Head in the Clouds

In contrast to the previous edition, the 11th Venice Biennale in Architecture is marked by an incredibly diverse and yet inherently contradictory collection of architectural display. In 2006, curator Richard Burdett’s theme of Cities, Architecture and Society became a productive locus around which to evolve a discussion that went beyond the object to include a range of social dynamics. This year, Aaron Betsky’s Out There: Architecture Beyond Building concentrates an experimental agenda, presenting many of the most exceptional practitioners of today. Its lack of focus and predictable inclusion of overscaled celebrity-architect installations ultimately makes its “visionary” proposition difficult to maintain. That said, this year’s exhibition certainly provides a lively framework for current architectural debates.

Produced by a range of offices from Asymptote to Zaha Hadid, many of the installations at the main venue, the Arsenale, not only seem dated from the ’90s , but contribute little more than an inconsequential prowess. To

Betsky’s credit however, there are thankfully a few exceptions in this extensive exhibition, such as Philippe Rahm, An Te Liu, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, all of whose works are not only formally sophisticated but conceptually resonant. Using Venice as a case study in cultural tourism and to investigate questions of spatial representation, Diller Scofidio + Renfro present two large-screen videos depicting tours through Venice simulations built in Las Vegas and Macau. Filmed from the perspective of a quintessential gondola ride, the naturally illusory quality of the city lends itself readily to the strange feeling of displacement engendered by these double fantasies. Philippe Rahm’s preoccupation with the relation between climate, atmosphere and architecture is continued in the form of two minimal platforms offset from one another, the upper one heated to 12 degrees, the lower one to 28 degrees, which creates a continuous air flow using convection currents. With a neo-hippie sensibility, various clothed and unclothed actors articulated this architecture without walls at the exhibition opening, concentrating the ambiguous environmental metaphor and phenomenal conditions.

While immersive installations like the above truly do provide alternative constructions “beyond building,” many of the works fail to formulate critical questions. Hani Rashid and Lise-Anne Couture, the Canadian-born duo that head Asymptote, exhibit a version of their retro-futuristic, modular blob furniture that is in fact much more luxury fetish than innovative spatial probe. However, fellow Canadian–An Te Liu–with whom they share one of the very first rooms in the Arsenale exhibition, succeeds in combining formal ingenuity with conceptual clarity. His installation, Cloud, is made up of over 100 domestic air purification appliances hung in elegant cluster formations. Appearing as part Metabolist megastructure, part Battlestar Gallactica spacecraft, Cloud’s humming topography of domestic devices might be seen as a simultaneous parody and homage to the hygienic aspirations of early Modernism. Liu locates these altruistic ambitions not at an architectural scale but in the range of contemporary household devices that reveal a particular psychological dimension to the call for light, space, and air. The installation is not only tightly composed and formally pleasing, but provokes a range of associations and responses, able to suggest the hope and fear inherent in Modernism’s continuing legacy. In fact, Liu began working with air-conditioning units around 1995, just after Todd Hayne’s film Safe was released, which depicted the psychological consequences of environmental illness. I am also reminded of David Cronenberg’s first feature film, They Came From Within, set in a sterile and isolated modern apartment complex, where parasites travel through the modern conveniences of plumbing, garbage disposal, and air-conditioning ducts to infect tenants with a zombie- like lust for sex. The floating air cleaners connect notions of cleanliness to the characteristic purity of form initiated by modern architecture and urbanism, and while Cloud’s sci-fisuperstructure articulates a gravity-defying optimism, it also embodies a darker, contemporary consumerist obsession, fuelled by corporeal paranoia.

This duality of formal ingenuity and a response to social concerns is analogous to the Biennale’s thematic exhibition, which takes place at two main sites. In collaboration with Emiliano Gandolfi, Betsky’s curation at the Italian pavilion is a well-chosen relief to the overscaled ambitions that are typical of the Arsenale. While a bit exhausting to take in on one visit, this tightly woven series of predominantly smaller-scale installations, videos, and exhibits from a variety of practitioners, presents a wide range of compelling experiences that concern a plethora of experimental yet germane discourses, from raw formal studies, to social and media relationships, and an almost utopian environmentalism. Beside a recent video interview with Archigram’s Dennis Crompton, Raumlabor presents Stick On City, a large drawing of iconic projects and existing visionary proposals composed among an imaginary landscape. The visitor is encouraged to sketch his or her own utopian contribution, and stick it right on the drawing, thus creating a participatory yet informal discussion about architecture’s communal dreams. While many of the installations at the Arsenale seem to interpret the theme of “experimental” in largely formal terms, numerous works at the Italian pavilion possess a critical edge, revealing that “business as usual” is no longer the case, while attempting to critique existing professional forms or constructing new relationships to environmental, economic, or social issues.

Considering the fragility of the global state of affairs today, and the fact that the number one cause of climate change is architecture, it is not surprising that this concern for current crises is also essential to many of the national pavilions located nearby in the Giardini. The pavilions are curated separately from the main thematic, and they range from representational collections to a variety of poetic and political statements. At the Japanese pavilion, architect Junya Ishigami elegantly engages landscape and architecture using rectangular glass pavilions where plants and structural elements intertwine. Hundreds of elaborate botanical drawings are softly sketched directly on the walls inside the permanent pavilion. Nearby, a bright yellow, full-scale representation of a gas pipeline connects the Russian and German pavilions. Lacking a permanent pavilion, Estonians Maarja Kask, Neeme Kulm and Ralf Looke directly confront the prime issues of energy and economy in relation to building with this installation that refers to a proposed Gazprom initiative that is ecologically and politically controversial.

Titled 1907…After the Party, the Belgian pavilion is the most radical proposition, provocatively constructing a post-euphoric sentiment that could be interpreted in many ways, including a tribute to the historical pavilion which was built in 1907. The pavilion is hidden from view by a seven-metre-high scaffold-like structure faced in galvanized steel that is simultaneously a circuitous entrance ramp. At the time I visited, it was pretty much empty inside the well-designed original structure, save for thick drifts of confetti on the floor, a single similarly themed Thomas Demand photograph, and a small collection of the competition entries for the original building. Phenomenologically rich and conceptually taut, this is probably the most memorable experience at the Biennale. It is enjoyable, fresh, and thought-provoking. The nearby Dutch pavilion challenges the concept of representational display by hosting a week-long series of lectures, workshops and meeti
ngs in preparation for a magazine designed on site. The Americans focus on socially responsible, participatory design, featuring buildings by activist-architects such as Alabama’s Rural Studio. The Polish pavilion presents The Afterlife of Buildings by Nicolas Grospierre and Kobas Laksa, a series of images of new structures in Warsaw along with Photoshopped projections of what they will look like in 2050. Included is a Norman Foster steel-and-glass block portrayed as an overrun prison, and an SOM office tower as a worn factory beneath a massive highway overpass. Winner of the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation, the exhibition’s straightforward apocalyptic tone achieves an ironic yet melancholy sociopolitical critique.

While this dystopian sentiment turns out to be one of the underlying impressions at the Biennale, Canada’s contribution, 41 to 66: Architecture in Canada–Region, Culture, Tectonics, curated by Marco Polo and John McMinn, relates to the numerous approaches searching for alternative cultural models and construction methods. Initially created for Cambridge Galleries in 2005, 41 to 66 is a survey exhibition presenting regional examples of sustainable architecture in the context of vernacular and indigenous traditions, and in relation to local culture and geography (see CA, January 2006). Employing a variety of media including interactive video, graphic panels that also incorporate models, a landscape diorama, and other projections, the curators also reconfigure the existing exhibition by including four new projects. Yet in the Biennale context, 41 to 66 does not stand out as innovative, and its mandate to portray the links between sustainable technology and references to local culture and building tradition is not facilitated by its crowded and confusing installation. Although the issue of sustainability is undeniably important and timely–especially considering Canada’s extremel poor environmentalrecord–a number of excellent examples are presented, although there are too many projects here to get a sense of the uniqueness of these buildings.

While it is certainly debatable whether or not 41 to 66 was the best choice for the Canadian pavilion, it was selected by the Canada Council only after the two initial proposals formally submitted to the jury were passed over, and it is rather unique with respect to the contemporary Canadian architectural scene. Exploring the breadth and diversity of the country, the curatorial approach also reinforces the connection between regional strategies and sustainability. This regional approach points out the characteristic multiplicity in Canada necessitated by the vast geography, but in terms of Canadian culture, the fact that there are so few exhibitions such as this one reveals our characteristic lack of communication between regions and an ongoing provincialism. Moreover, the surprising dearth of entries to represent Canada in Venice may indicate the underfunding provided to this initiative, but also seems to point out a seriously deficient vitality at this level. At the building level however, there are some interesting things going on. From Kobayashi + Zedda in Whitehorse to Atelier Big City in Montreal, the question of reconciling sustainable design with aesthetics is well represented. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Hydro Head Office–designed by a team led by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects–is a large-scale application of an innovative double-glass curtain wall, a solar chimney design, and a geothermal heat pump system, all combined with an iconic form that will be very interesting to see when completed.

Another new addition for the Venice exhibition, the Pictou Landing Health Centre for a Mi’kmaq First Nations Reserve in Nova Scotia by Piskwepaq Design Inc. (designed by Richard Kroeker and Brian Lilley in collaboration with Peter Henry Architects) also employs a geothermal heat pump system for heating and cooling, while engaging another important principle in terms of sustainability: using local solutions to local problems. The Health Centre’s structural system uses a traditional aboriginal technique of bending and tying wood to create a unique bowed truss arrangement. Constructed in cooperation with Mi’kmaq builders, Kroeker and Lilley’s community-oriented design process produced a much-needed building that benefits from a characteristic form both aesthetically pleasing and socially engaged.CA

Rodney LaTourelle is an artist, writer and designer based in Berlin and Winnipeg.