Magazine article Artforum International

Farce of Will: Ian Volner on the Venice Architecture Biennale

Magazine article Artforum International

Farce of Will: Ian Volner on the Venice Architecture Biennale

Article excerpt

CONTEMPORARY ART at its worst is rarely so naive as contemporary architecture at its best. Because it operates so closely to the machinery of power, the design profession has been known to occasionally confuse design with power itself--to believe that architecture is politics--an idea that dates back at least to 1923, when Le Corbusier famously posited a choice between "architecture ou revolution," as if they were commensurate political pursuits. Alack, they aren't.

This tendency has reached a new pitch with the latest Venice Biennale of Architecture. Crusading curator (and winner of this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize) Alejandro Aravena has marshaled projects from eighty-eight participants plus sixty-five national pavilions in an effort to prove once and for all that architecture is--and ought to be--a field for political action. In the process he appears to have pushed the profession to the absolute horizon of its social potential. Having sailed thus far, the discipline is faced with a choice of either circling back on itself or falling off the map altogether.

The title of the show, "Reporting from the Front," gets us in the right heroic mood: Bucklers are about to be swashed. In every corner of Aravena's installations in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion, the visitor finds diagnoses of contemporary political conditions as dire and disparate as the immigration crisis in Belgium, water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa, and housing shortages in Portugal alongside proposed interventions in response, from concrete public market stalls to conical water towers to living spaces made from sewer pipes. Continuing a trend set by 2014 curator Rem Koolhaas, Aravena has given his theme as a mandate to the country-by-country delegations, whose individual pavilions are devoted to similarly weighty matters of state in their respective homelands.

The advance rap on Aravena's high-minded premise was that it was going to be, well, boring. Patrik Schumacher, longtime partner of Zaha Hadid--and now, following her death, heir to her office--has been the most vocal critic of what he's called Aravena's "gesture politics." "Of course these are issues of concern," he said in a recent interview, referring to such ongoing crises as urban overcrowding and resource scarcity. "But these are not the issues that concern architects." Call it callousness, call it what you will, but Schumacher's is only a somewhat grouchier version of Woody Allen's advice to comedians: "You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes." You don't have to be an arch-formalist to believe that architects' first duty is to build newer and stranger buildings, harnessing the currents of technology and culture to forge a newer and stranger world. Absent that animating spirit, Aravena's Dudley Do-Rightism could easily have subsided into a long, baleful parade of dull statistics and tiresome nostrums in foamcore.

Except that the spirit isn't lacking, and the show is often astonishingly beautiful. Spanning high overhead near the entrance to the Central Pavilion is a massive parabola, fashioned entirely of bricks and mortar, the work of Paraguayan studio Gabinete de Arquitectura, led by Solano Benitez. Standing on a balcony overlooking the piece, the architect explained that the form emerged from years of research into simple, sturdy structures that could be built cheaply by nonexpert labor, with prospective applications in housing, infrastructure, and beyond. It also just happens to make for a fine and fittingly symbolic welcome to the Biennale, arches being a common processional device since before the Romans started triumphing. The piece won the Biennale's top honor, the Golden Lion, and deserved it.

Over in the Arsenale, on one of the outdoor paths by the old dry docks, Russian architect Alexander Brodsky's Shed (2016) is composed entirely of recycled components, a temporary structure that bespeaks its own ephemerality with a cockeyed envelope that looks like it's about to topple over. …

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