BY Jonathan P. Watts in Reviews | 13 DEC 12

13th Venice Architecture Biennale

Inevitably, some critic or other, whether writing about Venice’s art or architecture biennales, ‘reveals’ the enterprise’s imperial trappings. Among reading I took for the journey to this year’s Architecture Biennale was the September–October 1990 edition of artscribe. For weeks I had meant to read an interview it contained with Derek Jarman but, coincidently, the issue also featured a review of that year’s Biennale by Jan Avgikos titled ‘The Dangers of Tourism’. What had I let myself in for?

BY Jonathan P. Watts in Reviews | 13 DEC 12

‘Even though we may know better,’ the article begins, ‘prestige exhibitions hold us hostage.’ Hostage? ‘They tempt us to believe that they uphold impartial principles of selection and that their claims as barometers of artistic merit and development are trustworthy […] the Venice Biennale holds a dubious title as the premiere example of the prestige exhibition. Its structures are antiquated; its convictions are hampered by conventionalism.’ Napoleon’s cultural booty displayed in the Louvre Grande Galerie in 1802 and the Exposition Universelle of 1855, both touchstones in exhibitions history, variously presented indigenous objects as trophies, ill-fitted them into established European aesthetic categories, or used them to affirm the sophistication of Western cultural production and colonial progress. This, reckons Avgikos, is Venice’s common ancestry. She recounts this now-familiar story because it allows her to pose the article’s most fascinating question: How can it survive its own history? Or, more precisely, how can the Venice Biennale lay its Modernist aspirations to rest and survive that history in light of ‘recent geopolitical transformations that signal the cessation of the cold war and a new post-colonial phase of global expansion’?

One of the irritating qualities of Avgikos’s article is the way it posits immunity for the critic, audience and media from perpetuating the problem, lying ultimate responsibility for dubious deeds at the foot of the Biennale’s board. Yet, Avgikos’s question makes her essay a fascinating snapshot, in dialogue with landmark exhibitions such as Jean-Hubert Martin and Mark Francis’s ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ or the Third Havana Biennial (both 1989), of an increasingly globalized world in which relations to centre and periphery were changing dramatically.

Arriving at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture I neither felt in danger, nor as if I were being held hostage (perhaps I thought I knew better?). I made Avgikos’s question my own: Had the Venice Biennale survived its own history? This seemed remarkably prescient as I mooched around its venues. Since the avant-coureur International Art Exhibition in 1895, the Giardini has come to be the site of 29 national pavilions, latterly activated by art, then architecture in alternate years with the launch of the first International Architecture Exhibition, directed by Paolo Portoghesi, in 1980. It is a curious accumulation. These pavilions – occasionally activated architecture – please by their miniature scale; many, such as the white planes of Gerrit Rietveld’s Dutch Pavilion, or Carlo Scarpa’s rough concrete box (for Venezuela), looked iconic the day the builds completed in 1953 and ’54 respectively.

At the Central Pavilion, Diener & Diener, a firm with offices in Switzerland and Germany, presented Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico’s study of Giardini as part of their installation ‘Common Pavilions’. Approximately 60 rich, flat monochromatic photographs in clip-frames were stacked on the floor and shelves flanking the gallery’s lengths. Accompanying these, available as podcasts, were specially commissioned essays by architects, historians of art and architecture, artists and philosophers on the identity of the model village architecture that has accumulated in the Giardini. Great Britain’s pavilion, originally constructed by chief engineer of the Comune of Venice Enrico Trevisana in 1887 as a Café-Restaurant, later acquired and updated by Edwin Alfred Rickards for the British in 1909, stands regally in the elevated southeast corner of the park, flanked by the French and the German Pavilions. An afterthought, Canada, is at its heel. A sweeping gravel path leads to the steps up to the verandah. ‘Perhaps it was this that appealed to the cultural “wallahs” of the Empire who said, “OK, it’s a deal” when offered this former tea-house,’ speculates Sir Peter Cook, founder of Archigram, in his essay for Diener & Diener’s installation. ‘Perhaps,’ Sir Peter continues in my ear, now mooching with me up the gravel path, ‘it resonated in the same manner as some hill-station up from Bombay, its verandah doing nicely for a gin and tonic away from the chattering foreigners.’

The verandah is, in some respect, an architectural premise of ‘Common Ground’, the theme of British architect David Chipperfield’s Biennale this year. Unlike the bounded space of the building’s interior, the verandah has no enclosing or excluding walls, making it in contrast an expression of common ground. Then again, if the pavilion really was some hill-station in Bombay, locals would be spotted from this panoptic vantage and apprehended. Common ground – readily a proxy for ‘the public’ at this year’s Biennale – is politically, culturally and historically complex. In his book Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Robert Venturi – harbinger of Postmodernism – sees in the porch or verandah an expression and measure of generational development of architectural form. European colonists took their European architecture off to their colonies and adapted it to their needs – including adding shaded porches. ‘Yes,’ I think in response to Sir Peter, ‘but isn’t it fascinating that the British Pavilion is an Italian build, subsequently adapted by a Brit to look like British architecture after it had passed through the colonies?’ Cook, in his podcast, does admit it looks rather ‘fusty’ and I am reminded of the distinction Venturi makes between American architecture’s development and Europe’s: ‘Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a public square: they should be working at the office or home with the family looking at television.’ Isn’t the verandah one of many things Britain’s colonial decline has resigned? Here, in the protected Giardini model village, the permanence of architecture is inimical to forgetting; overt generational development is denied.

The British Pavilion at this year’s Biennale hosted the exhibition ‘Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture’, curated by Vanessa Norwood and Vicky Richardson. Norwood and Richardson proceeded to ‘take the temperature of the British architectural profession’ by holding an open competition, inviting proposals from around the UK; beginning at the Architectural Association in London, a roadshow to present the brief dropped in at Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Successful applicants were to be ‘explorers’, trained in expedition planning by the Royal Geographical Society before journeying out into ‘unchartered territory in search of fresh ideas’. Ten teams of architects, writers and researchers – 24 in total – visited projects across the globe that might offer polemical solutions to problems facing the UK. For example, writer and editor Elias Redstone met with architects from Buenos Aires who for some time have been constructing apartment buildings with funding from eventual buyers; Darryl Chen of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today took guidance from devolved power structures in Chinese villages to imaginatively explore the limits of the Localism Act (the so-called Big Society) in Great Britain; Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu investigated the far reaching effects of regulations and standards in British architecture, taking Edinburgh and the former British colony of Lagos (where Onabolu has a practice) as test cases, before carrying out their own health and safety assessment of Rickards’ pavilion. For ‘Venice Takeaway’, the central gallery of the Pavilion was designated the ‘Research Emporium’; the outlying interconnecting rooms, linked by the bright conservatory, hosted the ‘Takeaway’. ‘The show was divided into two sections that were very much intended to create different atmospheres,’ Norwood told me. In the research emporium, designed by Melanie Crolla and Leigh Radford of Born Design, thick information is presented in a pseudo-itinerant way. A travel log lists tools used. An OS map grid crisscrosses raw ply display boards. ‘The takeaway elements of each proposal,’ Norwood explained, ‘as well as acting as provocations, are warm, witty and beautiful.’

Even before the participants of ‘Venice Takeaway’ were announced, the British Council received criticism for allegedly launching a neo-colonial project. There I was thinking how that the project activated and updated Britain’s old Bombay hill-station and aspects of its colonial history in a fascinating, polemical way. London-based cultural organization This is not a Gateway compiled a survey of responses, denouncing the opportunity to be a British Council explorer as retrograde and problematic. ‘Empire redux,’ one anonymous commentator wrote. ‘A whitewash, shockingly unreflective, un-ironic, a colonial hangover, neo-imperialist endorsement, out of touch – period, Anglo-centric… incredibly anachronistic’ – the list goes on. Certainly the language in play is provocative: at worst it ironizes a history of rapacious accumulation. The question is whether ironizing the pavilion’s history is an effective way, other than knocking the thing down, to demolish and rebuild it symbolically, as a way for it to survive its history? But ‘Venice Takeaway’ is about much more than just language. Who believes Great Britain still rules the waves? Or, to put it differently, who believes our architecture still needs verandahs? Realizing Great Britain is to some extent captive to its history of Empire – Empire, a narrative inscribed in the Giardini – Richardson and Norwood incorporated it, and in doing so initiated a conversation about not only the self-image of the nation, but the architecture of the nation. If the pavilion makes a statement about how we see ourselves what does it say? Overwhelmingly, that our inability to find innovative solutions to the most basic domestic issues is endemic. The reasons for this are complex and various, in no small part a consequence of the economic hubris of the past 20 years. ‘Venice Takeaway’ proceeds in a spirit of celebratory internationalism: ten teams engage in symmetrical relationships and learn from their hosts.

In their projects both Ross and Onabolu and the London-based practice dRMM made productive critical elisions, relevant to the theme of common ground, between the ethics of exploration and research. Asked about the relationship in their own practice, Ross and Onabolu respond sceptically: ‘Neither of us has ever called ourselves “explorers” before, or since.’ For Onabolu, the fieldwork carried out for their project offered him an opportunity to consider the possibility of an anthropology purged of exotica. dRMM undertook their project in a spirit of amused reflexiveness (research, they write, is about ‘being inspired by peers and stealing from thieves’). Acknowledging a common lineage with Elizabeth I’s ‘legitimized pirate’ Francis Drake, the ‘treasure’ they sought was Dutch design knowledge of floating houses in Ijburg, a small floating community in the east of Amsterdam. In the spirit of adventure, dRMM incorporated the journey itself into their research, arriving at Amsterdam on Easyjet EZY8871 on the 10th April, returning to London eight days later, after a period of ‘going local’ in a six-metre rescue boat. The trio managed to get as far as Zeebruge before abandoning ship for a more conventional combination of bus, train and ferry back to London. While the attempt may have failed, the gesture at least seemed a rich allegory on embedded forms of knowledge and the productive virtues of failure in research. But that is not all: the go-fast boat is a poignant symbol of piracy – we can imagine the crew smuggling intellectual goods across that physical boundary dividing the British Isles from the continent.

At the 2010 Biennale, Richardson worked with muf architecture/art to produce ‘Villa Frankenstein’, which included The Stadium of Close Looking, a 1:10 scale-model section of a stadium for the London Olympics. Unsurprisingly, Richardson was mindful in co-curating ‘Venice Takeaway’ during the Olympic year: ‘The Olympics has created a real sense of a hugely international community in London – I love that, and I love that British architecture is massively international. So many studios that we call British are architects who have come to study in London and ended up staying to establish practices. Our profession is much more diverse and rich for that. Often people think that unless you’re showing projects by British architects you are not being self-confident. I think it is the opposite. Our ability to learn and keep an open mind is our strength.’ Translation, the cornerstone of diversity, emerges as the central ethical act of ‘Venice Takeaway’. How well do these polemical proposals translate from their specific contingencies and contours of local context to be applied in the UK? Not everything in the ‘Takeaway’ translated in a predictable and routine way. Returning from his journey to Buenos Aires, Redstone admitted uncertainty as to how the apartment building scheme could be implemented in the British context. His solution is to continue to raise awareness of the approach to architects and planners, initiating a conversation between those in Argentina and the UK. Not all, but most, of the ten participants in ‘Venice Takeaway’ emerge from their explorations with pragmatic purposeful outcomes. In February, the show will travel to the RIBA galleries in London – the first time a Biennale exhibition has had such an afterlife. Norwood and Richardson will look afresh at the display design, not simply because the physical space of the gallery is different, but also because the aim for participants to provide sustainable solutions is being played out right now. RIBA will reveal the afterlife of projects put in motion for ‘Venice Takeaway’. Here, I wonder how much attention critics will pay to its apparently neo-colonial project, or whether, as I suspect, it is in fact the Venice Biennale itself that is kept hostage.

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, UK.