I approached Venice by boat under a full moon. Each time I visit, I sigh in wonderment at this dense, gorgeous city where your most important asset is a comfortable, yet good-looking, pair of shoes.
I’m here for the opening of the Architecture Biennale that happens every other year, alternating with the Art Biennale. The 12th International Architecture Exhibition is helmed by Kazuyo Sejima — one half of SANAA, the 2010 Laureates of the Pritzker Prize and designers of the New Museum.
It’s notoriously difficult to pull off an exciting architecture exhibition. Your experience is severely hampered by one’s inability to be in the actual space that is being showcased, though surely, remotely controlled androids (yes, Bruce Willis in sci-fi film Surrogates) will exist in our lifetime. Typically, we are asked to review drawings, computer-generated renderings, scale models, and sometimes, when budgets allow, a 1:1 mock up of a specific component of a project.
Sejima sidestepped the traditional tools of representation by asking her chosen architects and artists (having completed several contemporary art museums, she involved a number of blue chip art stars) to make experiential installations that elucidate her theme: People Meet in Architecture. A couple of worthy reviews to check out areJustin McGuirk’s in the Guardian and Edwin Heathcote’s in the FT.
At this year’s Biennale, I have two favorites — one executed by a filmmaker and the other by a former screenwriter.
On the heels of Avatar and Inception, Wim Wenders directs a twelve-minute, 3-D love poem to SANAA’s undulating Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale campus in Lausanne, Switzerland. Ignore the multiple protagonists (student, professor, janitor) who act as if they are going through a religious experience; instead, train your complimentary 3-D glasses (I swear they are an exact knockoff of Daniel Libeskind’s frames) on the sweeping vistas of a space without walls or the rail-thin columns that support a canopy punctuated with stretched oval shaped skylights; it’s a man-made landscape designed for casual social interaction. Near the end of the film you see two small figures on Segways (two-wheeled upright scooters) who motor towards the camera and then swoosh to the right, careen to the left, and back again; I recognize Sejima wearing a not-often-seen cheek-to-cheek grin and her partner, Ryue Nishisawa, half smiling. It’s a touching moment of glee mixed with triumph: architects truly enjoying their own built environment.
Rem Koolhaas, famously a screenwriter before turning to architecture who received this year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, proves time and time again that he is the most convincing and sophisticated storyteller in the architectural world. His two-room exhibition on preservation —past, present and future relies on a visual vocabulary that he and OMA invented fifteen years ago that has become ubiquitous for a younger generation of practices.
Of course some of the most fascinating moments of the Biennale have less to do with contemplating the future of architecture, and more with observing the species we call “architects”. Rem Koolhaas, nearing a youthful seventy, buzzes by in his black uniform at such speed that his colleague, a third of his age scampers to keep up. I turned to a Dean of a prestigious architecture school and ask, “What’s his secret?” and he replies, “He swims every day.” (Note to self: Join the Y.) At a dinner/salon, several younger and successful rising stars bemoan the fact that Steven Spielberg and James Cameron are able to create untethered utopias, their vision intact while architects struggle against evil political systems that don’t understand their master plan schemes. And speaking of master planners, while attending presentations for the new cultural district of West Kowloon, Hong Kong, I witness the most gracious moment of the Biennale. One of the finalists, Rocco Yim, struggles to explain his scheme using a fold-out brochure…he has a hard time pointing and displaying it at the same time. Lord Norman Foster, also a finalist, gallantly props-up the brochure, enabling Yim a visual eloquence that he has previously been denied.
On the last day of the previews, I rush back to my hotel to pick up my bags. Venice has clouded over and the rain pours. The waters are now choppy and our driver cautious. As we near the airport, skies clear and, like a Hollywood ending, a double rainbow materializes on cue.
“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Karen Wong is Associate Director and Director of External Affairs at the New Museum.
The Venice Architecture Biennale runs through November 21, 2010.
// From our friends at the New Museum