Initial responses to the central exhibition at this year's Biennale di Venezia have been consistently enthusiastic, some even downright eulogistic. The general mood and the first reviews concur that as the curator of the 12th Architecture Biennial, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima has done everything right, indeed has perhaps even organized the best architecture exhibition ever to be seen at this long-standing location in Venice - or so Dietmar Steiner, Director of Architekturzentrum in Vienna, who has been involved in the Biennial since its inception in 1980, enthused on Facebook shortly after the opening.
For Sejima, who has been running architecture bureau SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) in Tokyo with her partner Ryue Nishizawa since 1995, this biennial represents yet another pinnacle in her highly successful career. Only a few months ago, in May of this year, SANAA won the Pritzker Prize, the world's most prestigious architecture award. A few months earlier, the "Rolex Learning Center" was completed in Lausanne. This library and events building for the local university is considered to be one of this Japanese architect duo's best buildings to date.
And it is this building that visitors to Venice's Arsenale are first confronted with right at the beginning of the exhibition. German film director Wim Wenders has made a 12-minute 3-D film on the "Rolex Learning Center" that has succeeded in being both appropriately grandiose and kitschy-cum-pathos-laden. In this film, viewers appear to be floating through the landscape of the interior, certainly understanding why this building simply cannot be comprehended from architectural photos. The way Wenders' camera pans draw the viewer in is quite incredible. Sejima and her partner Nishizawa also flash across the picture, politically correctly on Segways driven by electricity. However, their permanent smirks and the plot suggested in the film- amongst other things, a cleaner discards her cloth and reaches, inspired, for a real doorstopper of a specialist book - drag the film down to the level of the aesthetics to be found in well-meant commercials.
As visitors will realize several rooms later in the exhibition, this sets the basic tone for what Sejima has chosen as her position: This time, she has simply opted to ignore all those weighty questions that were tossed around at previous biennials without coming to any conclusions, making room for a playful lightness. And this is really very, very satisfying. Sustainability, traffic, the growth of metropolises, star architecture and its crazy designs - all the worries that, to be honest, never really got anybody any further, have, in the year 2010, been replaced by a curiosity for architecture that has actually been built, is actually feasible and does not display any delusions of grandeur.
So it is that at Sejima's biennial people are allowed to be amazed: at two giant reinforced concrete tunnel supports that are an important facet in the buildings of Antón Garcia-Abril & Ensamble Studio but that sound hollow when visitors knock on them. At a darkroom with water hoses that discharge themselves ecstatically onto the floor in the light of a stroboscope in an installation by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. At a mist or cloud area by the German climate engineers at Transsolar who, together with Tetsuo Kondo, a Japanese designer, have wound a filigree steel ramp around the powerful brick supports that visitors must mount, suddenly finding themselves above a thick layer of mist in one of those edifying moments which we are familiar with from flying or, to put it a better way, from mountain hikes. And at much more besides.
However, those who were most amazed were doubtless all those who stood in front of the installation by young Japanese architect Junya Ishigami on the very first day. Ishigami, Sejima's most successful ex-staffer to date, has attempted to surpass that "hint of nothingness" that is the objective of SANAA, and that is so difficult to achieve in architecture. In what appears to be a magical fashion, thin white wires sketch out the volume of a building planned in Europe, held in place only by even thinner wires that are anchored to the ground: It is a triumph of will and of the most delicate of handicrafts over gravity. Four days before the opening a cat strolled through the halls, got itself caught up in the wires, and brought the whole thing tumbling down. The construction team worked night and day to re-erect this little miracle. A few hours later a cleaner became its nemesis yet again. For this work, and it is one that is almost impossible to photograph, Ishigami won the Golden Lion for the best entry in the exhibition "People meet in Architecture".
The room by Studio Mumbai also deserved the prize: a hall filled to the brim with wooden building elements and models to all kinds of scales, based on the type of workshop used by an Indian architects' initiative, the kind that does not just draw plans and then have buildings constructed on their basis but together with simple workers and artisans gets its hands dirty when continuing the traditional building methods.
The route through the show as curated by Sejima continues in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. By far the largest building on the Giardini site was originally pavilion to the host nation, i.e., its purpose was for Italy to stage itself in monumental fashion. However, for some years now this labyrinth of a building has been reserved for the "main exhibition" by the relevant biennial directors next to the old navy arsenals, at the rear of which the new Italian pavilion is located. In contrast to the arsenals, which have a seductive charm thanks to their historic factory and warehouse buildings with their rough red brick walls, the inside of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni is soberly whitewashed and somehow cleaner in appearance. Because of the size of the rooms there is no space here for the kind of installations to be found in the Arsenale. Here, visitors are more likely to imagine themselves in a classic exhibition hall and curator Kazuyo Sejima has not made any attempt to change the existing rhythm proposed by the sequence of rooms: next room, next topic. It is only the independent work of her own bureau SANAA and the large-scale models by Swiss architect Christian Kerez that visitors encounter several times when making their way through the maze that is Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
That said, an exception is also made for Rem Koolhaas: This Dutch architect has mounted an "exhibition within an exhibition" in two halls. This exhibition is one of the best things to have come out of Koolhaas' OMA bureau in a long time: The subject is "Preservation", i.e., monument preservation which, as is explained on presentation boards that argue in a surprisingly straightforward manner, is currently experiencing a quite unprecedented kind of boom. Nostalgia and memory go hand-in-hand. At the same time, countless post-War buildings are disappearing because large sections of society refuse to accept them as worthy of protection. Koolhaas warns against the current ‘clean-slate' mentality, opposing it with his own projects such as the conversion of the coal washing facility at the Zeche Zollverein colliery in Essen where, according to him, the project succeeded in changing "almost nothing" and yet still making a new usage possible - the Ruhr Museum.
The curator's approach is most noticeable in Palazzo delle Esposizioni from the many giant and sometimes even model railway-like models. Right at the entrance is a model, placed directly on the floor and occupying the whole room: It is a series of pavilion buildings in the village of Inujima that has been complemented by a series of extremely subtle pavilions produced by Sejima's bureau SANAA, nothing more than pure architecture, lacking in purpose and function and, at the same time, integrated into their environment almost to the point of being invisible.
Other models were contributed by architect Aldo Cibic: These, too, are readily comprehensible for the lay viewer and, with their brightly colored look, represent a future scenario worth thinking about. The proposal: In future, will the idea of living in green spaces lead to private gardens being replaced by agricultural space? Rampant sprawl and the trend towards locally produced foodstuffs could lead to a new and meaningful settlement model.
"People meet in Architecture", the initially rather banal-sounding motto of this biennial is stressed in Palazzo delle Esposizioni on the final syllable: The exhibition is concerned with architecture and nothing else. And some people may complain that there is hardly any architecture on show, but instead many models. But, if they take a closer look, for example at the one made by Japanese studio Bow-Wow, they will find out that a new era has dawned here: It is no longer important to elevate miniature architecture to the ranks of abstract art works. Instead, everything about these seems so understandably and pleasantly normal as what 99.9 percent of people expect of their living environments. These are not the kind of buildings that have only been erected for illustrations in lifestyle magazines.
The fact that high-tech production methods are, nonetheless, meaningful when they lead to the kind of results that are more than digital kitsch and mere digital adornment is proven by the prototype of a scurrilous building on Escher-Wyss-Platz in Zurich, a cooperation project between the architecture bureau of Caruso St. John in London and Berlin-based artist Thomas Demand, who is famous for the models that he photographs. This "nail house", the Chinese term for the homes of those who refuse to vacate their house to make way for development, is based on a real-life house in China that was eventually demolished after its owner fought for a long time against the district giving way to complete redevelopment. Demand intends now to re-erect the model in Switzerland as a distant echo of that valiant protest, albeit in such a way that it looks as if it were made of wet cardboard.
There is something of a manifesto about this "nail house", the largest of the exhibits in Palazzo delle Esposizioni: Architecture is not necessarily the invention of something entirely new but the intelligent manipulation of the already familiar, tried-and-tested and ordinary. An attitude that we can also intuit in Kazuyo Sejima's curatorial position and from the buildings at the exhibition. And, talking about reading: the catalogue is a must-have.
People Meet in Architecture: 12th International Architecture Exhibition:
La Biennale di Venezia
Published by Kazuyo Sejima
Paperback, 608 pages, in English
Marsilio Pubisher, 75,99 Euro
12th International Architecture Biennial
Biennial Venice 2010
29 August 2010 - 21 November 2010
Giardini & Arsenale, Venice
Opening hours: 10 - 18h
Giardini: Closed on Mondays
Arsenale: Closed on Tuesdays
Tickets: €20, Students €12
"On amazement and a cat in the arsenals" is the first part of a series of articles on the Architecture biennial.