The optimistic premise of “Freespace”, a concept promoted by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, better known as Grafton Architects and this year’s curators of the architecture Biennale in Venice, is that architecture can be generous while serving utilitarian functions. Leon Battista Alberti’s call for magnificenza comes to mind, whereby private patronage yields a gift to the city, and in their manifesto the Dublin-based architects dutifully cite the benches that circumscribe Palazzo Medici in Florence as an example of public virtue. While modern architecture has been subjected to many liberating precedents, in particular Le Corbusier’s free ground plane, free façade, free roof, and free plan, Freespace seems at once more simple yet more ambiguous, not as much an axiom of design as an unpredictable outcome of it. Unfortunately in the theoretical statement no mention is made of what might be called “unfree space” and thus one could conclude that Freespace is a bit like FreeWifi, a condition of most buildings.
Grafton are well-known for two particularly magnificent educational structures, the administration building of the Bocconi University in Milan and UTEC in Lima. Post-Brutalist in form, they offer significant residual areas for social use, or as the architects phrase it “democratic space.” For their Biennale instead of showcasing their own work, which has received ample exposure in previous Biennales, including a Silver Lion in 2012, they chose to liberate the prime sites of display, the Arsenale and the ex-Padiglione Italia, scraping away the interiors. And in this begins an intimation of gender, since women have traditionally been responsible for house cleaning. The cleaning of the latter structure in the Giardini has indeed greatly enhanced the interiors with new sources of natural light and an easier flow through its rooms, yielding the archaeological bonus of a window designed by Carlo Scarpa, made from interlinked vertical circles, which opens at the rear of the structure to a view of the nearby canal. In the case of the 700-meter-long Corderie, which is usually disguised by scenographic interventions, such as the Strada Novissima in 1980, the structure was left bare revealing its aging brick and plaster interior surfaces and varying qualities of daylight. One enters through a screen of ropes, a reminder of the product once made in this abnormally long structure, to
an empty dark room with projections of the maritime activities on the walls, and then focuses on the long flight of paired columns between which reside the installations of the 71 invited firms, who attempted to reveal through various media their take on Freespace. Along the central path the progressing distance in meters is inscribed to the right and feet to the left, but otherwise, no frills.
While it has not been promoted as such, this is a Biennale dominated by women, who make up over half of the exhibitors and national pavilion curators. And since we are in the year of #metoo, I must humbly observe that this is definitely the “Women’s Biennale.” As in the professional world one should ideally give no importance to gender and judge things on the value of the work. The compelling issue is not that women are better designers, but that women deserve respect and parity in what was previously the realm of male chauvinism. Aside from the two curators, we find top professionals, theorists, and educators including Alison Brooks, Marianne Burkhalter, Kazuyu Sejima, Anne Lacaton, Angela Paredes, Louisa Hutton, and Jeanne Gang, who while often associated with male partners, have achieved on their own an independently high status in the culture of architecture. If one asked a psychologist, grounded in the studies of Piaget, to pick out the exhibitions designed by women, I am certain he/she would have chosen Toyo Ito’s round, powderblue curtain concealing casually arranged puff seats rather than the torqued bridge shown by Dorte Mandrup. Carme Pinós and Elizabet Diller seem to have gone out of their way to show skyscrapers, which are the quintessentially male building type. Still there were some overt gestures to feminine attributes, especially sewing and weaving. Anna Heringer, who has worked mostly in Bangladesh, used ethnic drapes to create a space, while Benedetta Tagliabue produced floor to ceiling woven flanges sheltering big comfortable pillows. For many exhibitors Freespace meant a place to sit, no doubt inspired by the curator’s description of a tiled bench waiting at the entry to Jorn Utzon’s house in Mallorca. I counted no less than 20 benches, which considering the fatigue that accompanies the tour of the Biennale was indeed a welcomed gift for the visitors.
Spain was well-represented in the Freespace exhibition with six participants, including Rafael Moneo, and Paredes/Pedrosa, who produced one of the most profound descriptions of architecture, using sectional slabs inside of which each housed a small model, which like the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread reversed the voided spaces into solids. As to be expected there was also a large bunch of Irish, British, and Australian architects. More surprising, however, was the raft of Swiss architects, mostly connected to the Academia in Mendrisio, where Grafton has been teaching during the past decade--at least 20 of the participants were Swiss including the well-known masters Aurelio Galfetti, Mario Botta, Valerio Olgiati, and Peter Zumthor, and lesser known designers such as Michele Arnaboldi, whose work shows its strong provenance from Luigi Snozzi, and the German-born Angela Deuber, now resident in Chur, not far from Zumthor in more ways than one. Among the most popular pieces on display was and installation produced by the students of Riccardo Blumer, who also teaches at Mendrisio, a machine that creates temporary walls from soap bubbles. Even the Belgian winners of the Silver Lion, the young office of Vylder, Vinck, Tailleu teach in Switzerland at the ETH. And we cannot forget Kenneth Frampton who was at Mendrisio from the start and can be seen as the discoverer of the Ticino school. Who could object to the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement awarded to Frampton? No other intellectual has had such a profound impact as critic and historian on the ethical positions of the current generation of architects, and I would count myself among the many who are in his debt.
The Grafton program of liberating through cleaning was picked up in the UK pavilion, curated by Caruso St. John, who completely voided the space and added a stairway up to the roof, where they prepared a new terrace, a gesture inspired by the Venetian altana, providing the unanticipated Freespace of the panoramic view. Here tea was served to the visitors. Belgium venue, curated by Traumnovelle & Roxane Le Grelle, did something similar, inserting a three-stepped, vynil-clad blue arena into the pavilion’s awkward orthogonal spaces, offering a place for debates on the curators’ manifesto: “Eurotopie”. Next to it the Dutch pavilion, curated by the Spanish architect Marina Otero Verzier, changed the name inscribed on the front wall from Olanda to Europa. The foyer presented an orange colored locker room with regularly placed cabinets that when opened either gave a view into rooms beyond or contained texts, images and video messages about the themes of “work, body and leisure”. One of the rooms contained a reconstruction of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s “bed-in” for peace of 50 years ago. The winning pavilion of Switzerland, “House Tour” curated by Marianne Burki, Sandi Paucic, Rachele Giudici offered an architectural satire on the conformity of rental apartment fittings found throughout Switzerland. The visitor moves from one empty apartment to the next to find the same doors handles, light switches, kitchen banks, sliding windows, and cabinets reproduced at different scales from tiny half scale to gigantic double scale. The joke succeeds very well, and we hope that both clients and architects will laugh at themselves.
The Italian and the Chinese pavilions dealt with rural revival. Mario Cucinella, often considered the moral successor to Renzo Piano, put on display in the first chamber four-meter.high panels narrating geographically specific areas of Italy where featured projects have enhanced rural life. In the second chamber the curator set out thick free-form wooden tables on which five offices were invited to provide projects for particularly difficult landscapes, such as the earthquake ridden Camerino or the post-industrial depression of Ottana, Sardegna. China, not known for its attention to the countryside, attempted to demonstrate a new awareness of landscape regeneration. The exhibition was dominated by the digital wizard Philip F. Yuan who put on display his project in rural Sichuan “in bamboo,” the roof of which follows a Moebius strip shape, while in the garden outside his studio constructed with robots, a digitally printed “cloud village”, an interwoven structure of rigid plastic. Unfortunately to sit in its coves seemed to increase the atmospheric heat rather than reduce it. Compared to what was probably the most popular installation of this year’s Biennale, the immense bamboo pergola set on the Arsenal jetty designed by Vo Trong Nghia from Vietnam, people vied for seats under this truly refreshing stopping point. While a computer no doubt calculated the parabolic geometries of VTN’s structure, it was carefully assembled by hand using an intricate system of knotted cords to join the hundreds of precut bamboo shafts.
While Freespace would seem to be such an urban idea, there was not much focus on urbanism. Two
pavilions in particular did a good job, the Lebanonese and the United Emirates. In the former, curated by Hala Younes, a spectacular model of the hinterlands extending from Beirut went through various transformations using sophisticated projections demonstrating what might happen to the unbuilt areas if the growth of sprawl is left uncontrolled. The Emirates, “Lifescapes beyond Bigness”, curated by Khaled Alawadi reveals the little-known neighborhood structure of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which are studied in tandem for their different attitudes to planning. Places that seem to be made exclusively of attention-grabbing skyscrapers turn out to have fine-grained city blocks with walkable streets.
Some pavilions went far beyond the premise of Freespace, containing an entire biennale’s worth of content in their single venue. The US pavilion entitled “Dimensions of Citizenship,” curated by Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, and Mimi Zeiger, progressed from biodegradable materials to be used in real ecological restorations in the Venetian lagoon, to the analysis of the ecosystem of a zone renamed “Mexus” that will be seriously damaged by the construction of the Trump Wall along the Mexican border, to a terrifying video reenactment of how everyone and everything is being monitored through digital technologies, to a final musing on mining outer space and creating a flying ark for the species that soon will be subject to the sixth extinction. It was so nice to feel the jolt of resistance to the current regime, yet the material proved so dense that I would have needed an entire day to comprehend it.
The same critique of excess can be lodged at the Spanish pavilion entitled “Becoming” and curated by Atxu Amann, who made an open call and scattered the results of 143 proposals on the walls, floors and ceilings of the six rooms. Roughly organized around 29 adjectives that range from “affective, affirmative, assembled”, to “transmaterial, uncertain, unfinished,” the result seems like a daunting kaleidoscope of history, theory, social activism, and science fiction, providing more material than anyone could ever possibly consume. And in case if we desired more, we are welcomed to look up another 293 proposals on a website! The aesthetic is exuberant, like Archigram in the 60s, and indeed would make a better comic book than an exhibition.
The biggest surprise of this year’s Biennale was prepared by Francesco dal Co for the Vatican Pavilion. Set in the little-known woods behind Palladio’s convent of San Giorgio in Isola, ten architects were invited to design a non-denominational chapel, in honor of Gunnar Asplund’s chapel at Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm. I suppose if we really had to define Freespace it would be the kind of interior and exterior spaces that a church provides, as gathering place, sanctuary, and modulator of light. Norman Foster produced a palisade structure made of pitched wooden purlins. The Australian architect, with a particularly good name for making churches, Sean Godsell, created a vertical corrugated tin shaft with flaps at the base opening on all four sides. Andrew Berman, an activist architect from New York, produced a V-shaped shelter that is probably the most reminiscent of the Asplund original. The only woman working on her own, Carla Juacaba, an emerging talent from Brasil, upstaged the men with a delicately balanced exomorphic structure without floors, walls or a roof. A proud stainless steel skeleton was set on a set of marble blocks. Her knack for geometric tension was also on display in the Giardini delle Vergini with a series of concrete sculptures. If any of the chapels is allowed to remain on the site I am certain it will be Eduardo Souto de Moura’s homage ancient monoliths. He built an elongated trapezoid using a series of roughly carved sandstone blocks, 1.5 by 3 meters and 50 centimeters thick. The stones were locked into place next to each other with a jog cut into each, reminiscent of the masonry found at the Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna. The two slabs of solid stone of the roof have been slid a meter away from the back wall to create a special spiritual light that shines on a small altar and illuminated the rear wall where a seeming accident of the quarry leaves the impression of a crucifx.
While the Portuguese winner of the Pritzker was awarded this year’s Golden Lion for his two photographs of of the São Lourenço do Barrocal estate in Alentejo, which over the course of lengthy restorations was transformed into a hotel, showing that one can change things without them seeming to be changed at all was a fine lesson, the prize was probably merited more for the splendid solidity and play of light found in his Vatican chapel.
© Richard Ingersoll for Arquitectura Viva