The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale — review

National pavilions (continued)

Latvia

Occupying only a small area in the Arsenale behind mesh black curtains, the Latvian pavilion — titled Together and Apart — focuses on the typology of the apartment block and its role in life, society and the environment. Separated into four sections — Promise, Distance, Self, Warmth — the exhibition reflects on the fact that two-thirds of Latvians live in apartment buildings — the highest figure in Europe — and explores the culture and the challenges that have grown around this.

We see an array of housing advertisements extolling the social-democratic ideals of apartment-block design — residents are sold an idea of a better life and improved social status. Elsewhere, a mesmerising, beautiful installation explores the impact that living in apartment blocks has on the climate. Consisting of a sombre, metal model of an estate of apartment blocks over which smoke gently and eerily glides, the installation draws attention to energy-inefficient buildings, and the fact that the heating and cooling of buildings amounts to 40% of EU energy consumption.

One of the few pavilions to meaningfully tackle the significance of domestic space, the Latvian exhibition addresses housing in a socio-political, architectural, environmental, cultural and emotional way. Francesca Perry

Greece

In the creation of a ‘symposium’, the pavilion has been emptied out, its level floor replaced with a timber amphitheatre, creating an egalitarian agora through which to explore the concept of the ‘academic commons’ in both metaphorical and literal formats.

A grid of 56 3D-printed architectural models depicting only the common spaces of educational institutions is arranged throughout the space, raised up on slender rods to appear to float. Curated by Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser, the pavilion raises questions of how and where we learn, affording an insight into spatial and cultural relations as a catalyst for debate.

The presentation asks a lot of the visitor to give — and even research — their own interpretation, rather than providing them with a singular answer as so much of the Biennale is wont to do. But in doing so it celebrates a series of dichotomies: between the individual and the collaborative, between inside and outside, academia and practice, free space and boundaries, society and the state. Ruth Lang

United Arab Emirates

The title Lifescapes Beyond Bigness says it all. The UAE’s skyscrapers and malls create a playground of big architecture, but there is another side to its megacities, human-scaled and alive with humanity. ‘This exhibition challenges preconceptions about the UAE and the “bigness model”,’ curator Dr Khaled Alawadi of the Masdar Institute told Blueprint.

The only negative note is the enclosure of the exhibition in steel-bar screens, but the subject areas in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are far from prisons. There are four meticulous studies, into various neighbourhoods, street and alley networks, urban blocks and natural landscapes. Walls carry photos and texts, revealing the locals and their stories.

As elsewhere in the Biennale, this is more urban anthropology than architecture. These neighbourhoods, as Dr Alawadi comments, are ‘socially orientated, rather than being confined by bigness in architecture and urban planning’. Communities may self-generate life, but Alawadi is not against the big architecture — ‘Why is the shiny not real?’ he asks. He shows the alternative to be at least inspiring. Herbert Wright

Bahrain

Curated by Nora Akawi and Noura Al Sayeh, Bahrain’s Arsenale pavilion is dominated by a square, raised structure of aluminium frame and translucent plastic panelling, designed by Apparata Architecture. The structure creates an inner space that people can enter and use to reflect in or gather. A sound installation, Giuseppe Ielasi’s Friday Sermons, which consists of edited and layered recordings made in mosques across Bahrain on each Friday of spring 2018, plays on a loop. Both the aural and spatial installation specifically celebrate the khutbah, a weekly occasion of preaching and congregation that forms a key part of the practice of Islamic faith, as well as a defining part of collective, public life for many Arab and Muslim communities.

‘The space was designed to make room for both the hearing of and reflection on the khutbah today, and for the experimentation, enactment and rehearsal for alternative formats of the khutbah in future,’ write Astrid Smitham and Nicholas Lobo Brennan of Apparata Architecture. While the pavilion seemingly wasn’t functioning as a gathering space at least on this writer’s visit, its relative emptiness enhances the call for reflection, giving the soundscape immersive and transportative qualities. FP

United States

The USA pavilion, titled Dimensions of Citizenship, takes a radical progressive stance. Some parts work better than others, but all talk of justice far more than free space. Amazingly, its State Department funding came after Donald Trump’s election.

Leaning outside the pavilion is Thrival Geographies, an organic sculpture by artists Amanda Williams and Andres L Hernandez, referencing slavery and historic black heroines. Indoors, it’s more geography than architecture. The scope slides in scale from citizens up to cosmos, echoing the Eames’ 1977 film, Powers of Ten. Studio Gang’s Stone Stories links Memphis riverside stones to ‘extraordinary citizens’. Estudio Teddy Cruz+Forman’s Mexus undermines Trump’s wall with mapping and a surreal, Lynchesque film featuring Mexican border citizens.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s grid screen presentation In Plain Sight homes in from space on facilities such as mines and resorts that guzzle electricity while surrounding communities remain dark. There’s more, but Finally, Design Earth’s Cosmorama considers commercial asteroid mining, already in preparatory stages despite a UN ban on exploiting space. Its light-box wall of fantasy drawings is strangely the closest we get to architecture.

This Chicago-led effort under curator Mimi Zeiger along with Niall Atkinson and Ann Lui presents a powerful, provocative package of surprising ideas, an epic mini-biennale in itself. HW

Singapore

Image Credit: Singapore Pavilion, La Biennale Di VeneziaImage Credit: Singapore Pavilion, La Biennale Di Venezia

Several nations float cloud structures in the ceilings of their Biennale pavilions, where there’s always free space to signal a message. Singapore has a hanging rectangular-plan luminous lattice cloud of acrylic knots with sensors that change its colour. It signals that the show is about bright and rational ways to make ‘delightful free space’, and its title No More Free Space? refers to the challenge in a small, packed nation without much of it.

Twelve projects are introduced on big banners with a photo and a ‘we do’ statement. Examples: ’We undo the drain’ is about Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl’s 2012 transformation of a concrete drainage channel in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park into a winding river. ‘We let the kids imagine’ is about the Caterpillar’s Cove (2015), a preschool with imaginative play-structures, by Lekker Architects. ‘We Live in the Sky’ is about SCDA Architects’ SkyTerrace@Dawson (2015), 43-storey public-housing towers linked by garden bridges.

Spanning typologies and scales, the pavilion demonstrate that Singapore’s paternal regime drives a genuine desire to design space in the public interest. There are lessons here, but as co-curator Wu Yen Yen of Genome Architects says, ‘the answer is not an absolute’. HW

Germany

The Berlin Wall is just the starting point for Unbuilding Walls: from Death Strip to Freespace, curated by Berlin-based practice GRAFT and Marianne Birthler. It’s a show of two halves.

The Death Strip was ‘free space’ for East German border guards to shoot anyone trying to cross the Wall but, since 1989, it’s been a ‘free space’ mainly for developers. Projects built there are meticulously shown in a traditional info-packed way — photos, diagrams, descriptions — on one side of wall sections that on the other are as starkly black as monoliths from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not just a survey of contemporary real estate (albeit with significant works, such as Aldo Rossi’s colourful Schützenstrasse block) — Checkpoint Bravo, for example, retains a mad, Seventies, pink cylindrical restaurant building.

It’s the second part of the show that delivers a message, though. A line of screens, made endless with mirror walls, show films of people interviewed from places divided today — Belfast, Ceuta, Nicosia, Jerusalem, Korea’s DMZ… and the Mexican border. Trump is not mentioned, but if the rebuke in the show’s title wasn’t clear enough, this is. Germany’s presentation is crisp and clear, fascinating about Berlin, and polemic about today’s walls. HW

Ireland

‘Why is he here in this nothing town?’ asks a spoken book that you can listen to on the Irish Pavilion’s designated ‘town hall steps’ (of which there are just three). ‘He can see a fat old dog having a snooze in a side alley,’ it continues.

The passage is from Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, and it brilliantly evokes the pavilion’s subject Free Market, focused on declining rural towns. It has ‘free space’ in the form of marketplaces, as you can see on a big board mapping 77 places across the country.

Markets are places of exchange, and the six curating architects have created a market of sorts — for research, stories and ideas to revive the towns. Marketplaces are not the towns’ only free space — a section called Learning from Ballinrobe charts car parks and ex-markets, and just over half the buildings are empty. Solutions for revival — adaptive reuse — are straightforward enough. In another town, Mount mellick, a detailed sectional drawing of buildings even envisions reuse by individual floors. Rural depopulation is a global problem. Free Market takes on the issue, with pragmatism and not a little charm. HW

Poland

The Polish Pavilion is paved with oak blocks and its white space is bare but for a white, sloping, topographical form you can sit on at one end, and a water basin like an oversized, irregular bath in which models float and parallel wires slant down into the water. This conceptual show is Amplifying Nature, curated by Anna Ptak and with sculptures by architects at CENTRALA, and it may be the Biennale’s strangest.

What’s it about? The thesis is that architecture amplifies nature on a planetary scale. The sittable object is geology, modelling an escarpment of the river Vistula. The wires suggest weather, streaming down like rain from a suspended metal structure to plates in the basin. The architectural models of wood, wire and/or rubber can be pulled from the water like bath toys. They include Oskar Hansen’s house in Szumin, which is meant to convey circadian rhythms. CENTRALA’s research has been about gravity, water and light, and certainly these inform what we see.

The ideas are pretty out there and frankly call for clarification, but their eccentric expression has a unique dreamlike laboratory quality. Being puzzled by these Poles is a pleasure. HW

Korea

Image Credit: Kyoungtae KimImage Credit: Kyoungtae Kim

Taking the work of the Korea Engineering Consultants Corporation (KECC) established by the South Korean government in 1965 as its base, the pavilion — titled Spectres of the Avant-Garde and curated by Park Seongtae — explores the seemingly contradictory stances of ‘state-led’ and ‘experimental’ architecture, demonstrating how this can actually provide a context in which radical approaches can flourish.

Producing a sense of creativity under the military regime of General Park Chung-hee may seem like anathema, but the scope of the work done in projects such as the 1968 Korean Tase Fair, and the utopian island city of Yeouido, demonstrates the opportunities unlocked for architects in delivering an aspirational ethos for the country in the aftermath of the civil war and military coup.

In contrast to the exploration of previously under-recognised projects through a series of abstract and disorientating displays, at the pavilion’s heart is a contrastingly hushed archive assembled from the fragmentary artefacts inherent to the work created in this time, which provides rigour and integrity to the ethereal, aspirational architecture. RL

Holland

The Dutch pavilion — titled Work, Body, Leisure - looks to the challenges and opportunities that wide-scale automation and digital culture bring to our cities and their inhabitants. Stretching its limbs beyond the confines of the pavilion in reflection of transnational labour practices, complementary topics recur beyond the Giardini in both material and immaterial works — including a beautifully executed and enigmatic lagoon-side structure, The Port and the Fall of Icarus, in which the cultural implications of the shipping industry are explored.

This sadly lacks the narrative, experiential qualities of the main pavilion, where curator Marina Otero Verzier makes the quotidian manifest in the form of a central orange locker room and a series of auxiliary rooms through hidden doors including a hotel suite and office waiting room, each with an intrinsic story highlighting the search for the radical in the realm of the everyday. These spaces were activated during the opening week by a series of discussions, performances and activities — fleeting aspects which have since ironically shifted back from the spatial into the digital realm. RL

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