation registered in the Netherlands, often encourages partisan views. Applying OMA’s tried and tested research method, Monditalia tackles this national portrait with verve, connecting it both with the broader aims of the Biennale, and to the political reality of the whole country. It comes at architecture sideways, and even extends to a programme of dance and theatre, though I’d never heard of any of these performers.
Sadly Italy’s reputation for cultural innovation has taken a kicking. With a few notable exceptions, its current artists and architects fail to match up to its vibrant and influential past. Where are the Carlo Mollinos or the Giò Pontis of today? Probably living in London or New York, or in Pestellini’s case, Rotterdam. Yet architects (I’m guilty too) can’t help refer to Italian stereotypes. In the very first room of the show, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government features as an advance case study everyone can sign up to, and an effective reminder of Italy’s immense cultural patrimony. Part of a cycle of frescoes in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, Good Government still sets the benchmark for any city aspiring to integrate its leaders’ ideals with those of its citizens.
Further ahead exemplars aren’t as benign. Far from enabling society to function, many examples in the sequence of case studies suggest that public administration inadvertently provides the model for counterfeit governance like the mafia. And otherwise well-meaning citizens consider government fair game for personal gain. Which is not to say that corruption isn’t rampant throughout the world (it’s getting worse). Italy’s bounty lies in its warmth of character, sense of place, delicious culinary traditions and ‘immense riches’ setting it apart from all other countries, but whose Achilles’ heel lies in its predilection for furbizia (getting away with it), bella figura (making a good impression), evasion, waste and enough vanity to make Nero seem modest.
Many young Italians were involved in this cycle of case studies; for the less cynical it does channel a more positive future ‘built out of the ruins of the past’. A Calvinoesque version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales for architects perhaps, Monditalia unfolds variously through images, myths and forensically collated data. Astute visitors will identify with these parodies and provocations − if they can wade through a wealth of texts, 3-D diagrams and vast amounts of data that underpin them.
Digitally enlarged to the length of the Corderie, the fifth-century Tabula Peutingeriana map situates 41 architectural episodes in the gallery and in this conceit, you walk metaphorically from south to north along the Italian peninsula. Stretching 316-metres from one end of the building to the other, it acts as a permeable divider distinguishing ‘architecture’ from its cinematic double. In a concertina effect of multiple screens suspended in the darkness, clips from the greats play to imaginary audiences who know these films like an American might know The Wizard of Oz.
Practically (and architecturally) speaking, the show combines a complex set of layers; layers woven into a framework that combines nation, geography, place, data, social criteria, history, metamorphosis, myth, religion and emotion. Along the way you are repeatedly reminded how significant surroundings are to the Italian sensibility, and how filmmakers, particularly of the Neorealist generation, channelled a disenfranchised people towards embracing the future however meagre.
There are frequent powerful pairings between cinema and the ‘architectural’ condition. A shipload of Italian emigrants bound for America in Lamerica by Gianni Amelio encapsulates the ‘waiting room’ that Lampedusa has recently become for vast numbers of escapees from North Africa. The sensual undercurrents of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris emphasise the everydayness of erotic language in Pompeii. A sense of isolation in the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone captures the utopian isolation of an extraordinary villa on the barren west coast of Sardinia built for Antonioni. Having fallen in love with Monica Vitti during the filming of Red Desert, he commissioned the architect Dante Bini to build a cave-like house where they could withdraw from the prying eyes of the paparazzi.
‘All roads lead to Rome. Yes, but where exactly?’, one section asks. Plans of the city abound with a profusion of squares and landmarks earmarked as possible candidates. The film side answers by calling up a scene from Federico Fellini’s Roma, a pack of motorcyclists on Moto Guzzis roar aggressively past familiar monuments. As if shot by one of the bikers, the sequence culminates in a camera-sweep around the Piazza del Campidoglio, the spiritual centre of Rome, charged with Michelangelo’s ‘parametric’ floor pattern.
Two episodes in particular stress how Italians can do profligate waste ‘that much better’. With a €400 million spend on a project by Stefano Boeri, the island of La Maddalena would have been host to the 2009 G8 summit. At the last minute it was dumped by Berlusconi in favour of an alternative venue in L’Aquila, only recently shaken to the quick by a violent earthquake. A case study itself, L’Aquila still now suffers exquisite buildings shored up with wooden scaffolding, while survivors of the disaster zone have done their utmost to tame their temporary shelters with any sign of a real home. Pier Paolo Pasolini provides a partner clip. Filmed in southern cave-town Matera, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo underscores the desolation.
Four allegories from Florence interlace two grand examples of the architectural imagination − Michelangelo’s Laurentian staircase and Superstudio’s Continuous Monument − with another disaster, the 1966 flood which virtually eliminated the ground level of the city, and the advent of nightclub hedonism with the Space Electronic disco. As one of Italy’s top four tourist cities, Florence lives with these contradictions to this day.
Now familiar with alternating ecstasy and dereliction, we journey past the surreal scene of a Sikh festival in the small town of Fiorenzuola, Reggio Emilia, paralleled by a powerful sequence from Bertolucci’s Novecento in which an army of peasants with sticks and pitchforks faces off an advancing line of government troops. In the ‘north’, the study on new town Milano 2 exposes Berlusconi’s attempt to translate his chat-show politics into a gigantic development where people could live in ‘direct-to-tv’ urbanism. Deservedly it was awarded a Golden Lion. Even further north, global warming is literally melting Italy’s borders with France, Switzerland and Austria. And eastwards to Venice, ephemeral constructs like the 1989 Pink Floyd concert, for which the stage was built on a pontoon moored off St Mark’s Square, illustrate the proliferation of events that took place around that time, and how in some small way, they made up for the fact that so little of significance was being built at the time.
Occasionally the exhibition route is interrupted by one of the performance spaces. At the time of the previews and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the experience, they were hosting contemporary dance performances. To achieve the desired effect, this live ‘architecture’ could have taken place much closer to the case study displays, or within dark zones for film. As they are, they’re somewhat thrown away.
But this exhibition is a sincere attempt to look at architecture without the usual emphasis on authorship or aesthetic, opting instead to look at it in a national and social context. Instead it asks whether architecture can constitute a kind of string theory that embraces all matter and all human energy. Both its flaws and its strengths lie in its conceptual format. It constructs its own architecturalised system of governance. Each contributor must have been free to play his or her part, but at the risk of descending into Googlesque jabber. The method wears thin at times, and when in trouble, is saved by the borrowed brilliance of the Italian cinema.
Out in the city, Venice is a natural at hosting the wealth of parties that happen during the opening days of both the art and architecture Biennales. But off the beaten track it is still possible to get a whiff of what it means for the few people who really live there. On a gatepost between the two main Biennale sites, a spray notice points with an arrow to an imaginary pavilion: ANONYMOUS STATELESS IMMIGRANTS PAVILION. Graffitied on a nearby wall, I spotted NO GRANDE NAVI (Say No to Cruise Liners). Only minutes later the view of San Giorgio disappeared, obliterated by a cruise ship so big, it dwarfed the buildings. Ant-sized specs were waving to us on the quay below. Despite ongoing and sometimes vociferous opposition, no doubt hidden economic forces will let the ships sail on.