Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
In Venice, the eyes have it
Architecture is walls, and cannot be hung like art, writes Biennale visitor Elizabeth Farrelly.
Venice. At first glance this remnant of empire, friable testament to the link between power and form and yet one of the planet’s great beauties, would seem the ideal host for the world’s most fabled architecture show. Yet Venice is strangely inimical to architecture. Almost nothing constructed here since the Renaissance merits even a slowing of the gait and most contemporary Venetian projects, by even the most glorious of architects, die on the drawing board. The reason, one can only suppose, lies in history. And after all, whispers the water city, what else is there?
For hundreds of years silk, spices, carpets, ceramics, pearls and precious metals flowed one way; amber, timber, salt, wool, linen, velvet, coral and slaves the other. In these post-Crusades trade routes Venice was the hinge, the chiasmus between East and West. Without Muslim trade, Venice would probably never have evolved from insignificant fishing village into La Serenissima, centre of empire.
And seen from above Venice forms the perfect symbol of this complicated role; the grand imperial city built over and around its humble inner hamlet. Like two balloon-headed fish locked jaw-to-jaw in a permanent ritual of love or death, the island offers a nice take on traditional yin-yang symbolism, East and West in perpetual co-dependence, caulked together in their watery sac.
A slightly nearer God’s-eye view reveals Venice as a figure-ground study in textured red and blue, a city that is equal parts water and roof. These roofs are often multi-pitched and multi-guttered (Venetian rainstorms make the common-or-garden Sydney deluge look piddling) but all in that same desert-red pantile, interlocked one under, one over, in much the same yin-yang way as the islands themselves.
Yet if I had to paint Venice, it would be a picture not of knobbly terracotta or of labyrinthine canals but of eyes. Eyes everywhere, in a strange, disingenuous sort of Sidney Nolan meets Hieronymous Bosch. Everywhere you go in Venice, by foot, gondola or vaporetto, everywhere the watchers.
In part this is just Europe; that male gaze thing by which you know that while the women make babies or pastries in back rooms, men watch. Everywhere, in every square and cafe, on every corner and doorstep; short thick men, smoking, watching, less in lust – I like to think – than in trustless incomprehension. Though who can tell what really goes on behind the nicotine?
In Venice, though, you sense another layer to the watching; a layer of resentment that derives, I fancy, from how far Venetians have been prepared or compelled to traduce their culture in order to save it.
Silk-clad gondolieri poling sweaty Americans through narrow waterways, slender teenage bell-hops in velvet slippers hoping for tips, waiters serving bad, pseudo-traditional food at hugely inflated prices, residents paid by the government to restore their crumbling palazzi at just the right stage of adorable decrepitude. Like penniless nobles forced to welcome the unwashed into their decaying stately pile, the Venetians seem condemned to resent where they most depend, and depend where they resent. This is what remains of the masque; the price, perhaps, of a glorious past.
All of which makes it especially bizarre to be in Venice when its streets and canals are crawling with a thick layer of architects. Architects – the young and Euro with their clever haircuts and cleverer spectacles, the old and American with big bottoms and bigger voices – architects who loudly debate in the elegant 17th century breakfast room the relative merits of Gehry and Zaha, whose very existence declares that new is inherently better than old.
The very idea of an architecture biennale is odd, and not only because art gets the even years. Art biennales attract large crowds of interested laypeople because you can see, on the wall, the object in question; the art. Architecture is not like that. Architecture cannot be put on walls because architecture is walls. The closest you can get to showing architecture as if it were art is about-architecture. Meta architecture. Which too often means architecture trying to reconceive itself as art, and generally restricts the audience to the in-crowd, architecture’s practitioners, teachers and students.
The 2008 Biennale reinforces this aboutness, this meta-quality. Themed Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, this year’s show is a more-than-usually ironic cuckoo in Venice’s nest. “Buildings,” proclaims Biennale director Aaron Betsky, “are the tombs of architecture … Architecture must go beyond buildings … Buildings are not enough. Buildings are ugly, useless and wasteful … Worse, most buildings are not designed by architects.”
His points, in case you missed them, are first that architecture is distinguished by its ideas, and more problematically, that those ideas are necessarily architect-supplied. As if Venice itself weren’t enough to belie this second proposition, Betsky insists there is a “secret history of architecture”, separate from both style and technology, that is the real heart of the discipline.
What he doesn’t see is that this guild-think is the problem, not the solution. Sure, it makes architects, especially those of academic and intellectual bent, feel better to claim conceptual artistic territory. But it doesn’t make for better architecture. Arguably, indeed, the contrary.
True, the Frank Gehrys and Zaha Hadids of the world have become celeb “starchitects” and to that extent, you might argue, they bridge the chasm between architecture and the population it supposedly serves. But Gehry’s experimental Statue of Liberty tower, handmade in timber and cracked clay by specially imported vestal maidens, and Hadid’s swirling Lotus – which I am trying hard not to describe as a great room-sized flingummy in petrified phlegm, billed as a “house” in that it has parts that might, with some imagination, be used as a bed, a wardrobe, a table, a desk, and incredibly, shelving – are every bit as arrogant as the modernism they purport to critique.
Indeed, if the intended message is that architecture has learnt nothing since Le Corbusier’s equally silly (but at least novel) machine-a-habiter, based on the idea that a house is no more than a living-contraption, it works admirably. But who, then, can blame Venice for its marked a-modernism, or for its quarantining of the Biennale, by and large, within the great walled campuses of the Giardini and the Arsenale? As if to underline this hermeticism, the Utzon show, up near the Accademia bridge, is entitled The Architect’s Universe. That pretty much sums it up, really.
Venice, it must be said, returns the love. Here building proposals by starchitects, including Le Corbusier and Enric Miralles, David Chipperfield and Frank O. Gehry himself, have all become stuck, permanently it seems, in the mud of indecision. There is some built mid-century stuff, including Carlo Scarpa’s very lovely 1958 Olivetti showroom (now a gallery) on San Marco, and Giancarlo De Carlo’s brightly coloured social housing on the island of Mazzorbo and Sverre Fehn’s heartstoppingly lovely Nordic pavilion, a counterintuitive exercise in gridded white marble and light. Since then, though, not a lot – and what there is suggests Venetians have been right to drag the chain.
Santiago Calatrava’s long-awaited fourth bridge over the Grand Canal may be named for him – Ponte di Calatrava – but with its glass wings and clunky liver-coloured structure it is so loathed by locals (as well as being four years late and 300 per cent over budget) that in August, Mayor Cacciari had to cancel the opening ceremony. It was 125 years since the last bridge had been built over the sacred waterway; and it may be another 125 years to the next.
But, you say, Calatrava is a revered designer. Spanish, too. Brilliant. Can the bridge really be so bad? Well no, not if seen from above. From God’s viewpoint the structure has delicacy, sweetness and grace, even. But the thing is no one, except God and (His right-hander, the architect) sees it from above. Venice doesn’t have a lot of skyscrapers. Most people see the bridge only from the vaporetto, getting an eyeful only of its hefty, over-designed dried-blood steelwork, and none of its elegance.
And what of the Biennale content? Is it all arrogant, eff-off architecture?
Well, once again, no. There is the occasional goat, among the undergraduate sheep. (Or should it be sheep among the undergraduate goats?) Poland’s show for example, which deservedly took out the Biennale award, was called Hotel Polonia: The Afterlife Of Buildings. At once serious and funny, Hotel Polonia took the Beyond Building theme as a liberation not from built-ness but from now-ness; an excuse to follow buildings into the life of the imagination. And what a rewarding pursuit it proved to be.
Focusing on Warsaw, its “urban tissue ruined on an unprecedented scale” by the Second World War, ruined again by the rebuilding that followed it with a “meagre and dull architectural landscape”, and under attack now a third time by the post-1989 gloss of skyscrapers and gated communities, Hotel Polonia takes shiny new buildings and imagines them half a century or so into the future; ruined, rejected or recycled.
Norman Foster’s rather undistinguished little Metropolitan office building, reminiscent of his 1974 Willis Faber in Ipswich, is gradually transformed over 50 years into a metropolitan prison, complete with graffiti and dereliction, a mix of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and Piranesi’s Carceri.
The great pompous neoclassical pile that is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrow at Lichen (2004) is the world’s 10th largest church. Designed in a style its architect calls “gusto polacco” on 85 hectares in the hitherto tiny village of Lichen, it has an imagined future that works to its sinister overtones, as the Thermae Lychenae, a public pleasure-pool complex whose vast gilt and angel-filled interior is populated now by plump white bodies and waterslides.
And Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s mirror-glass skyscraper Rondo One, catalogued as Late Cowboy Capitalism but emptied – it is fantasised – by the sudden success of telecommuting, is rebirthed as a vertical cemetery, with iconography to make Lebbeus Woods proud.
Poland isn’t the only country whose architects still like buildings. Japan’s Extreme Nature: Landscape Of Ambiguous Spaces exhibition, a collaboration between architect Junya Ishigami, botanist Hideaki Ohba and critic Taro Igarashi, is also profoundly moving, although in quite a different way. In the snow-blind whiteness of the pavilion, full-size imaginings, pencilled onto the walls, explore new kinds of relationships between buildings and nature. Tiny-footed tower houses dotted through forests; towns that give equal standing to hills and buildings; a village made of ponds, each the site for a building; a very small bedroom in a field full of flowers. Some of the fantasies teeter into daftness but they do at least enliven our engagement with the poetics of reality.
Britain’s show is very serious, combining a scholarly history of British housing, from the 19th century reform movements, through Richard Norman Shaw and Raymond Unwin to the bureaucratic marshes of the contemporary Thames Gateway project with an exhibition of five British practices building contemporary housing in Europe. While in a small Venetian courtyard near the Arsenale, Hong Kong, too explored ideas for city living, trying to reinvent extreme densities within a lyrical spatial frame.
These are the Biennale’s memorable moments. They’re by no means dominant. Australia, for example, its show tellingly entitled Abundance, takes quite another tack, presenting some 200 tiny models – some of real buildings but almost all presented to avoid reading that way, without name or description – to demonstrate, simply, the plethora of creative talent at this far end of the New World.
But within the Biennale, the memorable moments are those that reinforce the message reverberating through the crooked byways of Venice itself. You cannot walk five minutes in Venice without confronting the way its semi-liquid labyrinth, making infiltration all but impossible, protects its community. Or the way its lanes and campos interlock with private space to blur the distinction between the owned and the shared; even as it makes startlingly plain the line between the dwellers and the merely visiting.
Architecture is distinguished by its ideas. Mr Betsky is right about that. But those ideas are strongest – most vivid and most durable – when they derive intimately from the nature and culture in which they grow. And this, dear reader, is the real reason why Venice, whose future looks more and more Disney at every moment, may simply sink into the mud.
PHOTO: Like two balloon-headed fish locked jaw-to-jaw in a permanent ritual of love or death, Venice offers a nice take on traditional yin-yang symbolism. Photo: Getty Images/Dan Kitwoo