Polemics or Perfection
Is there any room for the truly radical in the current crop of architecture exhibitions, or is it all just a case of surface treatment?
In a recent interview with the Architectural Review, Charles Jencks suggested that what was missing from this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale was a thoughtful engagement with the political dimension of architecture. Jencks’ case in point is the Monditalia exhibition at the Arsenale, in which the space of democracy is simplistically compared to a theatre – a semi-circular space. Much to his chagrin, nowhere does Jencks find mention of the agora, which for him is the true spontaneous space of democracy: the public place of a city where people congregate, make decisions and engage in acts of re-appropriation.
Semi-circular seating arrangements on the other hand, much like overly simplified discourses of ‘transparency’, can be deceptive. Take, for example, the case of the German architect Sep Ruf’s 1964 Kanzlerbungalow (Chancellor’s Bungalow), built in the new West German capital of Bonn. It was just such a conflation of political and architectural ‘transparency’ that was designed to promote the new government’s commitment to openness and democracy. But despite its status as a Miesian glass box in a park, the Kanzlerbungalow was only ever visible to the public through its carefully constructed and staged representations in the media. As such, it was never really Germany’s see-through ‘living room’ – but a private house; opaque, inaccessible, and known to the German people only through its reproductions.
The curators of the biennale’s German Pavilion this year have rebuilt sections of the Kanzlerbungalow detail for detail inside the Giardini’s German Pavilion, which was modified in 1938 in the foreboding, blockish classical style favoured by the Third Reich.
The installation juxtaposes these two antithetical structures and ambitiously attempts to weave together the opposing political and historical narratives symbolised by their respective spaces. But the problem with this exhibition, and indeed with architecture’s engagement with the political more generally, is that the discipline is never very good at internalising opposing forces (political or otherwise) without first trying to stamp them out. If by some measure it does manage this process of absorption, then any representation of difference is often negated – subsumed into the totality of the architectural project.
This seems a hopeless inevitability, as architects are caught in a tug-of-war between a multiplicity of external forces and the singular immutability of architecture; or at least, our conventional idea of it. Enclosed spaces only seem to negate the very idea of democracy because – and here Charles Jencks paraphrases Herbert Marcuse – they keep “trying to organise the unorganised”. The only possible mitigation of this fact, he offers, is to purposely build in a kind of “planned contradiction”, manifesting itself as a tension between the unbounded chaos of life and its rigorous formal straightjacket. Following on from this, it could indeed be argued (and has been) that it is just this harnessing of restless tension constrained by form that characterises some of the greatest modern buildings.
If this is the kind of tension the German Pavilion team has tried to manufacture in their montage of the two politically charged spaces of bungalow and pavilion, then somewhere between the flawlessly executed detailing and the serene recordings of twittering being played overhead, the whole thing falls slightly flat. It’s certainly a far cry from Hans Haacke’s intervention at the 1993 Art Biennale, in which he famously smashed up the pavilion’s 1938-laid marble paving stones, using the very fabric of the building as an instrument of historical and political contestation. By contrast, the interventions at the German Pavilion this year are so cold, impassive and benign that the opportunity for the truly radical is lost. The impression gained of the exhibit itself is only of a strangely beautiful yet ultimately hollow experiment in copying and full-scale architectural tableau.
Recent exhibitions that have sought to push the boundaries of how architecture should be displayed in a museum have tended to follow a similar trajectory to the German Pavilion. Most notable in this vein was the Royal Academy’s recent Sensing Spaces, billed as the RA’s ‘least traditional’ exhibition for decades. Like the German Pavilion, this exhibition was a series of large-scale installations that succeeded in provoking a variety of interesting sensory-spatial reactions (to the existing museum rooms themselves as much as the new spaces created within them), but little else. This direct relationship between the body and space is certainly one facet of architecture that is worth exploring, but it is not the whole story.
For a more thought-provoking engagement with architecture in the exhibition setting, it is worth examining what was easily the overlooked highlight of the biennale; Adrian Paci’s film and sculpture project at the Beyond Entropy curated Albanian Pavilion. Paci’s wry, humorous and thoughtful film traces the life of a Corinthian column from its beginnings in a Chinese stone quarry to its sculpting in transience on the floor of a factory ship on its way to Europe, through to its eventual laying to rest, prostrate on two supports, outside the Arsenale building.
The focus is on the life of the column, but what really makes this film are the lives that surround it: The depictions of the Chinese stonemasons, who coax the classical forms of the column piece by piece out of the mute block of marble they cut and load into the ship. Covered in stone residue, cigarettes between parted lips; the white dust covered ship workers seem to become extensions of the column, or the column an extension of them.
Against this holistic study of architecture and its myriad of effects and affects stands the Venice Biennale’s OMA curated Central Pavilion, in which the so-called ‘fundamental’ elements of architecture – doors, floors, windows and so on – are presented in a highly delineated, disconnected manner through which they, like the architects taking part, cannot seem to commune with one another. This exhibition is about piecemeal analysis, but not synthesis.
Paci’s meditative and idiosyncratic film, on the other hand, raises a number of important questions generated by but not confined to these elements of architecture: Questions about the origins and processes of architectural production, about the difference between building and architecture, and about whether the many stories we have spun to give meaning to the built elements that surround us can still hold court in a contemporary context (the delicious absurdity of a system in which a column derived from the forms of Ancient Greece is cut in China and carved in international waters need not be overstated, and in Paci’s hands, it isn’t). These are all questions that deserve urgent exploration, yet so many other interpretations of ‘fundamentals’ tended toward presenting a series of isolated elements, haphazardly collected and arrayed in a fetishist fashion, and in many cases divorced from the lives carried on in the spaces they once enclosed.
Paci, too, presents us with the column as a beautiful fetish-object uncoupled from place. Yet he also – in a real show of democracy – conveys the message that this object is nothing if not a repository of all the stories that have been and are yet to be told about it. It is not that the German Pavilion hasn’t tried to imply something similar but rather, to its detriment, that it has failed to recognise it is how you tell the story that matters. And for the relatively young and often unfairly dismissed discipline of architectural curating, this ‘how’ must surely be one of the most pressing concerns to be addressed by the architectural exhibition; because if it isn’t, any recourse to the political becomes mere lip service in the face of the cool, gleaming edifice.
14th International Architecture Exhibition/ Fundamentals
June 7 to November 23, 2014, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice
GERMANY - Bungalow Germania
14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia
Photo: Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia
ALBANIA - Potential Monuments of Unrealised Futures
The Column, installation view, Padiglione Albania, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia.
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani
ALBANIA - Potential Monuments of Unrealised Futures
The Column, 2013 Video 25’40’’, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia
Courtesy: the artist, kaufmann repetto, Milan and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
Emma Jones is an architect, editor of London based publication E.R.O.S. Journal and current doctoral student at the University of Zürich.