Monday, August 30, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 4

The sprawling labyrinth of the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni (formerly Italian pavilion) continues the well-paced tempo of the Arsenale, only shifting slightly from the shock and awe tactic of immersive installations to a greater emphasis on exhibiting built projects, and artists whose work tackles the wider social and political of context in which these buildings are situated.

Some of the things I’ve been waiting to see in the flesh for a long time are on show, and do not disappoint. The looming model of the Negelhaus in Zurich by Caruso St John and Thomas Demand is one of the first things to greet you, a pared down cardboard maquette clumsily scaled up until it’s almost too big for the room – a lovely touch in which the air conditioning pipe is forced to puncture its side. The wrinkles of corrugated card have been milled into the flimsy timber skin, propped stage-set like from behind, its bleak precariousness making you feel as insignificant as the residents who were relocated from the original structure in China.

Elsewhere, several of Christian Kerez’s vast structural models are on show, the monumental stacked trusses of the Leutschenbach School filling one room, while a sectional model of his Warsaw Museum of Modern Art fills another – strangely pleasing to see Modroc plaster scrim used outside the school art classroom. In their raw workmanlike power, you get a sense of how he uses the physical model not as a formal tool, but one for distilling a singular structural idea.

Next door, Atelier Bow Wow are given free reign to show off quite how many lovely houses they have designed, another chance to revel in doll’s house heaven and marvel at the spatial ingenuity this practice has brought to the domestic problem. Their alluring construction-sectional-perspective drawings hang on the wall next to each model, generously giving away their secrets – when I visited, the room was full of architects copying down detailed notes for their next residential project.

As well as giving her peers and the (relatively) young a chance to shine, Sejima has also given over large amounts of space to architects who clearly had a major influence on her own work. Lina Bo Bardi gets a much welcomed retrospective, a large room devoted to a vibrant archive of energetically annotated drawings, with a model of her SESC Pompéia building in São Paulo taking over centre of the space. The drawings are full of people meeting, playing and learning in her open and expansive structures.

Andrea Branzi, godfather of the plan-drawn-as-wallpaper, is also given a room, in which his studio has exhibited a series of recent projects, updated (if slightly weaker) takes on the seminal No-Stop City. Mirrored boxes create endless fields of urban digi-scapes, toytowns and green utopias, while yet another manifesto on ‘infinities’, ‘data flows’ and ‘interstitial spaces’ hangs on the wall, rather losing its power now it’s no longer the Sixties. But it’s still all good fun.

Other welcome additions include the American artist Tom Sachs, whose foreboding models of crumbling Corbusian projects provide a refreshing reminder of how utopias go wrong. As well-intentioned as our modernist forebears were, their imitators and replicators have left us with a legacy of paranoid urban spaces devoid of human delight, places divorced from the essence of Sejima’s exhibition title. Alongside scale models of worn relics from Chandigarh and the Ville Radieuse, a battered foamcore model of the Villa Savoye sits next to a one of a drive-thru McDonald’s – both are paradigms of the car-oriented building, perhaps from not so different universes.

Continuing the theme of why and what we should revere and preserve from our architectural heritage, AMO has been given one of the largest rooms to present an encyclopaedic catalogue of how the work of OMA has responded to the changing discourse of preservation and conservation, beginning with the age old Ruskin vs Viollet-le-Duc dichotomy, and demonstrating how the office’s successive projects have advanced this dialogue. I was lucky enough to catch my old boss, and this year’s Golden Lion winner, Rem Koolhaas giving head of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre Francesco Bandarin a tour. His wry comments are neatly summarised in the captions accompanying each poster-sized picture, cheaply hung from scaffold bars in AMO’s typically ad hoc fashion. It’s not ground breaking stuff, but it does make you think a great deal more than the rest of the work on show in the Biennale. And inside word has it that this, unlike many of the bloated office’s worldwide projects, is largely authored by Rem himself.

As confusing a network as the former Italian pavilion is to navigate, Sejima has done a largely heroic job making sense of such a disparate group of practitioners. There are some intriguing curatorial decisions, such as placing work by the same architects at opposite sides of the rambling warren – which meant, for example, that many missed the magical films of Fiona Tan portraying the alien arrival of SANAA’s gallery pavilions on the island of Inujima, which are exhibited in all their perfect whiteness on a large site model at the other end of the building. But although sometimes frustrating, this separation allows a serendipitous enfilade to unfold through the network of spaces, accidental association of themes and techniques becoming more important than office egos.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010