Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Aussie architects need to quit playing cute
Venice in thunder has the same powdery tang as Lake Mungo after rain. It’s a red earth smell, this wetted sea of corrugated pantile roofs bedded on ancient salts. The storm sweeps great holes in the crawling, impenetrable layer of heat and biennale-bugs that have, until now, cocooned the island, recalling New York writer Jerry Saltz’s memorable take on the Biennale as “a harmonic convergence, a cattlecall or a clusterf—.” (The dashes are mine.)
Before that, though, before the storm, it is hot. “Uh, don’t I know you?” enquires the portly gent, pausing to mop his brow on this swelteringly Australian Venice morning. He doesn’t, as it happens. Know me. But since I’m riffling the catalogue he offers his tuppence anyway for the exit poll. “Oh the Aussie stuff’s all right. Lots of energy. They just have to drop the naive act. Quit pretending they don’t know what’s going on.”
It’s the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale. The Australian Pavilion has just opened and the gentleman, it turns out, is the well-known American architecture critic Jeffrey Kipnis, one-time collaborator with Peter Eisenman and Jacques Derrida, professor of architecture in Ohio and the chairman of this year’s Biennale Awards. So is he right? Have they seen through us? Is it time to lose the masque and admit we get it?
Rewind 10 more minutes. It’s the Aussie opening. Festivity is in the air. The old, 1988 Philip Cox pavilion has been dyed a startling citron yellow for the occasion and there’s quite a black-clad crowd under these tall not-eucalypts; a positive litigation, an arrogance, you might say, of Australian architects. There’s cold champagne in real glasses and smoked salmon canapes designed to clash gorgeously with the building. It’s an archi-bash all right.
The trees’ skinny trunks are rope-bound the same acid hue. “There’s my rope,” jokes the prime-minister-in-waiting, Malcolm Turnbull, crunching down the gravel path. Does he mean hanging, though, sailing, or nose? Because, actually, he’s here as the handbag.
Lucy is our commissioner, our man in Venice, selected (says the Australian Institute of Architects, whose show it is) for her interest in architecture and design but also, it is whispered, for wealth and connectivity of Venetian dimensions. Yet she gives her speech, Commissioner Turnbull, standing not on the verandah but unevenly on the ramp: no mic, no notes, no punkawallah. Just the occasional “my husband” joke, and Malcolm working the digi-cam. Sweet, really.
Australia’s Biennale engagement has been patchy at best. We do the art biennale, every odd year, but for the evens – for architecture – there’s no Arts Council money. Twice now – 2006 and 2008 – the institute has picked up the tab, and a handsome job it has done. But the nagging question remains. Is Kipnis right?
Right about the energy, most definitely. Titled Abundance but really designed around diversity, the Australian show is chic and ebullient; an explosion of 200 tiny models that, perched flower-like on a waist-high field of aluminium stalks, nod and sparkle in the lemony interior.
It’s fabulously good looking, but it also shows how architecture’s well-intentioned arrogance can form its own, mirrory bubble. The models, mostly purpose-built, range from the airily conceptual, such as Olivia Hyde’s jacaranda-spewing postal tube or Mulloway’s bas-relief cave to the charmingly habitable such as Environa’s Low Carbon Apartments. They’re lovely things; crafted, intricate and strange as if to prove that architecture is – can at least look like – art.
Australian architecture, we see, has come some way since Philip Cox seemed to be its voice. But models are models, and without scale, context, habitation or explication they enchant but do not connect. The theme itself is a non-theme. So is Kipnis right? Are we partying while the world burns?
Look around. Sure, there’s frivolity. Vast weary hectares of see-through ’60s-nostalgia bubbles, moulded Moebius rooms and Frank Gehry babels in timber and cracked clay.
Daftness to spare. But there’s serious stuff, too, such as Brazil’s “no architects”, a push for the user’s viewpoint (Sao Paulo building shops stay open 24/7) and Serbia’s leather-bedded Wohnlich. There’s Britain’s scholarly housing history; Hong Kong’s “urban courtyardism”; Denmark’s Ecotopedia – Walk The Talk; Japan’s exquisite poetics of a world shaped by planting and Poland’s dry, witty and prizewinning The Afterlife Of Buildings. Then there’s Finland, which settles for breathtaking beauty in its 1958 Sverre Fehn pavilion.
There’s also the US, gone all shy and earnest, all principled, veiling its very Jeffersonian pavilion behind an outscale agit-prop flyscreen and fronting this Centre for Urban Pedagogy with cornrows of broccoli, fennel, radicchio and catalogna.
You could take issue. But at least they say something; something about architecture’s part in shaping our perilous planetary future. What does Australia say? We say, to quote the institute’s president, Howard Tanner, that, for us, “the Biennale is about the need to publicise”. A great, abundant, finger-licking global suckfest. Distance makes us needy. That, I fear, was Kipnis’s point.