What is not there | OUT THERE: Manifestos

November 20, 2008

There’s no doubt the Venice Biennale is the trendiest of architectural events in Italy. And there’s no doubt therefore, that anyone belonging to that world, not to feel out of it, must indubitably write something about, taking position.
But the fact of being all, necessarily, forced to give an opinion about the Biennale, constitutes one of the most catastrophic media effects in the architectural field. As a consequence, what can be seen once a biennium, in Italy, is nothing more than a sort of judgments competition, made of opinions given as quickly and shallowly as possible. Feature of this disturbing phenomenon, is its independence from the importance of the author of the criticism. To name one for all: Philippe Daverio. A most interesting personage, with an intrinsic humor and an irresistible taste for the eclectic an provocateur pun, but sometimes prey of a lower tendency to the slogan form and of a general reluctance in accepting some issues of contemporary, mainly in architecture. This is properly the case of last Sunday’s episode of PassepARTout*, that I suggest to see as a counterpoint (better if later) of what you’re about to read, if you’re likely to do it.

Once made this brief recrimination about the communicative urge by the which everybody seem taken when dealing about the Biennale, I admit I’m going to let it take me too, then I’ll face the subject; but my precise intention is to seek inside it traces of the thread I’m following with this blog.

Let’s start, then.

As everybody knows, this year’s exhibition has been organized by Aaron Betsky, already curator of other expositions and architectural criticist, with the title of Out there: architecture beyond building.
Attracted by the theme of the exposition, last spring I had went to Rome, to the Faculty of Architecture of Valle Giulia, to listen to an introductive speech that Betsky himself was making about the Biennale (and, as a matter of fact, also about the student world challenge associated to it as always, in the vain hope to participate it). I can’t state that the lecture (that’s  what it was) was free from a certain rhetoric of advertising and slogans; nevertheless, the impression upon me was globally convincing. A sensed series of considerations had been made about the blurriness  of contemporary city, the regulatory function of the sign beyond the volume, to the asymptotic tension of the architectonic artifact to the natural object, to architecture considered as «a gathering together of what already exists», to the didactic function of art for what concerns new approaches to space, to photography as the real discoverer of architecture and to architecture as an «uncovering, figuring out, revealing» factor of the world, and so on. Shortly, a (well dimensioned) poetical sum of the main question of the contemporary scene.

But how much of these good intentions Betsky has been able to bring to the exposition is what I’m about to discuss, and I guess a good way to do it is to examine the manifestos presented to the Arsenale by a series of international studies of architecture.

In general, this method of communication can be interpreted in many ways. It could be said that its function is to please the nostalgic of the avant-gardes of the first and second part of the XX century but that it is an anachronistic choice for the lack of any real contemporary Movement with a precise direction; but it could also be said that it is for this same reason that the choice is interesting and provocative and that the presentation of a long series of “personal manifestos” of the single groups instead of a collective one is to witness this exact meaning. Anyway, a starting manifesto, more than a collective one, is Betsky’s.
A manifesto that deludes me in many parts, if compared to what I had heard from the mouth of the same author some months before.
Acceptable although trivial is a hint to the fact that, since «the buildings are not, mostly, designed by architects», everything goes wrong in our cities. «Yet the architecture is beautiful». Indispensible information. «Building is building. It is a verb.»
And here I’ll allow myself into a period of absolute linguistic formalism (forgive me, these are fetishes I can’t do without). Exploiting an apparently purely glottological clarification accomplished by Betsky, I lead my short crusade against the deviated use commonly made of the word. In the name of God, please stop using it as a synonym for “work of architecture”! Just like the Divine Comedy is not a poetry by Dante Alighieri and Moby Dick is not a literature of Herman Melville, the Pompidou Center is not an architecture by Rogers and Piano, but one of their works, generally a building, properly a museum, physically a project, actually the realization, and so on.
But do not judge my statement too harsh, because I’m sure that if Betsky himself had spoken the same way, he would have received far less criticism; instead, the use of a distinction between architecture and construction declared in terms that would have been making even Leon Battista Alberti yawn, mixed to a few truly contemporary opinions, inexorably preludes to a disastrous conclusion: «Buildings or architecture. The buildings can be avoided.»

And hence the widespread discontent, which can be summed up in a blind lapidating of the curator for what is not there inside the Arsenale.  Blind and shallow, because it doesn’t consider a basic fact, namely that the architecture is nothing but what is not there (or we would be dealing about sculpture, confusion in which Gehry clumsily falls in his manifesto) and as a consequence it can, must go beyond building when meant in a classical dimension, because this constitutes only a small subset if it (although, obviously, not all the act building belongs to the categories of architecture). I wonder what kind of exposure to the Arsenale would had met the various censors taste: perhaps a succession of models, as in the 2004 show? Nor, for even the practice of exposing what is not strictly made is deprived of its legitimacy. Then, maybe, a more convincing sequence of photographs, perhaps including views of the yard. It is quite weird, if one looks, that the same voices (alas greatly able to influence the public opinion, particularly those of the sector outsiders) exhaustingly accuse architecture of being perennial disrespectful (of what, it seems irrelevant ) with this taken as an incontrovertible law of the universe, and as much as a constitutionally unchallenged dominion of what is made

But going back to the manifestos. Let’s have a quick look to the others to build a first idea. We could say that they can be roughly divided into four categories: the past, the spicy, the fool, the trivial.

Among the authors of the past, some will redeem themselves in their corresponding installation, as Barkow Leibinger Architects, which links a manifesto for a concrete architecture to the realization of an interesting material garden, made of metal pipes, but shapely variable following the viewer’s will and not lacking of aesthetic quality; some instead, like Gehry, is stuck on descriptions of the profession that could easily belong to the past century and are unable to obtain even better results with their installation which seems awkward, redundant and old and is easily overcome in terms of poetry from the carpenters banquet hidden just behind.

Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher belong to the same species, with a manifesto that, not realizing its anachronism, proposes a new “ism” entirely lacking of content, which nobody (never the authors themselves) will remember tomorrow, with a dejà-vu sculpture in a perfect zahahadid-style, completely empty of any meaning.

Among the some way spicy manifestos I feel like including Francesco Delogu’s, culminating with a captivating promise: «One day we will be able to build structures supported by the space they contain. This way, architecture will communicate with the environment, and will not distinguish from it. At the same time it will be closer to humans, being their highest expression». Worthy of note is undoubtedly Droog & Kesselskramer’s writing, associated with one of the most successful performances of the exhibition: “Single Town”. The stand, also attractive for the general public, does not surrender to banality: the manifesto argues the very important concept that the more a city is populated by singles, the more multiple and complex interconnections it requires and the more the architect must «go beyond the building». Really an effective and appropriate interpretation of the theme of this year Biennale.

In the category of spicy, Guallart Architects can also be named, with their precise description of the contemporary situation and their proposal “Hyperabitat. Reprogramming the world”, which sums in the domestic scale the need for a closer information network linking everything in order to schedule, as far as to the limits of programming, changes and improvement;

Coop Himmelb(l)au, which exhume a forty years old work, but a work then so revolutionary that it is only understandable today, Philippe Rahm, with its “Meteorological Architecture”, which is concerned in creating, rather than spaces, temperatures and atmospheres, in an interesting link between the infinitely large, the infinitely small, the infinitely complex and the infinitely impalpable (the installation, however, is disappointingly late-rationalist), and finally M-A-D, which includes, in addition to Chris Salter, even that Erik Aadigard who had written Architecture Must Burn with Betsky in 2000, book that contains many of the theories that are behind the choice of content of the Biennale (Biennale that, it should be noted, therefore suffers the presence of ideas born already 8 years old at least).

Then the award of fool, that is devoid of any meaning, is won by the documents by Massimiliano Fuksas (a plenty of syntactically disconnected nouns perhaps in an attempt to imitate somewhat a grammar after Joyce), Nigel Coates (deliria about the need to introduce eroticism in architectural design), Totan Kuzembaev (a total of six sentences, the most senseful of those sais: «Winter thoughts are far more valuable than summer ones»), An Te Liu (a total of eight verses the most useful of those sais: «I find architecture boring when it is too practical / and not practical when it is too visionary»), but somehow are saved by the installation, and David Rockwell with Jones Kroloff (structured in gaps to be filled by anyone considering this fun for some reason).

As for the trivial, this statement is, in a higher or lesser extent, to all the other maifestos who presented to the Arsenale, that, being them incomplete, self referenced, inconclusive or simply passed, are of little or no interest as for the man in the street as for the theorist. While some installations may be considered some way worthy of attention (such as “Furnivehicles” by Atelier Bow Wow), the other are essentially superfluous, if not harmful (embarrassing the “Hypnerotosfera” by Nigel Coates).

* PassepARTout is a very successful Italian tv transmission, now at its 8° edition, written and conduced by Philippe Daverio, a very capable Italo-French art criticist, also director of  Art e Dossier, an art magazine. PassepARTout is probably the best art tv show we have in Italy. On air every Sunday at 01.30 pm.

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