Venice Architecture Biennale 2018: In search of Australian Architecture’s global brand.

Today is almost the day that the call for the creative director of the Australian Architecture pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale closes.  At least we now have a relatively decent exhibition gallery in the Giardini to exhibit in. The old pavilion, as we all know, was designed  by Philip Cox (kind of channelling Glen Murcutt) and it looked like a little bit of that old timey Darling Harbour style. The pavilion contained a series of long spaces, over two levels, with vaulted metal deck roofing. The new affair by the Melbourne architects DCM is much better as an exhibition space and I visited it in 2015 and saw how it worked for Fiona Hall’s exhibition for the Art Biennale. Of course it is pity that this commission was not a public competition. This was the source of some controversy at the time. But, that is not to deny the fact that DCM have done well; It would have been a nightmare project to have managed, constructed and delivered.

The architecture Biennale at Venice is the  shining and glittering highlight in the calendar of the global system that is architecture these days. From my antipodean perspective, it probably ranks almost as highly as the AA Projects Review exhibition or the opening of the Serpentine Pavilion. It’s as if a  Klingon ship, has picked up quaint little earth in a tractor beam, given it a shake and all the world’s architectural models has fallen of their storage shelves and lodged in Venice. Venice that city of cities where all the other cities of the world and their histories, can be glimpsed  in Venice’s own layers and edges around the lagoon. Venice has always been a place of politics, intrigue and controversy: Just like the Architecture Biennale itself in terms of who is being selected ect.  It  has always been a place where the flows of territorial ambition and power collided and then just as quickly departed. Of course these days, Venice is more like Disneyland in some ways where every tow years the architectural glitterati drink Aperol’s on the Grand Canal and in eat Fiaschetteria Toscana.

All of this exoticism and history and the fact that the worlds biggest architectural trade show is in Venice every two years might be why over time Australian architects have generally gone nuts over the Venice Biennale. There is nothing like swanning around the Vernissage (the opening week of the Biennale) and going to the parties. When I went it was like being in Prahran. Of course, as I discovered you have to know the right sort of people to get invited to the parties with Rem, Sejima or Patrik (Patrick?) or Zaha (god rest her soul). The only party I ever managed to stumble into was one held by the Armenians, in a stripped out Palazzo hulk somewhere behind Campo Santa Margherita, who despite their long association with the Venetian lagoon had run out of beer and Aperol’s by the time I stumbled into the party. At least the Armenians knew how to dance. So going to Venice as an invited exhibitor, and more so as a so-called creative director, is a prestigious gig;  if you don’t get invited to exhibit in the gardens or the Arsenale you can always set something up in one of the numerous Palazzo’s around the town and make it look or seem half decent. All you need is a couple of plasma screens and a bit of money to print a catalogue.

Just the name Venice or Architecture Biennale is enough to make most architects swoon. Which is literally what happened to me as my friends will know at the 2010 Biennale. I drank so much Aperol that I leached all the Potassium out of my system and ended up in the Venice Ospedale (sadly, as all architects know, not the one that Corb wanted to build). My room overlooked the lagoon towards San Michele the cemetery island. For a day I was able to reflect and think about one the great architectural projects of the last century. Aldo Rossi’s Floating Theatre constructed for the 1979-80 Venice Biennale. As I thought I was going to die from a Aperol Spritz induced coma Rossi. I thought about what Rossi had said about his theatre in Venice.

“and what better place for a beacon, a house of light, literally a lighthouse, than by the sea, in a border zone between sea and land, amid beach, rock, sky and clouds?”

Any way I lived to tell the tale about being in the Ospedale. I certainly saved a few bucks because Venice is no place for the small practitioner on a limited travel budget.

I have been to quite a few of Biennale’s and the Australian representation at them is to some degree problematic. I can’t remember if I have said this in a previous blog or not: But, what exactly is Australia’s brand in the global system of architecture? As I touched on last week with the hair thing in this world of Google analytics and SEO’s its amazing that a Google search of Australian architecture reveals mostly Murcutt, Utzon (not really Australian) and maybe a bit of Harry Seidler. I fear there is a lot of Opera House and Murcutt action when people think of Australian Architecture. Even the Wikipedia entry is execrable. Whoever wrote the second sentence of that entry should at the very least be transported back in time to be reeducated in a Maoist collective.

The problematic nature, or lack of a brand or even an identity, around Australia’s global Architectural brand can be seen to some degree in the various curated Biennale that have occurred over the past dozen years or so. My quick take, and Raisbeck ratings  on each one is below.

2006: Micro Macro City Creative Directors Shane Murray and Nigel Bertram.

I thought this was characteristically dry and lacking in any kind of ironic reflection. But in hindsight I think it did depict a kind of realist picture of Australian cities and suburbs. The Models in the exhibition were great. (Raisbeck Rating 8/10)

2008. ABUNDANT Creative Directors Neil Durbach, Vince Frost, Wendy Lewin, Kerstin Thompson and Gary Warner.

After the tight and well planned 2006 gig this was the complete opposite. It’s almost as if the creative directors had to purge the building of the tone of the Micro Macro City exhibition. This as a real free for all it was like every boy and is dog (except of course Raisbeck) got a gig in it.  Annoyingly, the catalogue, if it existed at all, was non-existent by the time I got there. It contained hundreds (140 to be exact) of models all vying to be different. Some of these were really good and some were really bad. The spin around it was that it was a way of establishing the scope and range of Australian Architectural experiment. Sadly, I think it lacked a firm theoretical  basis and just made us look like a nation of idiosyncratic and isolated savants. Having said that it was indeed an exuberant and “abundant” celebration of the pluralism of Australian Architecture and I liked the way the Cox Pavilion was painted green.  (Raisbeck Rating 6.5-7/10)

2010: NOW and WHEN Creative Directors John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec.

This was the one I was involved with a collaborative collective that we called ourselves colony collective. Basically, two crappy laptops and a lot of help from Flood Slicer who set up the multimedia works in the exhibition. This was a take on Australia cities in 2050. Our entry Mould City was intended to be  a kind of  Superstudio or Archizoom take on Australia’s future cities.

Mould-City_Colony-Collective-when.jpg

Mould City Colony Collective 2010 

Disappointingly, in the other architectural ruminations, there were a lot of flooded cities. And I mean a lot of flooded cities. Plus, a few overhead floating type cities. Readers of this blog will probably you know the sequence: One, climate change is real. Two, the icecaps will melt. Three, the cities will flood. Four, lets build floating cities etc etc. Theory and l discourse around Utopian architecture is really lacking in Australia. Nonetheless, Golling’s images of the mines were great and ALL the technology worked. (Raisbeck Rating 7.5-8/10)

2012: Formations Creative Directors Anthony Burke, Gerard Reinmuth, with TOKO concept design

This was the worst one I ever saw it was disjointed and paltry. A total waste of money and resources.The Creative Directors selected six architectural teams working in non-traditional ways and domains from around the nation for the exhibition. The intention was to highlight different modes of practice. In part it did this, but not convincingly. When I got there I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about. It looked scrappy, and as if the creative directors were more interested in being creative directors than actually working to put together a credible exhibition representing, the 6 teams, Australian Architecture. Google it and all you get is pictures of the creative directors in linen jackets and black t-shirts or shirts. I did not really get the football tables outside of the exhibition.  (Raisbeck 4/10)

2014: Augmented Australia: 1914 – 2014 Creative Directors felix._Giles_Anderson+Goad

This one was on when the new pavilion was being constructed. I didn’t really get to visit this one so there is not a lot I can say. There was a call for unbuilt and then augmented projects and I submitted a few but of course; but not being a so-called star architect and given our practice is consigned to the graveyard of small practice oblivion its understandable that any one would want to remodel or Augment on of our old projects. There was  a whole lot of kiosky-appy-cloudy Ipad action;  I am told the technology didn’t quite work on the day (but perhaps I am wrong). I thought it was probably a good idea. (Raisbeck rating 7/10). The project below is the one of ours (Raisbeck and Klempfner circa 1995) that they decided not to “augment.” It certainly could have done with that.

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Hanoi Office Building Raisbeck and Klempfner 1995

2016: The Pool Creative Directors Amelia Holliday, Isabelle Toland (Aileen Sage) and Michelle Tabet

This was the first one in the new building. I wasn’t sure about this one. I thought maybe it was more of a social history rather than an architectural history. I was also worried that the curators may have forgotten the fact that the public swimming pool has been a colonising instrument space for subjugating Australia along racial and gender lines. I think they perhaps managed to avoid that trap. But I am not sure that the social history of the pool says that much about our architectural culture. (Raisbeck rating 7/10)

Given the above, and my ratings aside. I would argue that a strongly theorised and polemical exhibit is better than some of the above efforts. I know of  few friends who have tried to do this.Only to be knocked back by an overly conservative AIA selection committee. I suspect that is a better than trying to appease everyone or going for concepts that are so saccharine that they really do not add to Australia’s global architectural brand; I mean what si that brand anyway; we really need to shift the brand away from the Utzon-Murcutt-quaint-Boyd and Seidler brand attributes and make our own the contribution to debates and experiments now emerging in the global system that is architecture. I have not really discussed that much about the overall curation of the Biennale. I will leave that for a later blog.

Maybe for the AIA it’s all about getting the sponsorship dollars. That is fair enough to some extent. Janet Holmes a Court has done a great job in that regard. Some countries have the gumption to only exhibit the work of one architect or architectural firm. Other’s tackle ideas that are in themselves controversial. Presenting a seamless and saccharine image, or an overly pluralist one, of what Australian architecture is like doesn’t really cut it for me.   With any luck we might even start to dismantle the innately conservative nexus of Star Architecture, parametricism and Ivy League privilege that bedevils global architecture. On paper at least this year’s curators for the entire Biennale look like they might be able to do that.

 

 



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