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Hard Graft: The Italian Pavilion

In the shadow of the Biennale’s vast Moditalia exhibition, the Italian pavilion presents Modernism’s impact on the country as a lineage of, often incongruous, architectural augmentations

The curator, Italian architect Cino Zucchi, describes his country’s relationship with Modernism over the last century as a process of ‘grafting’ modernity into an ‘existing layered urbanity’. Organised as disparate chapters, the exhibition is a more nuanced operetta than Rem Koolhaas’s theme suggests. Though lacking a clear hierarchy, the intelligent analysis and poetic connections between works spanning centuries made for a rich, immersive and constantly surprising experience.

Milan’s wartime destruction and reconstruction were given prominence as a dozen of the city’s landmark towers − from the Torre Velasca by BBPR to César Pelli’s Garibaldi − were shown in beautiful travertine models. Elsewhere, a digital collage depicted an evolution of Italy’s historic ‘grafting’, with a section through a Piranesi humorously revealing a dumb series of (modern) floor slabs behind a collaged facade.

What stood out most − among a very factual and diagrammatic Arsenale − is Zucchi’s design interventions. Cut into the entrance of the vast 19th-century building is an elegant domed Corten-steel entrance (itself a graft of one of his residential buildings on La Giudecca) and a long bench that twists around an orchard at the back of the pavilion. These two designs continue in an Italian lineage of Modernists − after Scarpa and Rossi − that are conscious of national tradition, craft and style.

Unlike elsewhere, Italian Modernism is not particularly functional or efficient. The country has its own way of reading (and innovating within) existing urban conditions. And beyond the curatorial confines of the Biennale, the summer scene of Venice makes the same point − and perhaps more graphically − as the city’s ancient architecture and nostalgic gondoliers are collaged uncomfortably against air-conditioning units and the super yachts of the global rich.

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