Book Review: Exhibiting the Postmodern

Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale by Léa-Catherine Szacka
Marsilio, 2017
Paperback, 264 pages

One week from today the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale opens to the public. To get myself in the mindset for a trip to Venice to cover the event for World-Architects, I just read this book that takes an in-depth look at the 1980 Biennale, what is considered the first true architecture Biennale in Venice (the art Biennales date back to the late 19th century). I've known about the The Presence of the Past exhibition, curated by Paolo Portoghesi, for a while, mainly through images of the "Strada Novissima" in the Arsenale. But reading Léa-Catherine Szacka's case study of the exhibition, I realized just how narrow my understanding was – limited in large part to a superficial appreciation of the twenty Postmodern facades lining the "Strada." But the exhibition was a bit more than those false fronts, and the lasting contribution of the exhibition is much more than the coming together of numerous Postmodern architects to create a temporary street. The book does an excellent job of presenting the exhibition's background, its reality during the Biennale (with many images I've never seen before, some unfortunately too small given the page layout), and its influence since. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned in the book – things either I never knew or have forgotten over the years:

  • It was the first Biennale to be held in the Arsenale. Having been to four Biennales, I take their presence in the Arsenale for granted. But when Portoghesi encountered the long, impressive space, the military machines inside were covered in 20-30cm of dust.
  • The 1980 Biennale was highly political, both in terms of Italian politics, which greatly impacted the Biennales of art from 1968 to 1980, and the internal politics of the organizers.
  • Case in point, Kenneth Frampton was originally one of the exhibition's organizers, but he resigned three months before the show opened, due to the "collage-pastiche" direction of the show. He wrote a text critical of the event; it would have gone into the exhibition catalog but instead became the basis for his essay "Towards a Critical Regionalism" in The Anti-Aesthetic.
  • The "Strada Novissima" facades were built by set builders who worked in the film industry in Rome but were basically unemployed at the time.
  • The architects had exhibition spaces behind the "Strada Novissima" facades. So in addition to the relatively flat, full-size images created along the "street," the architects displayed projects through more conventional means: photographs and models.
  • The exhibition in the Arsenale also had a mezzanine. Paolo Portoghesi was one of the 20 architects responsible for a facade in the Arsenale, but the space behind it was given over to a stair that took visitors upstairs to an exhibition of younger architects.
  • The Presence of the Past had a display devoted to critics.Without Frampton, the critics were three: Charles Jencks, Christian Norberg-Schultz, and Vincent Scully. Meant to create intellectual debate among the positions of the various contributors via texts throughout the exhibition, the small display space that was ultimately built isolated them and made their contributions less memorable.
  • The "Strada Novissima" traveled to Paris and San Francisco in 1981 and 1982, respectively. In each city, the message and means of display were modified to suit their new contexts: in an octagonal space in Paris and a linear space with the addition of a forced perspective in San Francisco.