The flipside of digital is analogue, but what does this actually mean in an architectural context? The Biennale didn’t profess to have all the answers, but a clear thread of an alternative architectural practice emerged. The most pleasant surprise was Frank Gehry's exhibit in the Arsenale, a towering edifice of clay-clad wood that was built on site during the exhibition, exuding a heady smell of timber and wet clay.
'Ungapatchket' drew inspiration from the artist’s studio, in particular the emergence of sculptural beauty from the chaotic process of creation. This is the way that Gehry has always worked, of course, but we’ve become inured to the slick, shiny loops of the finished product. This installation - a large scale model of a forthcoming hotel in Moscow - brought rough-and-ready craft back to a process that has become all too slick and superficial. Gehry took home the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Biennale, an award that - regardless of what you think of his architecture - was richly deserved.
Elsewhere, a desire to engage with the digital-analogue gulf underpinned several other Arsenale exhibits, most notably Penezic & Rogina’s ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf in the Digital Age?’, an installation that provided a physical counterpoint to the diaphanous web of virtual projects. For Vinko Penezic and Kresimir Rogina, digital architecture promises much but simply can’t deliver when faced with the plethora of earthily physical systems that make our houses our homes. The architects quoted Reyner Banham - ‘a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, inlets, outlets, ovens, sinks, refuse disposers, hi-fi reverberations, antennae, conducts, freezers, heaters’ - and created flexible spaces informed either by an intensely analogue or an intensely digital condition. The underlying message? Architecture is still a messy business, like it or not.
Another surprise was China. Not content with jostling to place itself as a major player in the creation of iconic buildings and megastructures, the country’s presence at the Biennale focused instead on the rough and ready craft of building, with pavilions of cardboard drawing tubes and packs of paper (all labeled ‘China Architecture Design + Research Group’), hand-made cement bricks and scaffolding and blockboard. Unfortunately, the latter, a temporary shelter for earthquake zones designed by Tong Ming, felt like it was in danger of imminent collapse. More successful was Wang Di’s ‘Red Dwelling’ photography installation, set within a warehouse of rusty oil tanks, giving off a heady aroma of industrial decay that was a nice complement to the crumbling Communist architecture in the pictures.
Elsewhere, overt historicism also got a look in. The exhibition of Italian housing in the twentieth century, ‘Inhabiting the City,’ demonstrated the country’s rich tradition of inventivene, high density communities (of which Venice is perhaps the most obvious historical example). The Latin American exhibition in the Arsenale began with a deluge of tourist trinkets, an architecture of kitsch representations that was contrasted with a grand scheme for the reconstruction of the Ixtapaluca region of endless sprawl. The models on display tried to create a hyperdense solution without succumbing to the social ills that tend to plague such modernist grand plans.
But it was the British pavilion which epitomised the ‘analogue’ approach. Although the work on display was ostensibly mired in political and social questions of space and development, rather than any aesthetic or theoretical approach, this really didn’t matter. The exhibition was a concerted - some might say bloody-minded - attempt to bolster the tradition of a progressive, empirical school of modernist architecture in the face of an increasingly pluralist and thrill-seeking European movement.
The five participating architects share a certain modesty, regardless of whether they're designing social housing in the Netherlands or a multi-million pound house for an art collector in Chelsea, all set out with crisply pure photographs by David Grandorge and John Davies and wooden models. The theme - practices that are working in both the UK and Europe - demonstrated the differences in architectural culture around the world. We spoke to some of the participants, Tony Fretton and Alex de Rijke and Sadie Morgan of dRMM, as well as the pavilion’s curator, Ellis Woodman.