Biennale Architettura Venezia 2012 : Common Ground

Day 1: Giardini 
I leave Murano late and suffer slight complications on the vaporetto. The toothless boatman threatens to throw me al mare before inviting me to lunch, I get off where I’m not supposed to and spend E22 on a ticket I don’t need. Another 20 minute wait and 30 minute boat ride eventually gets me to the Giardini. There are hoards of hand-holding children outside and the sun is bright. First things first: I locate the toilets (broken door), buy an overpriced sandwich, and head for the Venezuelan pavilion. I had thought this would be the Urban Think Tank exhibition for Common Ground, but I was wrong: it was the state-sponsored national contribution. Entering the pavilion, we were greeted by a wall that declares in bold ‘CUIDAD SOCIALIZANTE VS CIUDAD ALIENANTE’. The same text appears in Spanish, Italian and English offering a romantic notion of the house as protector of man; a place that ‘allows him to dream in peace’. The principle is that the house is the stating point for the collective transformation of society. ‘In Venezuela, the city returns to the people and is once again for the people. For everyone’.

Inside, the feeling is similarly utopian. Three walls are adorned by the work of Domenico Silvestro, a name I wasn’t familiar with. They are large, colourful graphics that have something of tropicalism about them. The back wall features built-up hills with rivers cutting through them with tones of sunshine and palm trees. Three blocks with the scene in miniature are placed at equal distances, while the walls at 90 degrees are divided into six frames featuring details in black and white. Across these are further blocks painted inversely and on both sides. Like tiny windows offering glimpses of a dream, these perspectives remind me of a tropical city that never came to be. Present-day Caracas is absent here, perhaps a place too disparate to commit to painting. Rather, it’s an escape, or perhaps a nostalgia for potential that will never come to pass.

The next room is behind a heavy white curtain. There are more blocks here, some bearing figures of construction under Chávez: ‘In one and a half years, 228,000 houses have been built’. Whether these are finished, occupied, functioning or stable remains unspecified. A video presentation that projects itself across the different shapes tells the story of María Sojo, a young mother displaced by floods who is offered alternative housing by the state and then becomes a construction worker herself. The usual rhetoric is employed here – ‘gracias a Dios, a mi presidente…’ – accompanied by loving family photos and pictures of her new house, happily ever after. This is less about building better futures and more the future’s already built, with little room for criticism or change.

Russia is nextdoor on two levels. Downstairs are adjoining pitch black rooms covered in two/three inch circular lights, some peepholes into images of gated cities created during the Soviet Union for secret scientific investigation. Upstairs is the iCity: the Skolkovo innovation centre represented as a dome of scancodes. Visitors are asked to take a tablet and scan those lit up to discover more about different facets of the project. The idea is very much of the Apple generation, and I find the surplus of information overwhelming. Perhaps that’s the point. The tablets are slightly difficult to manage and the presentations somewhat unclear. My attention span is like that of a gnat: I give up quickly and wonder round looking at other visitors navigate the exhibit more successfully instead.

The Grand Bretagne pavilion bears the title ‘Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture’. I quite like the self-detracting Britishness of the whole thing, i.e. we’ve got nothing to offer ourselves so will see what we can learn from others instead. Several teams of mixed age, experience, and background visit a selection of countries from each continent to see what they take away in a space of ten days or so. The section on Argentina is interesting. There’s a comic book style explanation of Fidecomiso, a legal trust that represents a business model for architects to develop housing blocks with multiple investors. Through allowing less regulated construction of homes with future residents paying in, Fidecomiso responded to the economic crisis of the early 2000s. Elias Redstone takes the popular Argentine art form of the comic to deliberate the possibility of replicating such a scheme back home.

aberrant architecture travelled to Brazil to investigate the 1980s Niemeyer school-building programme that provided a standardized series of primary school models know as CIEPs. The project started in Rio and soon spread through the state (twice the size of Wales, we are told; the only mention of the principality in the exhibit). To date there are 508 CIEPs in use. The practicality of the programme is impressive, especially in the face of some other more self-indulgent pavilions (Canada, I’m looking at you). But the systematic formula is problematic. Is ‘one size fits all’ a productive framework for children? The architectural articulation of a national curriculum, the CIEPs are inclusive, though perhaps at the cost of privileging difference.

France takes the thematic but somewhat predictable route of promoting the Parisian banlieue, arguing that the periphery has the space and the potential to become the new centre. Germany brings out the rather tired theme of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, while Japan looks at rebuilding community areas after last year’s tsunami. Israel’s look as its own global role as ‘the largest American aircraft carrier in the world’ is complemented by a rather tongue-in-cheek sale of all the exhibition items in a pop-up store, includingAK-47 chocolates and an Israeli capitalist monopoly set. The US pavilion is pretty happy-clappy about the community arts projects it boasts, and Brazil regenerates an installation by Brasilia thinker Lucio Costa. I particularly like Poland’s architecture of sound, which translates the everyday quaking of the building and footsteps of visitors into amplified waves that shake the walls. Romania’s concept, too, shows us how we can listen through architecture. Commemorating Ion Mincu, the hall is filled with stamps that transmits sounds through imprints.

Inside the main hall are mainly projects that debate this year’s theme, ‘Common Ground’. ‘The Banality of Good’ looks at the development of post-war new towns, including the UK’s Stevenage, offering triptychs that represent a scripted and polished reality. There’s a glimpse of civil servants cum urbanizers in ‘Public Works’, and contemporary responses to ‘The Piranesi Variations’ featuring a field of dreams, a field of diagrams, and a field of walls. 40,000 hours showcases student models (the title an approximation of the working time put into the installation), while Thomas Struth‘s photographs of ‘Unconcious Places’ are exhibited throughout the building. My day ends, perhaps appropriately, with ‘800  Views of Airports’; images that play on loop taken by Peter Fischli and David Weiss since 1987. Showing photographs from all over the world that refer to everywhere and nowhere at once, the installation reminds me of a globalised version of Venice’s very much localised Biennale.

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