Destination: Paradise

NAi director Ole Bouman introduced his predecessor Aaron Betsky as a man of many guises: critic, museum director, curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale, travelling salesman. On Friday May 9 Betsky fulfilled the last two roles with aplomb. After stops in Rome and Berlin he was in Rotterdam to reveal a little of the programme for the 11th Architecture Biennale, which opens in Venice in early September.

Betsky’s presentation was lively and persuasive. His story started with a phone call from Mister Baratta. 'I’ve a problem. Can you help?,' Baratta asked. 'Maybe, but who are you?,' answered Betsky. Baratta turned out to be director of the Biennale di Venezia and was looking for a curator for the Architecture Biennale, a Dutch curator actually. Well, in fact he wanted Aaron Betsky. Betsky argued that he wasn’t Dutch, but Mister Baratta was adamant: Betsky was his man. Very soon the two had agreed on the central theme – experimental architecture – and the title – Out There: Architecture Beyond Building.

Architecture is more than building or buildings, Betsky told his audience. This statement was followed by a number of rhetorical questions. Can you find architecture beyond building? What is architecture if not buildings? Why is architecture necessary? Architecture, according to Betsky, is what we can feel at home in; it is primarily an experience. It is a place with certain qualities that form a framework that allows us to relate to the world, a place that provides us with a podium on which to present ourselves to the world outside.

Betsky then took us on an imaginary tour of the exhibition grounds. It seemed to be a rite de passage. The tour started in the Arsenale where the visitor is 'submerged in a flood of images of other architecture worlds', images taken from sources such as cinematography. Shed of all prejudice, we walked through a 300-metre-long corridor full of site-specific installations by offices such as Asymptote, Atelier Bow Wow, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, UNStudio, MVRDV, MAD, Greg Lynn, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Fuksas. The question put to the designers was how the systems that control and dominate the world can be revealed and even appropriated in ways that make us feel at home.

After architecture beyond building comes urbanism beyond the city. Twelve designers were asked to redesign Rome. This challenge was intended to generate answers to such questions as: What is urban design today? And how can urban design be deployed in the contemporary city? Besides proposals from established figures, there are entries to the online student competition. At the end of the route lies paradise, a hortus conclusus designed by Kathryn Gustafson.

Architecture is always deployed to construct an ideal world, said Betsky. This architecture does not necessarily come out of the computer, or out of nothing; it can also emerge from what is already there: 'flip it and reverse it'. The exhibition in the Padiglione Italia is devoted to architecture that is hopeful and full of memories. On show are projects by the Masters of Experiment (Zaha, Jacques, Pierre, Wolf, Thom and Frank) and work by some forty more or less well-known designers/researchers. Dutch contributors include 2012, NL, ZUS, Stealth, Observatorium, Jeanne van Heeswijk & Dennis Kaspori and F.A.S.T.

And then there are the national pavilions of course. The curators of these work with the same theme but, true to tradition, they can do their own thing. There are also small exhibitions at different venues around the city again.

It’s obviously premature to comment now on Out There: Architecture Beyond Building. The prospect of paradise that Betsky holds out for us is too tempting not to travel to Venice. But to judge by the names on all the lists, this will very much be a paradise in keeping with Western tradition. And that’s a pity. At a time when the sun is rising in the East, it would be interesting to experience paradise as envisaged by non-Western designers.