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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 3





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

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 2





Entering this year’s Arsenale I was greeted with a surreal vision of the future. Hoards of revering onlookers, 3D glasses strapped to their faces, mouths agape, as images of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa zooming around their EPFL campus on Segway scooters flashed before their eyes.

The work of film maker Wim Wenders, this beguiling swoop through SANAA’s undulating hymn to the open learning landscape is as true to the Biennale’s title as could be, full of people meeting in architecture. But not only meeting. We are shown that the gentle curves of the Rolex Learning Centre induce trance-like states of nirvana in its users, cringe-worthy scenes of students closing their eyes in transcendental reverie accompanied by the saccharine voice of the building itself. “I love the sunlight,” she purrs. “And the sunlight clearly loves me.”

As cheesy promo as this film is, it is nonetheless a soothing introduction to what is to come and sets the tone for a sequence of rooms which revel in the simple of joy of creating beautiful environments as backdrops for our daily lives.

The rest of the 300 metre long journey is carefully choreographed, rooms alternating between rigorous architectural presentations – enormous scale models, drawings and maquettes of realised projects – and immersive sensory installations. It is an energising experience and not once did the usual Arsenale-fatigue set in.

Jan de Vylder’s refreshing take on the theme is that “people meet in the drawing,” and his practice has devoted a large area of their room to a vast number of exquisite working and construction drawings of their Ordos villa, alongside a huge scale model, revealing the complete process behind the development of this complex spatial conceit.

If examining construction sections feels a little like hard work,we are rewarded in the next room by Transsolar’s ethereal cloudscape, a spiralling cantilevered ramp which ascends through a perfect layer of cloud filling one of the building’s largest spaces. A carefully controlled climate ensures the perfect sandwiching of this misty band, obscuring shadowy figures as they ramp around each other, progressively sweating as they reach the 40°+ summit. This is what Philippe Rahm’s 2008 installation was attempting to be, but never was.

Junya Ishigami, ultimate master of weightless thinness, has this time unfortunately proved too delicate for his own good, the wildly ambitious project to construct the structural ‘outline’ of a 14m-long, 4m high building literally collapsing in on itself, a pile of impossibly slender carbon-fibre threads scattered along the floor at time of writing. But there was an frantic team of workers still on hand, and if it works this will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the show.

Again in sharp contrast, the next room has been taken over by a sprawling collection of mock-ups, prototypes and full-scale fragments of projects by Studio Mumbai, a chance to see the practice’s impeccable devotion to hand-crafted timber detailing close-up. It is a thrilling workshop-like woody environment which makes you want to pick up a chisel and get involved, and reminds us of the importance of the haptic qualities that even a window frame can bring to a room.

Plenty more practices follow up with rather more conventional displays of mounted drawings and models, widely published and previously exhibited works of Toyo Ito and Valerio Olgiati regurgitated for the nth time, the richly patinated surroundings sometimes upstaging the flatness of the work on show.

Olafur Eliasson brings his usual crowd-pleasing interactive mastery to liven up proceedings in the form of a long, pitch black hall of wildly capitulating hosepipes scattering erratic spurts on to those brave enough to run the gauntlet, as strobe lights pick out their daring manoeuvres. You find yourself dodging the watery beams just like Catherine Zeta Jones did in Entrapment. If only for the lycra catsuit.

Finally, Janet Cardiff provides a stirring end to the long journey down the rope-making factory, with a surround-sound immersive project of 40 individually recorded voices singing Thomas Tallis’ 1573 “Spem in Alium.” The effect is utterly mesmerising, like being dropped in the middle of a choir, moving around the space giving a completely different bias to the overall effect, cycling from bass to soprano as you circuit the room.

All in all, it is a thoroughly invigorating experience, and markedly telling that Sejima is practically the first curator of this vast event who is also a practicing architect, deftly navigating between sensory experience and the rigour of spatial manipulation in her own work. I’m looking forward to seeing what she has assembled in the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni this afternoon.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 1





“People meet in Architecture” is the rather quaint title of this year’s biannual frenzy of cocktail parties and free bags in Venice, nimbly curated by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA. Trumpeting architecture’s noble role as a backdrop to the lives that inhabit it – or perhaps a sardonic critique of the Biennale format as an endless orgy of meetings and networking events – either way, the sentiment is a refreshing foil to the formally-obsessed offerings of the 2008 event. People must take centre stage.

The giardini’s pavilions have responded in varying degrees to this challenge, some taking up the brief rather too literally – with a tiresome proliferation of ‘forums’, ‘collaboration zones’ and ‘mixing chambers’ – but others have taken it on in a much more compelling, critical angle.

The Dutch pavilion, by Rietveld Landscape, stands out for its notably vacancy. You enter a large white, empty room, with a suspended wire ceiling covered in what appear to be random blue Styrofoam off-cuts. It’s like seeing the floor of the OMA model workshop from below. Only on ascending the staircase do these random blocks become apparent as a meticulous survey of Holland’s vacant buildings, their latent potential screaming in the raw blue foam finish. You could literally carve a new use into their virgin surface. A large sign downstairs proclaims “this building has been vacant for more than 39 years” in a nod to the promiscuous waste of the giardini as a surreal Potemkin village used only for a few months of the year, the rest of the time sealed off or inhabited by squatters. A very Dutch manifesto accompanies the simple display, arguing for new models of temporary use and interim allocation as viable development strategies – themes which recur throughout many other pavilions, following the recession-chic trend for temporary projects and ‘meanwhile’ uses on our cities’ growing number of vacant sites.

The Belgian pavilion, by art collective Rotor, takes a different, but equally simple tack. Harvesting used, heavily worn, fragments from a variety of public buildings – from stained carpet tiles to fading stair treads – extracted from their usual context and hung gallery like, the beautifully curated exhibition elevates these skip-bound remnants to works of art and argues for ‘wear’ as way of reading buildings. As props from our daily lives, these silent witnesses to mundane ritual activities take on a deeply charged quality, the history of use elicited from shadows, stains and marks.

While these two pavilions take their power from a carefully controlled absence, pregnant voids implying the potential for, or history of, use and habitation, the British pavilion goes all out to encourage a riot of activity. Coordinated by muf architecture / art, the ‘Villa Frankenstein’ is intended to provide a backdrop for meeting, drawing, debating and scientific enquiry. Showcasing an eclectic, often esoteric, collection of interests, from Ruskin’s meticulous documentation of Venice to the endangered future of Venetian salt marsh, the pavilion is grounded in an adamant stance held by the practice that proposition must come from observation – or ‘close looking’ – and an obsessive interrogation of place. A 1:10 fragment of the London Olympic stadium has been recreated by Venetian gondola carpenters as a forum for ongoing drawing workshops, a surreal play structure which is dying to burst out of its Palladian proportioned room, while a mini lagoon and collection of stuffed birds is on show round the back. In each case, the idea of a ‘two way traffic’ cross fertilisation between London and Venice is demonstrated, often the first steps of a longer-term collaborative projects, with the ‘legacy’ of each exhibit held firmly in mind.

Muf have also been collaborating with Re-biennale, a mischievous collective of architect-squatters, including members of French group EXYZT, who see the overflowing post-biennale skips as a cornucopia of potential building materials, harvesting the leftovers each year to recycle into new structures. Industrious magpies of the expo aftermath, the group will be unveiling their latest creation over the next few days, as an alternative makeshift mirror image to the polished works on show within the Giardini and Arsenale – the 300 metre-long old rope factory, down which I am about to begin the exciting voyage. I hope to meet lots of people – in architecture, of course.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010