Thursday, October 01, 2009

Rotterdam Architecture Biennale 2009

The architecture biennale is a difficult creature. It is a form of escapism for a profession crushed by the banal weight of the daily grind, a glamorous respite from the unbearable lightness and prosaic reality of trying to make buildings. As an alluring chance for architects to dress up as artists and theorists, it has all too often become an excuse to descend into the realms of bad art and arcane posturing, as Aaron Betsky’s overblown homage to the ageing avant garde so painfully demonstrated in Venice last year.

Rotterdam’s take on the international exposition provides a refreshingly Calvinist foil to the Catholic extravagance of the Venetians. Still very young in its fourth year, it has so far leant towards urban and environmental issues, guided more by Dutch pragmatism than the starchitect’s egoism.

This year’s restrained jamboree, under the professorial leadership of Kees Christiaanse, is no exception. Taking the vague theme of Open City as its expansive umbrella title, the series of exhibitions is organised under the fuzzy, rather meaningless, headings of Refuge, Reciprocity, Community, Squat and Collective, a contrived taxonomy which seems to have baffled the sub-curators as much as it does the visitors.

Accompanied by a missable satellite show of whimsical utopian plans in Amsterdam, and a much more intelligible student exhibition in the docks across the river, the main show is housed in Rotterdam’s labyrinthine Netherlands Architecture Institute. The notoriously dysfunctional building complex has been masterfully reconfigured in a literal take on the Open City, a new entrance bridge punching a hole directly into the side of the main exhibition hall in a radical urban move. Unfortunately what awaits inside is less successful.

This first, vast hall — the grandly titled Forum — is less Roman marketplace than lacklustre school fair, its municipally carpet-tiled floor cluttered with islands of desks displaying unrelated offerings, from models of seminal “open” buildings, to some figure-ground studies of gated communities, and a banquet table expressing food as cultural identity. Perhaps most telling is Christiaanse’s own table. Piled high with a rampant mess of inspirations, its disjointed vitality is an apt metaphor for what is about to come.

Progressing through the building’s zones, you encounter a wildly varied series of projects, from compelling studies on the urban morphology of Palestinian refugee camps to cynical critiques of themed American suburbs. The fascinating specificities of each project — generally enough to sustain a whole exhibition each — are frustratingly flattened into an indigestible melee by the sheer volume of information on show and the lack of curatorial direction. With São Paolo slum analysis alongside illegal Addis Ababa dwellings, you leave with a confused, generic image of temporary-participatory-marginal-informality, a hazy moral tonic to soothe the architectural conscience.

Standing out from this impenetrable riot of escapist “sans frontières” architecture, is the more prosaic Rotterdam-centric zone Maakbarheid, or “makeability”, curated by Crimson Architectural Historians. Its pragmatic approach to the Biennale’s fluffy premise was to initiate some plausible urban projects to make Rotterdam more of an “Open City”, some actual “facts on the ground” to heal their fractured town in a strategic process of urban acupuncture.

Its section shows how the same urgent problems of relocation, segregation and infrastructural decay are actually on our doorstep, and offer some credible solutions for how to tackle these issues through informed sensitive intervention.

Lacking the exotic gloss of many of the Biennale’s projects, its heroic obsession with the institutionalised problems inherent in our planning systems is what we should really be getting excited about.

Originally published in BD, 9 October 2009