Like every other conference, biennale, triennale, festival and trade show, Venice suffers badly from journalistic impatience. We’ve spent the past few weeks being buffeted by invites, sneak peeks, first glimpses and previews for this year’s 12th Architecture Biennale, so making appearance at the event itself seem rather superfluous. Happily, we were wrong, for some things can’t yet be distilled into streams of bytes for snappy global dissemination.
For a start, there’s the atmosphere. The aesthetic contradiction of bringing the latest selection of avant-garde imagery, forms, ideas and presentations to one of the world’s most harmonious and unchanged cityscapes isn’t lost on the Biennale’s participants; Venice is a place of contradictions, where black-clad, bespectacled professors of deconstructivism, parametricism and post-post modernism appear permanently intoxicated by the patina of murky canal water on ancient stone, weather-beaten facades and a sense of permanent, ongoing decay.
With this dichotomy set, the first order of business at the Biennale is traditionally a quiet but crucial race to out-intellectualise one another. This task is undertaken with gusto by the many national pavilions within the usually sedate Giardini, their wildly varying forms alive with the practically Olympian sport of curating. But 2010 is different, not least because the curator, Kazuyo Seijima of SANAA, appeared to have asked everyone to pare their more lyrical tendencies down to a single paragraph.
Just fifteen minutes of fast walking and scanning in the Arsenale elicited the sense that this year there’s a little more heft and gravity to the main show. Why? Perhaps it is the very visceral feel of the materials, the water, wood, paint, dense clouds of moisture, sound, and light that makes this a more experiential, rather than theoretical, Biennale. The elements are all represented, as one would hope with an architectural show, but whereas previous years have relied on great textual screeds to support each invited exhibit, this year the architecture speaks for itself.
It was also resolutely uncommercial. A few developers, be they private or state, hovered on the edges, indicating that unlike its art counterpart, the Architecture Biennale is far from being a riot of sponsorship and co-branding. Perhaps that’s just a sign of ongoing straitened times, but it was also notable that mega-structural project announcements and exhibits were few and far between. That said, Asian projects and studios were more prominent than ever before, with the West Kowloon Cultural District launching itself with a starry press conference featuring Foster and Koolhaas, and Singapore, Korea and Japan also making a strong showing.
Conversely, one of the other overriding themes of this year’s show was preservation, with several pavilions and exhibitors showing how adaptation and reuse could be both economic regenerator and aesthetic success. 3D presentation was also in vogue, most notably in Wim Wenders’ epic, but rather soupy, filmic portrait of SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center. You also had to get the specs out in the Australian pavilion in Giardini, where slick night-time photography presented a Melbourne skyline that was more akin to Hong Kong or Las Vegas than a land down under.
Meanwhile, Wallpaper’s own party in Venice celebrated the architectural gathering itself. Held in a private apartment at the gorgeous Palazzo Grandiben Negri near the Arsenale, the event was realised in conjunction with our lovely co-hosts, London-based Mackenzie Wheeler Architects.