By Caitlin Blanchfield
A little over a week after the opening of the Venice Biennale, as the fanfare and hoopla began to fade, Sarah Williams Goldhagen gave the show a welcome lambast in Architectural Record. Rightfully, she took to task its overburdened curatorial vocabulary: words like “Fundamentals” and “Elements” belie the arbitrariness of the installations, structures, and stories that comprise the Giardini’s central hall. Rem’s exhibition isolated 15 “elements” of architecture—the wall, floor, facade and corridor to name a few. The aim was to expand the architectural conversation, to look beyond designers to an architectural vocabulary shared across cultures—succinctly stated in press releases and reiterated in news coverage. This is to say that buildings come with a set of givens, these givens have a social and economic history apart from the illustrious architects that use them
“Elements” is one part of the Biennale’s overarching framework, “fundamentals”. Ostensibly picking apart modernity, “Fundamentals” asks each country to speak to the international absorption of modernity and its global construction over the last century.
Its a welcome departure from Biennale’s past. Of course one is happy to hear to Rem’s picked up on the starchitect’s waning caché, but when a show purports to strip things down to their essentials—dismantling the stair, taking out the fireplace, shearing the balcony, and removing roof—the obvious question is: what’s missing? People and politics, for instance, drop into the background. They are objects of action, passive as remote heaters track their body heat, as in the MIT SENSEable City Lab’s dematerialized “fireplace” (a standout in the show), or in the thresholds of airport security (i.e. “doors”).
Collateral events and ancillary exhibitions were quick to fill in the missing fundamentals, occupying pockets of the city and stretching the reach of the Biennale. Tucked in the first floor apartment of Casa Muraro the Buell Center’s “House, Housing” exhibition posited land as an overlooked element in architecture. Real estate of course rules who builds where; it dictates how and where we live. “House, Housing” is a “whispering, humming history machine,” in the words of its curators Reinhold Martin, Susan Schindler and Jacob Moore. In 19 episodes, the show illustrated a diachronic investigation of a global residential economy on television screens, over handheld radios, and photocopied government documents. “Failed Architecture,” a salon held offsite at the nearby Emily Harvey Foundation, questioned the myths of modernism and addressed the failures of mid-20th century architecture and urban planning, finding its contemporary traces. Failure also informed the Montenegro Pavilion, where models were cleaved and split open to expose the skeletons of Modernism in former Yugoslavia. There curators dwelt speculated on the potential power of “failed” buildings, asking how they could be recouped and given a second life as “treasures in disguise.”
It was ultimately with this question—what is missing?— that I was best able to understand the Biennale. I am a newcomer to these things. But looking around Venice itself, the exhibition’s blind spots become pretty clear. A separation from the city and a lack of communication between Bienniale curators were two shortcomings. The nationalist agenda another, short-changing the local or regional scale.
While Biennale guests flitted between national pavilions and parties, Venetians protested the large cruise ships damaging the lagoon and inundating the city with tourists. Ultimately cruise ships are an architectural problem—the design of massive resorts-on-water, the city-as-aesthetic object—and speak to a theme the Bienniale doesn’t address: tourism and local economy (its own breed prefers yachts over cruise ships). And though the “Monditalia” portion of the exhibition—a curatorial patchwork of Italian identity—addresses the regional composition of Italy, transnational regions, networks and cities are mostly absent in the show. It is built into the structure of national pavilions, but also the broader curatorial statement of the Biennale. By pitting national identity versus modernity, it eschews the scales that fall in-between.
While coverage of the show remains Rem-heavy, we should shine a light on the projects in the spectacle’s margins. For example a group of Swiss students mapping adaptive reuse in abandoned buildings along the beachy Lido district. Along with the Roman collective Stalker, their workshop collaborated with local cultural groups to chart an unseen side of the city, and then invaded the Swiss Pavilion with printed postcards and hand-made maps, disrupting its delicate minimalism. So, in an exhibition about absorption, the disruptions and ruptures counterweighted canned curatorial platitudes, opening room for surprise discoveries in the Venetian streets.