Grand Tour of the Country Exhibitions
by Florian Heilmeyer | Jun 14, 2016
Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

The 15th International Architecture Exhibition is above all large, as in huge. Anyone wanting to gain anything like a serious idea of what’s on show at the Arsenale, in the Giardini and the various venues round town can expect to need two days at least, and then on the third day start revisiting the most promising of the shows and perusing them leisurely. Here are a few tips for some of the exhibitions well worth viewing over and above the “Reporting from the Front” exhibition Aravena curated. The idea: to take you on a “Grand Tour” of the country exhibitions at this Biennale.

Photos © Croatian Pavillon 2016, Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia, Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Albanian songs, Croatian niches and an Irish spaceship

At the end of the main exhibition the nine-meter-high halls of the Corderie in the grounds of the Arsenale transition into the far lower rooms of the Artiglierie. A new geography evolves here, with, nestling up to one another, Albania next to Kuwait, Bahrain and Macedonia, as if the atlas had been all shook up for the architecture Biennale. Albania separated off half a hall using transparent PVC strips, and sitting on strangely archaic plastic stools by Max Lamb you can listen to the audio installation “I Have Left You the Mountain”. Ten artists and theorists were invited to compose a personal text on emigration, on the ‘foreign’ and on home – they include Yona Friedman, Anri Sala and Yanis Varoufakis. These texts were then put to sound by way of an iso-polyphonic song, a traditional form of Albanian song that has been on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2005. While there may be no architecture here, when you peek through the foil at the faces of the architects who hasten hectically by and listen to the deep Albanian male voices then it all seems decidedly pleasant. In fact, here and there people were truly moved and a tear could be seen rolling down the odd cheek – the catalog is published by Sternberg Press along with a pretty hip vinyl LP.

If a building made of voices is architecture with too little flesh and bones, then move a few meters further on to Croatia’s Biennale entry. It could initially be mistaken for an ad billboard by a sports shoe maker with the large words of the title written on the wall: “We Need It, We Do It. And the one or other visitor may be frightened off by the clutter of small elements. But do not fear, and persevere, and you will find an intelligent exhibition on re-using three buildings – in Zagreb, Rijeka and Split. What at first look like shelves full of found objects turn out on closer inspection to be the interiors of the three buildings cut into the black walls: The new use of each structure is illustrated by a mixture of found items, collages and drawings as if in a typesetter’s case. In this way, the outside appearance of the architecture gets completely eliminated and you can instead concentrate entirely on the “social praxis” of the new use. A highly successful form of presentation and the small parts actually prove to be a lot of fun.

Anyone now needing a breather should check out the crazy Irish installation. Sixteen projectors have been hung vertically in the space and fastened with yellow tensioning straps such that they almost resemble a spaceship. Drawings have been hastily scribbled on the floor of the space and what is shown is swiftly scribbled over. It’s an impressive installation, as here the focus is on “Losing Myself” – on architecture for dementia patients. The spatial impact of the installation is left in the lurch in that the study on the spatial behavior of Alzheimer’s patients that underpins it remains pretty impenetrable.

Photos © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark, Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia

Self-builds in Mexico, typologies in the United Arab Emirates, copies from London and a strange ship from Istanbul

The Sale d’Armi stands opposite the Artiglierie and a little off the beaten track. On its ground floor Mexico presents its “Unfoldings and Assemblages”. The curators sought nationwide for good examples of architecture without architects and are now showcasing houses, settlements and building techniques that are above all the product of oral tradition or the creative use of standard commercial construction elements. It is a display of Do-It-Yourself by unskilled laborers who are fulfilling their dream of owning their own home – sometimes this has even spawned small manuals on how to build houses. An exhibition that is actually a little to slickly designed for the topic, and is likewise crammed full – you could easily lose your way in the photos, posters and texts on the tabletops.

The United Arab Emirates show directly next door is far less cluttered, and the entire exhibition was cleared by security staff during the opening, evidently to make way for high-ranking state guests. Be that as it may, “Transformations” is absolutely worth seeing. The exhibition focus on a specific house typology, the “Emirati National House”, a very comfortable courtyard home intended on its introduction in the 1970s to make the population more sedentary. This political agenda for steadying up residential living, i.e., the urbanization of society, is told marvelously down through the decades by means of the modifications to this standard house. We witness how it gets ever larger, more comfortable and more personalized, before its significance starts to wane again.

One room on and there is another set of major thoughts in the “World of Fragile Parts” hosted by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Here, the focus is on the art of copying, along with issues of preservation. This involves first its own collection of 19th-century plaster casts, and second contributions by the likes of Sam Jacob and Eyal Weizman, who explore our highly technological present world. If we could use the latest 3D printers to scan and copy all objects, should we then do so in order to preserve these items for future generations? What does “original” mean in an age when things can be reproduced almost effortlessly? And what criteria to we use to decide what we should preserve in the form of copies?

Anyone now needing to gather their thoughts will find an opportunity to do so at the Turkish exhibition. The calming expansive installation consists of found objects from a former ship-building wharf and is meant to highlight the historical links between the Ottoman and Venetian maritime powers. And the ship is called “bastarda” of all things. Nice! Thematically completely separate are the commercials shown on some screens that outline the latest urban development districts of Istanbul. Could there really not have been something more exciting on the topic of “Reporting from the Front” from Turkey?

Photos © Robert Volhard, Stylepark, Francesco Galli, La Biennale di Venezia, Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

It’s all so beautiful there: Denmark and South Korea

One simply has to admire the Danes’ tenacity in the Giardini. They’re known of course (if not notorious) for one immensely powerful exhibition after the next, each bursting at the seams with super examples of the latest Danish architecture. With “Art of Many”, this year the Danes have gone one better and in what is a pretty large pavilion anyway they’ve used scaffolding to insert yet another level in order to be able to showcase even more projects. The press release proudly declares: “The exhibition does not present the work of one single person but of more than 70 architecture offices.” Okay, I give up and won’t even bother to concentrate on individual projects, and will instead read the installation as a chamber of marvels full of strange, finely worked, but essentially foreign objects, the individual meaning of which eluded me. As such, the overall picture the Danish Pavilion paints is truly beautiful.

The South Korean Pavilion is pretty well full. The clear thematic arrangement makes it easier here to burrow deeper, and that is exactly what it’s all about: the increasing density of the country’s cities. “The FAR Game” shows how architects and investors repeatedly come up with new ideas for buildings that all serve one purpose: to offer more surface area. Hardly surprisingly, “FAR” stands for “Floor/Area Ratio”. Precisely at this Biennale, where there are so many exhibitions on rural, handmade building, this is a crucial report on the front that runs through the growing cities of our global present.

Photos © Thomas Wagner, Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Hanging out poolside, stealing for Uruguay

Anyone needing another break can simply let their feet dangle in the large pool in the Australian Pavilion and read all about Australian pool culture in one of the magazines provided. The curators of the Uruguay Pavilion evidently had the most fun, though, as there’s a huge hole in the floor there, and next to it a fresh pile of earth. The sparse texts on the wall state that both Tupamaros guerillas and the survivors of an airplane crash in the Andes, who had to tough it out for two months in the wreckage, used the sparsest of means to efficiently change their immediate surroundings. “We will understand what architecture is for us once our lives depend on it,” reads one comment on the wall. Fair enough, but why was it that volunteers were able to register at the pavilion during the opening days to have a stinky plastic tarp thrown over their heads which, so the claim, functioned to make them invisible? Thus masked, the volunteers were then supposed to head off and steal objects from other countries’ exhibitions – these were then collected, labeled and carefully archived. The stolen goods are to later be transported to Montevideo where they will serve as an exhibition on the Biennale in Venice. When it came to being offbeat, this year only the Romanians were really able to compete with Uruguay, although the Romanian interactive wooden puppet theater “Selfie Automaton” was definitely not on a par with the Uruguayans when it came to sheer “criminal zest”.

Photos © Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia, David Grandorge, Baltic Pavilion

Modernism in Venice

Beyond the pale of the major exhibition zones there’s the city itself, and alongside the Portuguese entry, which we have described in detail elsewhere, there are two other entries in particular that succeed in turning the architecture itself into an experience or an exhibit.
The three Baltic states, which have joined forces for the first time, have discovered a large, Brutalist triple sports hall directly next to the main entrance to the Arsenale – “Palasport Arsenale”, designed by Enrichetto Capuzzo in 1977. The hall really is a discovery and for a moment you catch your breath after having walked from the narrow alleyway along the staggered concrete façade and climbed a couple of stairs and stepped through the relatively small doors – into a high, largely self-contained hall. The curators aptly describe this as a “clearing in the dense, historical fabric of the city”. Beneath the stands on either side are further sports zones that are in use during the exhibition and thus fill the space with the long-forgotten but so familiar sounds of sports lessons – while you wander round studying the items on show in the hall. It is just a shame that the exhibition does not do more than simply exhibit a large number of unsorted objects, materials, plans and photographs, largely leaving it to the visitor to classify them all. Somewhere amongst them we are meant to find the theme: How buildings and trans-national infrastructure planning (gas pipelines, airports, rail tracks, roads) can reveal the transnational, regional identity of the three Baltic states. It’s doubtless an exciting topic, if only you could readily grasp it from what is on show. Thus, perhaps unintentionally, it’s the building that is the real star.

By contrast, the “Unfolding Pavilion” on the Dorsoduro turns out to be a hijacked holiday apartment in “Casa alle Zattere”, an impressive postwar palazzo that for the first time since commissioning in 1958 is being made publicly accessible, at least in part. This modernized reinterpretation of Venice’s historical palazzi caused quite a stir back in the 1950s and 1960s, which is outlined by the two curators Davide Tommaso Ferrando and Daniel Munteanu in their “curated archive” and is now accessible on the website and is scheduled to come out at the end of the Biennale as a publication. The wonderfully easygoing, privately organized pop-up exhibition was only on show for six days in the apartment; the artists and architects invited to participate had set up smaller installations in the rooms, referencing elements of the building or its history. The idea is for the “Unfolding Pavilion” to become a series that on each occasion opens up a specific building or home that deserves closer attention on the margins of a major architecture event – the curators have already set their sights on a specific building for the next Biennale in two years’ time.

At the end of this “Grand Tour” through the immense diversity of the exhibitions on show, which familiarizes us with distant architecture in the form of documentation, analyses or installations, one insight is as simple as it is pleasing: None of it can compete with the impressions gained when experiencing real architecture, walking round it in an everyday context, the way we can with the Portuguese entry on the Giudecca, as described elsewhere in detail on Stylepark.

15th International Architecture Exhibition Biennale Venice
Thru November 27, 2016

For details on the entries:

Albania: I Have Left You the Mountain

Croatia: We Need It, We Do It

Ireland: Losing Myself

United Arab Emirates: The Emirati National House

V&A London: World of Fragile Parts

Denmark: The Art of Many, The Right to Public Space

South Korea: The FAR Game

Australia: The Pool

Romania: Selfie Automaton

The Baltic Pavilion: The Baltic Atlas

The Unfolding Pavilion: