THE INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE EXHIBITION IN VENICE
Every two years architecture fans from all over the world go on a pilgrimage to the architecture biennial in Venice; the most important international exhibition of architecture and urban planning offers an extensive overview of current movements and visions of the future.
Ever since the days of the Roman architect Vitruvius, architecture has been known as the “mother of all the arts.” Venice, with its architecture biennial, is one of its most important centers. The history of this large exhibition begins in 1975, when the Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti erected an architecture section in the Magazzini del Sale, as part of the Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition. It was so enthusiastically received that room was also made for architecture at the biennials in 1976 and 1978. The first official architectural exhibition finally took place in 1980, under the aegis of the architect Paolo Portoghesi, with the motto La presenza del passato. It was the beginning of a success story that has continued to this day. Now alternating with the art biennial, the exhibition takes place every two years and has established itself as one of the most influential protagonists in the international architectural discourse.
After the first four biennials were conceived as purely thematic exhibitions, the fifth artistic director, the architectural historian Francesco Dal Co, introduced the concept of national pavilions where individual countries could stage their own presentations. Modeled entirely after the art biennial, which was founded in 1885, the national pavilions now feature concepts and works by architects such as Coop Himmelb(l)au, Peter Eisenman, Frank O. Gehry, and Herzog & de Meuron. Even though some critics believe that this concept is obsolete in the age of globalization, the curators are adhering to the national shows. They include the Austrian architect Hans Hollein, the director of the sixth international architecture exhibition, under whom the Golden Lion for the best national exhibition was first awarded.
Architecture and architects in the narrower sense were at the center of the earliest biennials. Massimiliano Fuksas, who curated the seventh exhibition in 2000 under the motto Less Aesthetics, More Ethics, was the first to expand the thematic focus by devoting the biennial to urban change, especially the development of the megalopolis in the twentieth century. As a kind of “laboratory,” the architecture exhibition allowed for a sharper look at urban change and questions about the future of the city in general.
In the ensuing years a wider public took more interest in the architectural discourse. The ninth biennial in 2004, for example, titled Metamorph, became a magnet for visitors. Under the direction of the Swiss architectural historian Kurt W. Forster, the exhibition revolved around new forms of organic or biomorphic architecture. Over a period of just two months, more than 115,000 guests from all over the world were attracted by the ever-bolder dreams of architects, from Greg Lynn to Zaha Hadid. Thanks in part to modern computer technology, more and more of these dreams were becoming not only conceivable, but feasible as well. In 2010 more than 170,000 visitors attended the twelfth architectural exhibition over a period of three months, and the show was favorably reviewed in the media. People Meet in Architecture was the leitmotif of the Japanese architect and Pritzker Prize winner Kazuyo Sejima, the first woman in its thirty-year history to take charge of the biennial. With her unpretentious basic idea—“helping people and society to communicate with architecture and among themselves”—she dispensed with the theoretical burden of past architectural biennials, along with big names, iconic buildings, opulent presentations, and the individual countries’ nationalistic display of their achievements.
It is true that the architecture biennial is sometimes deemed an arena for the anachronistic grandstanding of participating nations. Yet, like the 12th biennial—whose theme, under the direction of the British architect David Chipperfield, was Common Ground—the 14th exhibition was once again turning the floating city of Venice into an important meeting place for architects and fans of architecture from around the world. It is one of the “most powerful, most serious, and most confusing [shows] in many years,” raved the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, for instance. Its curator, Rem Kohlhaas, one of the superstars of contemporary architecture, had adopted the motto Absorbing Modernity in order to conduct a retrospective of a century of Modernism, and the focus—even in the 65 national pavilions—was on the fundamentals of architecture: the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, and the façade.
This architecture exhibition was a kind of research platform where the past and present were linked together in an intriguing way. It invited you to come, spend some time, and then come back again. The doors to the Arsenale halls and the national pavilions in Giardini Park have been open for a full six months, just like the art biennial.
3.11.2014 Stefanie Gommel