For years now the Venice Architecture Biennale, the biggest, most glamorous architecture show on earth, has been burdened with an atmosphere of guilt – a feeling that there is something obscene about a display of ever more ambitious skyscrapers, luxurious villas, overblown opera houses and visionary cities. The reaction to such perceived excess has taken the form of overarching themes embracing the problems of the contemporary city – slums, overpopulation – and the idea that architects should move beyond their fetishisation of the building as object, their preoccupation with surface and aesthetics. Even this year, the title of the show, People Meet in Architecture, seems to suggest something beyond the building, an underlying humanity.
That awkward, naive-sounding title comes from this year’s curator, the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, designer (with Ryue Nishizawa) of the New Museum in New York and the extraordinary, undulating EPFL Learning Centre in Lausanne. It represents an intriguing moment because Sejima has returned the Biennale to architecture, to the object. But, unlike earlier shows, which displayed decadent piles of ever more extravagant proposals, this one attempts to build and create real experiential space rather than merely to represent it.
The scale of the Venice Biennale, centred on the haunting spaces of the attenuated ropemaking factories of the Arsenale and the Corderie, offers the opportunity to create some tangible architecture. And that is what Sejima has gone for, an enfilade of intriguing interior structures that sit somewhere between design, architecture, installation and a very grown-up, avant-garde theme park.
For the past few years the sequence of rooms that forms the spine of the show has presented a daunting procession. Text-heavy and worthy – albeit occasionally engaging and genuinely interesting – it was a bit of an effort. This year it took me perhaps 10 minutes to walk through and I was left tingling with some memorable sensory experiences. There is a delicately curving staircase ascending into a cloud of vapour by Transsolar and Tetsuo Kondo; a magical piece by Olafur Eliasson, in which streams of water from a swirling hose are captured in diamond-like sparkle by strobe lights; a huge space-frame steel grid by Christian Kerez; a neon poem by Cerith Wyn Evans; and a weird simulacrum of a dull house by Caruso St John and Thomas Demand. There is also a fascinating installation by Tony Fretton and Mark Pimlott that dwells on the experience of being in public space, a collection of half-remembered forms creating a series of urban atmospheres in a domestic setting. The collaborations with artists have led to a more sophisticated approach to installation in which the material is privileged over the simulacrum, the real over the virtual.
The national pavilions over in the Giardini, a lucky dip even in the best of years, yield few delights this year. It is indicative of an overall malaise that the Belgian pavilion, with its sparse but impeccably exhibited display of found, mundane objects and surfaces, provides by far the most elegant and striking show. Using anything from a blown-up photo of a vinyl seat covering to dislocated parts of buildings, there is a sense of both use and loss that is truly poetic. The huge canvas of a pair of bits of grimly dull office carpet cut to accommodate built-in corporate furniture, implying the three-dimensional shape of the space in the most resolutely two-dimensional of materials, is poignant in its subtle suggestion of bureaucratic ennui.
As so often, the central and eastern European pavilions offer the most immediate enjoyment and wit. The Hungarians feature a paean to drawing (of which there is not much to be seen this year), their space invaded by thousands of pencils hanging on strings creating a charming labyrinth of gently oscillating pendants. The Serbians have delightful portable pot plants inspired by a poem by Vasko Popa, the Poles have an unsettling suicide tower and the Russians a tongue-in-cheek (I think) bucolic vision of a post-industrial landscape featuring the ruins of Soviet industry as picturesque follies.
The British pavilion is very different. Eschewing the immediacy of many of the other pavilions it is based on the virtues of observation as opposed to intervention. A timber amphitheatre is oriented towards the open door, looking back at the city. The walls, meanwhile, display a juxtaposition of a found photographic archive – the documentation of the city by a former Venetian ticket inspector bought at a flea market – with the sketchbooks and notes of John Ruskin, whose The Stones of Venice was among the most influential books on architecture ever published. There is also, incongruously, a piece of recreated marshland and a tiny feminist exhibit stuck beneath the stairs. Curated by architect/artists muf, this enjoinder to observe is extraordinarily rich but so poorly labelled that it appears instead pretentious and incoherent. Something about the blend of tropes from art and architecture leads to the sum being less than the parts. Nevertheless, once you do understand it (you need to read the catalogue) it becomes one of the few pavilions of real depth and interest, genuinely revealing something of the nature of obsessive observation.
In the main Biennale pavilion there are a few scattered delights. Florian Beigel’s exquisite plan for the Saemangeum marshlands in South Korea reflects Venice’s watery delicacy, while an extremely welcome room devoted to the Brazilian/Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi reminds us that Zaha Hadid is by no means the first radical female modernist.
Finally, and in the perfect context, there is a characteristically provocative exhibit by OMA (Rem Koolhaas’s think-tank) on preservation. It posits the idea that an increasing mass of the world’s surface is under protection (an area about the size of the US) while the age of what is being protected is decreasing, a combination of trends that will eventually lead to everything being preserved even before it is built – a Calvino-esque notion that is perfectly at home in this exquisitely embalmed city.
This is an odd Biennale, good to look at but also unsettlingly light on ideas. Politics has been purged, experience privileged over intellect. It may be a relief for architects and for visitors but it also speaks of an unwillingness to confront an uncertain future. As a spectacle of architects talking to architects it is striking, but in its communication to a wider world, it is lacking. People may meet in architecture but what happens once they’ve met? Is it only memories and fleeting impressions of beauty and texture they are left with? www.labiennale.org/en/architecture