Venice (3): Architecture without Building?

Entitled Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale aims to give new meaning to what we call architecture. ‘Architecture is not building,’ writes director Aaron Betsky in an essay, ‘Buildings are objects and the act of building leads to such objects, but architecture is something else.’

Architecture must do more than provide shelter for us. Architecture must offer us a secure home in the confusing modern reality. With this biennale Aaron Betsky wants to stimulate experiments and show how we can establish (new) relationships between the built environment, the context and people. The main exhibition in the Corderie (a former rope-yard) of the Arsenale  shows, he says, how we can use architecture to domesticate the space around us and escape from the system that controls our daily lives.

Buildings are the biggest wasters of natural resources, according to Betsky. What’s more, it is difficult to adapt buildings to the continually changing conditions of modern life. The act of building has become too defined by codes. Most buildings are not designed by architects and are therefore also very ugly. They are usually a weak residue of the desire to make a better world. Architecture, to Betsky, must take us beyond the physical building. ‘Buildings can be avoided.’

During the preview programme, held on September 11-13, prophet of doom Jeremy Rifkin underlined this from another perspective with a lecture about buildings as the biggest causes of the climate crisis. The only possible way to prevent or avoid catastrophes, according to Rifkin, is to decentralise the distribution of energy. Every household should be off the grid and self-sufficient thanks to the use of solar panels or wind mills. That would enable a fairer distribution of energy and prevent political ‘power games’.

Visitors to the Corderie will not find any innovative solutions for these problems, however. For the most part the gallery is filled with familiar design by the ‘old garde’. At the front are two curved screens, the Hall of Fragments, designed by David Rockwell, Casey Jones and Reed Kroloff. Projected on the walls are distorted film fragments that react to the movements of passers-by. These artists interpret the biennale theme as a world where physical limits are absent, just as in film.

On display in the adjoining spaces of the elongated complex of buildings are fantastic installations by, amongst others, An Te Liu, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Zaha Hadid, Gehry and UN Studio. The installations are intended to point to a (future?) better world. An occasional installation evokes past memories, among them the touching installation Digestible Gulf Stream by Phillipe Rahm Architects. The presence of actors seems like a nod to 1960s sit-ins. Each and every one of the installations on show is an interestingly designed object, but without an inside. True, these are not buildings. But is this what we should expect from a prestigious architecture biennale that purports to present the avant-garde of architecture?

5 Cloud, An Te Liu

6 Digestible Gulf Stream, Philippe Rahm Architects

In the small side exhibition called Uneternal City an attempt is made to tackle the central theme of ‘Out There: Architecture Beyond Building’. Twelve international designers were asked how they would create a sense of domesticity in the expanding suburban areas around Rome. The utopian visions submitted for this new Rome display the necessary social criticism but do not offer any practical solutions.

This biennale does its best to redefine the concept of architecture. Just like other disciplines, architecture should look beyond – and operate beyond – the confines of its own domain. This can indeed yield new meaning for the profession. But in the main exhibition of the biennale, architecture is deprived of its physical essence. On show are forms without function. As a result, the distinction between visual art and architecture becomes blurred here. While the visual collection in the Corderie of the Arsenale is attractive to look at, it is not in the least innovative. In Betsky’s own words: ‘It is critical and beautiful, but sometimes useless architecture’. Exactly how architects who build are supposed to deal with the undeniable everyday task of building must remain a mystery for the time being. Yes, architecture should be about more than just making buildings, and architecture must be critical. But without a building one cannot talk about architecture…

Thankfully, the exhibitions in the Padiglione Italia and in a number of national pavilions around the Giardini offer more points of contact with practice. Some of the experimental architecture and socially engaged projects on display show that building and architecture can indeed go hand in hand in a critical manner. And that, in the end, makes a visit to this biennale worthwhile.