Alas, our age, it subsumes many ages. Far too much gets inflated in importance, and what is created is suddenly tagged sustainable and trail-blazing. And yet each construct shines for only one brief moment. After all, among all the countless things on show, what can we actually grasp and understand? From among the multitude of good or well-intentioned ideas and visions, what amounts to more than simply a one-hit wonder? What makes a lasting impression well into the future? In his book on "The Architecture of Happiness" Alain de Botton explores in depth the idea of what architecture is and indeed is capable of achieving in a best-case scenario: "Believing in the significance of architecture," he writes, "not only hinges on the assumption that in a different place we (whether we want to or not) become different persons, but also on the belief that architecture is responsible for making us realize who we would be in an ideal world."
The 12th Architecture Biennial, by its very nature, is one gigantic potpourri. Which is as it should be. Our daily lives have long since grown accustomed to having plenty of variety, we are only too used to making selections and choices. So who would we be in an ideal world, in other words, living in the very conditions presented to us at this Biennial, be it as facts that have been imagined or things that have already been built? To round off our series, we shall once again cast a critical eye over the entire panoply on view in Venice with a view to exploring the attitudes and interests that have taken shape as a result.
Architecture for the people
Indeed it seems that in her role as Artistic Director Kazuyo Sejima has succeeded with her central exhibition in imbuing the Biennial (and by extension the notion of architecture as a whole) with the spirit of a humanism that is gentle in its approach - or to rekindle our awareness of its necessity. First and foremost, what is demonstrated here is not the power and hubris of a guild that not only believes the world can be changed, but indeed that it is best-suite to put progress into practice. Sejima interprets architecture's task in a different light - a tad idealistic she may be, but she draws on immense experience. Her interest is not so much in pondering fashionable theoretical conundrums and depicting actual buildings or building assignments, but rather in what architecture is and can be today as a means of designing our lived world. For this reason, she stages architecture for the people and grasps planning and building not in isolation, but as part of the symbolic and real large-scale creation of atmosphere, a project to which visual artists, engineers, industry, education and politics all equally contribute. In short: She believes architecture is not just something for architects, structural engineers, civil engineers, investors and politicians. Equally important are all those who live in houses and hence "use" this architecture.
This is the key message of her show's title, People meet in architecture, which soon emerged as the motto of the entire Biennial, something that is by no means to be expected automatically. When people meet in architecture, they have experiences, of a social, political and also aesthetical nature. Instead of reciting manifestos yet again, the intention here is to create a wide range of architectural experiences and illustrate the effects architecture has on its users. This is not to say that an entire paradigm shift has taken place. What is clearly noticeable, however, is a substantial change in emphasis.
The triumph of installation
Admittedly, this approach inevitably creates new problems. Not necessarily problems directly related to building as such, but problems of how these architectural ideas can be conveyed and exhibited. Once built, the notion of architecture is always specific and tangible, whereas in the form of plans and models it must of necessity remain abstract. While a building can be experienced with all our senses, a model leaves it up to our imagination to translate it into real everyday contexts. Aside from the quality of the individual contributions, which Sejima selected and which she has granted ample space in order to allow them to freely unfold, she relies mostly on our sensory experience of space and everything that then arises as a consequence. In the Arsenale, Transsolar together with Tetsuo Kondo has created a helical path that winds its way upward through different climate zones before finally disappearing in an artificial cloud. The result is twofold: First, it enables changes in the atmosphere to be physically experienced, and second visitors are made aware that buildings and climate are primarily perceived through the senses, in other words, they are felt.
It is only logical that Sejima deliberately opted to include artworks in the show. Yet we should bear in mind that, as far as symbolic production is concerned, art tends to be superior to architecture; that said, architects - Hans Ulrich Obrist's epic interview marathon makes this blatantly obvious - love to see themselves as artists. The blurring of these boundaries has both positive and negative, pleasant and unpleasant consequences. In letting water hoses dance in strobe lighting, Olafur Eliasson creates an image in space that is as poetic as Janet Cardiff's 2001 installation "The Forty Part Motet", in which she evoked (but did not build) a sound environment from the voices of a choir. Walter Niedermayr's large-scale photographic exploration of public places and spaces is less concerned with portraying buildings than it is with the social and political interstices that form between them. Finally, in turning the focus on the natural conditions of construction, in her photographs Luisa Lambri deliberately examines the relationship between the buildings and their surrounding environment.
To summarize: For Sejima, the attempt to bring architecture closer to the symbolic forms of representation in art is not an end in itself. It is for two reasons that fewer diagrams, plans and models are on display than installations. First, the aim is to reference that experience of shaped and built space which goes beyond pure architecture and, second, she seeks to make the act of architectural creation seem like the production of environments and atmospheres. The tension thus created between the real and the abstract seems confusing only to those who perceive architecture to be engineering services in beautiful drapes.
Idealists making the world a better place
A lot of symbolic politics is played out in the national pavilions. That is, if we for the moment ignore the pavilions of Australia, Austria, the United States and, to some extent, France - all of which make architecture seem like a technoid vision of the future, a system of stardom or are plain condescending. And if we likewise disregard the embarrassment that there seems not one architect left on this planet who has not yet jumped on the ecological and sustainability bandwagon, and yet they all sit idly by when cities and countryside are being covered in bad investor architecture. To put it differently: First we get rid of the existing gardens in our communal spaces and erect run-of-the-mill buildings in their stead, then we preach "guerilla gardening", call for "green cities", and act as if we are oh-so-in-tune with nature.
The spectrum of rescue fantasies of self-proclaimed do-gooders ranges from the corny, gold-sheeted and overly bland question of "salvation" in the Egyptian contribution, to the arc in the Greek pavilion, which is supposed to rescue fragrant plants and herbs from our present day Flood and ensure their flight into a better future. Bizarre participation games are likewise very popular. Visitors looking for the emergency exit in Poland's pavilion will find nothing but a bouncy castle placed before a backdrop of stacked wire baskets. As if they were participating in a seminar on the subject of "trust", they are encouraged to plunge from a height of several meters, only to land softly on the comfortable inflated mattress below. Somewhat more fun, yet definitely no more convincing aesthetically, is the Serb environment, which consists of wooden see-saws and mobile plants. The tediously repetitive mantra that all which is needed to (re)balance the relationship between man and nature is a commonplace; surely, the real thing is how this could actually be achieved outside of the pleasant Biennial playgrounds for grown-up children. At the end of the day, such installations are nothing but embarrassing. They how as little to do with art as they do with architecture. To conclude, a shift in emphasis in favor of aesthetic experience does not automatically lead to success.
Topical issues remain the order of the day
Existing problems remain virulent, however: How will we live? What will our cities and, even more so, our megacities look like in the near future? What solutions can architecture offer in this context? How does it respond to the commercialization of space, to population growth, increasing urbanization and a general pressure to change? How does architecture expand on what already exists? A number of promising possible launchpads are definitely on show, for example, in the Dutch pavilion. Yet while Sejima pays homage to a humanist minimalism and seeks dialog with the users, other star architects still demonstrate their unbroken faith in the superiority of architecture. A perfect example here is Rem Koolhaas, who in Venice was awarded a Golden Lion for his life's work.
The present as chronochaos
"Chronochaos" is what Koolhaas, his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and its associated research branch AMO have named their didactic installation, which spreads across two levels of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The lower level displays some of OMA's projects, politically enhanced to include pieces of original furniture from the former "Haus der deutschen Kunst" (House of German Art) in Munich. On the upper floor we encounter in the form of a "manifesto in space" examples of conservation, structured into five themed groups. Within the framework set by Sejima, things long since been forgotten are seeing a revival. Meaning that Rem Koolhaas' exuberant production of paper and proposals - he serves up tear-off and take-away photographs - is regarded by many as one of the highlights of this year's Architecture Biennial.
Elevators pushing progress
Nonetheless, is it safe to assume that Kohlhaas is indeed committed to sensible monument protection that strikes a balance between the wish to preserve and present-day interests? Or is he simply annoyed that he is not given a free hand when modifying already existing architecture? His analysis is as follows: Koolhaas believes that there are two trends that exist parallel to each other. On the one hand, a growing number of sites and buildings, including those created relatively recently, are being placed under preservation orders. Post-War architecture, on the other, is increasingly extinguished as a social project. On the basis of more or less well-known examples, or so the wall text claims, the show pinpoints a "distorting synchrony of preservation and destruction", a synchrony "that destroys any notion of the linear development of time". The installation on the whole thus sets out to show up our era as a "period of acute chronochaos", in which every chronological order is destroyed.
As self-critical as this stance may seem to be at first glance, in actual fact the complete opposite is true. It is itself somewhat astonishing that Koolhaas, always keen on opening up the structure of cities and buildings in the past, should suddenly be pushing for "preservation". We can begin to glean what is really behind all this if we study the first few lines of the wall text: "Architects - we who change the world - have been oblivious or hostile to the manifestations of preservation in the past." One of Koolhaas' recent projects presented for Venice, which involves the restoration and redefinition of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi directly adjacent to the Rialto bridge, illustrates the possibility of how amnesia and hostility can be overcome on the ground. The crucial thing here is not that the master intends to create an exclusive department store complete with his apparently inevitable colored elevators. But that Koolhaas, under the sweet mantle of preservation, intends nothing more but to push through his own ideas, in this case even vis-à-vis the past.
He is quite blatantly staking a powerful claim: We architects, "we who change the world", we are being stopped from developing what we want. It is not until we have understood this will to power that we can comprehend what is meant by the wish to act "retroactively". For Koolhaas, evidently, the present and the future no longer suffice, which is why he now seeks to assert himself vis-à-vis the past, too. Seen from this angle, his contribution to the Biennial primarily serves the purpose of masking his true intentions, where preservation certainly does not take pride of place.
Miestakes or mistakes?
Even Mies van der Rohe, to name but one example, is not spared this arrogance. Under the heading "Miestakes", Koolhaas in all seriousness says of his own concept for Mies' "Campus Center" in Chicago that "simply through (the risk) of being touched by OMA" the campus will morph into a "masterpiece". In this respect, and as regards Koolhaas' plans for Venice, one can only hope that the Italian monument conservators who (unlike their German colleagues who have to obey the whims of the politicians) are famous for their extremely high standards, will duly put those architects in their place. Better a red card than a red elevator.
Sadly, it says a lot about the architects' guild that, notwithstanding the slight interest in monument protection architects tend to show, the moment the great Theorist starting up his phrase production machine everyone starts applauding. However, the Theorist in this instance is not one to humbly praise his predecessors' achievements and acknowledge their social commitment; here, the speaker is a hatchet man who seeks to smother opposition, no matter how small, with bombastic image/word displays. Being spared his interest-driven pseudo-theories for even just a few years would be a real gain. To that end, we would gladly bestow the title "Tiger of Venice" upon him - he already has a Lion. Be this as it may, such intervention does little for monument protection; a precise analysis of the benchmarks to be employed and the balance of power that prevent this very situation would have been more appropriate here.
Is longing all that ultimately remains?
Could it be that, following much openness and willingness to engage in dialog, and after producing environments and atmospheres, not to forget the demonstration of will to power over past, present and future, architecture is ultimately a question of longing? No, I will refrain from commenting on the illustrated rollercoaster of emotions on display in the German pavilion, whose team of curators regrettably calls itself "Walverwandtschaften" (a play on words with "elective affinities" alluding also to an affinity to whales). I prefer to cite from the accompanying booklet, which contains a contribution by Werner Oechslin who writes tersely as follows: "It seems that the more tirelessly the acrhitects succumb to their need of self-expression the less space for longing they then enjoy."
To conclude: Kazuyo Sejima takes an open approach to the architecture presented and does not lose sight of whom it is meant to serve. That said, many a star came bounding into the Lion's city as a tiger - and ended up as a bedside rug. The one or other among the architects may be confused. But of Chronochaos there is none to be seen. On the contrary, ever since its destruction by the media, our desire has blossomed - for space and the experience of it.
The following having already appeared as part of our series on the Architecture Biennial:
› Oliver Elser on the central exhibition by Biennial Director Kazuyo Sejima
› Dirk Meyhöfer on "Desire" in the German pavilion
› Sandra Hofmeister on urban free spaces and vacancies in the French and Dutch pavilions
› Annette Tietenberg on the British pavilion, where a school of seeing has set up shop
› Carsten Krohn on the end of "signature architecture" and the beginning of a the production of atmospheres
› Dirk Meyhöfer on the emotional states en route to reanimating the Russian industrial city of Vyshny Volochok
› Claus Käpplinger on the country pavilions outside the Giardini and the Arsenale
› Axel Simon on the Japanese pavilion and Tokyo as metabolic town full of doll`s houses
› Annette Tietenberg on the Bahraini pavilion, which was awarded with the Golden Lion for the best country contribution
› Axel Simon on the production of future scenarios
› Claus Käpplinger on the construction of bridges in Switzerland
› Carsten Krohn on Brasilia as anti-city
› Claus Käpplinger on the alternative live-style of the kibbutzim in Israel
› Carsten Krohn on Rem Koolhaas and the preservation of historic monuments