Biennale Architettura 2012, Part 2

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2012 Venice Architecture Biennale

This second installment of our Venice Biennale coverage focuses on the National Pavilions, where the first installment focused on the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, directed by David Chipperfield and titled Common Ground. The exhibitions collected below include winners of the awards and special mentions, but also some highlights from the pavilions spread across the Giardini and beyond. In an opening ceremony on August 29 (the Biennale runs until November 25), Álvaro Siza Vieira was given the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, and the international jury handed out awards for national participation, best project, and promising practice.

As mentioned, Álvaro Siza Vieira is the recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, as selected by David Chipperfield, but unfortunately the Portuguese architect could not attend the ceremony due to a broken arm. He nevertheless has a  presence at the Biennale, since he also contributed an installation at the Giardino delle Vergini, which is tucked away near the far end of the Arsenale. Siza strategically placed earth-red walls around a couple large trees. Gaps and cuts in the walls allow access and views beyond the series of interior spaces. The walls are completely unadorned, minus the color, but the experience is dramatic, thanks to the trees, the sunlight, and the shadows created through the interplay of both with Siza's architecture.

In Wednesday morning's ceremony, Japan was given the award for Best National Participation for its Architecture. Possible here? Home-for-All exhibition. Architect Toyo Ito led a team of three architects -- Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto, and Akihisa Hirata -- in responding to the destruction of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Like the theme Common Ground, Home-for-Alleschews originality and innovation for its own sake, instead focusing on determining what is appropriate for the situation. As Ito puts it, "a disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is."

The exhibition in Japan's pavilion consists primarily of models that document the three architects working out designs for shelters where affected people can meet to further discuss what exactly should be done. Wrapping the space are photos by Naoya Hatakeyama of the city Rikuzentaka. The scenes of destruction have an odd tranquility to them, and juxtaposed against the numerous models, they invite visitors to ponder what shape rebuilding should take.

The jury awarded three special mentions for national participation; the first one mentioned was Poland. Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers -- the title comes from Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son -- is a total aural experience, a sound sculpture by Katarzyna Krakowiak. The space is simply rough concrete walls, a gently sloping wood floor that actually stops shy of one wall, and curved ducts overhead. The sounds -- a mix of ambient noises and voices -- draws one toward the walls, where things become louder and more distinct. In a way the installation acts like an eavesdropping device, but ultimately it leaves interpretation up to the visitor and his or her experience.

The jury gave a second special mention to Russia, whose i-city exhibition was easily the most popular at the Giardini -- on numerous occasions I walked by to find a line to get inside. Three spaces upstairs are lined with metal panels printed with QR codes. Visitors are handed tablet devices that read the codes and then give information on the Skolkovo Innovation Center project. A skylit, domed space between the smaller flanking spaces is most impressive, since the codes extend from floor to oculus. Downstairs is another exhibition, made up of hundreds of illuminated peepholes that give a glimpse of secret, cold-war-era gated towns that the Soviet Union created for scientific research. As spatially impressive as the rooms upstairs, this dark, subterranean-like space is very appropriate for its subject matter.

The jury's third special mention for national participation went to USA's Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, which collects 124 projects that range from guerrilla bike lanes to urban farming and handbooks for giving citizens more participation in how cities are designed and lived in. This general idea extends to the courtyard, designed by Interboro Partners, and the various sessions (workshops, discussions, school programs) held on the orange benches that will be given to schools in Venice after the Biennale.

Inside, the 124 projects are suspended from color-coded banners that visitors pull down to eye level to read. This action finds a reaction in movable signs on the walls and hints at the consequences of the visitors' actions in finding and implementing solutions to urban problems. Freecell's design for the exhibition also includes a timeline of important markers in urban history, which leads people from the entrance to a bulletin board at the end that informs of events in the Biennale and elsewhere that should also be of interest. It is a loaded exhibition that, like Poland and Russia, is worth the special mention.

According to the curators of the Swiss Pavilion, And Now the Ensemble!!! "represents an appeal to architects, builders, and authorities to look at urban design and architecture as a dialogue-based, evolving, and collective work of art, and to act accordingly." This appeal is subtly expressed in the panoramic, imaginary cityspace that wraps a skylit space to the right of the entrance. The idea is a strong one, which attempts to be conveyed by positioning buildings by three architects -- Miroslav Šik, Knapkiewicz & Fickert, and Miller & Maranta -- in new juxtapositions. Only chairs accompany the monochrome images, making it ultimately feel like a sterile piazza.

The theme of Germany's Pavilion -- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- is a familiar phrase but not necessarily in terms of buildings. How to deal with buildings constructed from the 1950s to the 1970s is the focus of the exhibition that is museum-like in its display of large photos in white rooms. Taking into consideration the embodied energy in existing buildings is the most important thing to take away from the exhibition, one that will ideally affect "a profound change in attitude," as General Commissioner Muck Petzet describes it. Demolition of mid-20th-century buildings may be the norm in many places around the world, but if embodied energy is a factor in that decision, then reuse becomes a more viable alternative. Perhaps finding beauty in those buildings is one means of achieving this, through photos like the ones in the German pavilion.

One of the most diverse individual pavilions is the collection of seven Spanish architects displayed in SPAINLab. Each of the seven contributions is a discrete entity, and their juxtapositions are occasionally jarring, such as moving from a concrete-lined walkway into a space anchored by a trampoline -- being used by three kids on my visit. One space that draws visitors toward it houses plants and trees hanging from the ceiling; they illustrate the pavilion's focus on architects experimenting through scientific research. I'm not sure if the room is a three-month experiment (for the duration of the Biennale), but the idea of using the exhibition as a means for carrying out research is certainly a good one that comes across here.

A few steps away from Spain's borderline chaos is the Dutch Pavilion, one that is opposite in just about every way: One contribution instead of seven; cohesion instead of diversity; one object instead of many. Yet this is a simplified view of what is a quite varied exhibition titled Re-set. Petra Blaisse's installation with curator Ole Bouman animates the space at regular intervals, moving a few curtains on tracks to create "rooms" of different size and shape. Bouman, director of the NAi, wanted to reanimate the 58-year-old building; Blaisse responded with a design that creates "twelve new situations, all born from a single existing design." The installation rewards a prolonged visit, to watch the room transform itself every five minutes.

The Giardini grounds are basically split into two areas, with most of pavilions grouped about open spaces in front of the Central Pavilion. Eight of the national pavilions are located on the other side of a canal and oriented about a long green space that is a particularly nice place to have a rest during a day trekking about the Biennale. The next four pavilions are found in this area east of the Central Pavilion that is accessible by bridge.

Located on axis with the bridge is the Brazil Pavilion, whose ConVivência exhibition is split into two: one installation by the late Lucio Costa and one by Marcio Kogan, two generations of Brazilian architects. On the right is Costa's Riposatevi, from 1964, which is a direct, bodily experience ("riposatevi" translates as "rest"), and on the left is Kogan's new peephole installation, which is a mediated experience. Visitors peep into a house designed by Kogan's Studio mk27 that was filmed by Lea Van Steen. Watching people look into the peepholes, many of which require some effort, is as interesting as these filmed voyeuristic glances inside the house.

Play Mincu is the name of the Romanian Pavilion, which is a "semiotic, interactive installation producing architectural stamps," per their literature. Mincu refers to Ion Mincu, inventor of the so-called Romanian style of architecture. In the pavilion the visitor becomes Mincu by playing with the stamps perched atop glowing podiums. Yet while the pavilion is seen as a game, the choice of stamp aligns with bureaucratic processes, such as being an architect and "stamping drawings" -- putting one's legal mark that a design follows the rules of a government. Balancing play and what can be seen as its opposite -- politics -- is an interesting tactic, but play wins out in the end.

Similar in vein to Poland's pavilion is Serbia's jedan: sto / 100, which is a minimal intervention that uses sound effectively. A large table of sorts occupies all of the rectangular room minus a gap for walking the perimeter. (With its corner legs it looked like a giant IKEA coffee table.) If the installation were just the raised white surface it would certainly align with the curator's appeal for the banal, but sounds -- people hitting the top surface, mainly -- bounce around the room through supplemental devices, making it more interesting. Being there when a group of friends played the table like an instrument was a cool experience, thanks to the delayed blips bouncing around the room.

It's hard to say what is more memorable about Austria's Hands have no tears to flow installation: The large-scale film reflected in a parallel mirror, or the tiny entrance that required anybody but children to crouch down as they entered? While I'm not sure how the two are supposed to relate, the entry sequence prepares visitors for another immersive experience at the Biennale. Slow-motion, animated bodies flow about two walls, reflected in a mirrored surface that slides between an archway and gives the impression of a much larger space -- the antithesis of the entry, perhaps. Behind the mirrored wall is a courtyard and a glance at the "guts" that hold up the wall. Like Poland and other pavilions, interpretation is fairly open and up to the visitor's experience.

The last two pavilions are found at the north end of the Arsenale, near the Siza installation at the beginning of this feature.

Five architects, artists, and designers participated in creating China's Originaire exhibition, four of them occupying an impressive space dominated by oil tanks and one located in a garden outside. There isn't any clear dialogue happening between the five contributors -- Shao Weiping, Xu Dongliang, Wei Chunyu, Tao Na, and Wang Yun -- but variation through repetition seems to be at least a formal consistency. Most impressive is Weiping's spine-like Sequence installation running down the center of the space.

Last but certainly not least is Italy, the host country's pavilion, which used to be located at the Giardini but which now occupies the Artillery; their previous pavilion now serves as the Central Pavilion for the International Architecture Exhibition. Italy's Le quattro stagioni. L'architettura del Made in Italy da Adriano Olivetti alla Green Economyinstallation looks back to Adriano Olivetti's birth of the "Made in Italy" label and the subsequent growth of small- and medium-sized companies in the country, in order to look ahead to a possible "Green Economy." It is an important consideration, but it is also strategic, given that Milan will be hosting the Expo in 2015, which is titled Feeding the planet, energy for life. Nevertheless, as host country, it's hard not to think how this topic -- more crisis-laden than Common Ground -- could inform the theme for the Biennale in 2014. Stay tuned.