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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Venice Architecture Biennale: pavilions that are a must see

Follow our tour of the mind-bending exhibitions at the Venice Architecture Biennale

The Swiss Pavilion was deliberately built to all the wrong proportions, with doors too tall or narrow and ceilings too high or too low Photos: Christian Beutler
The Swiss Pavilion was deliberately built to all the wrong proportions, with doors too tall or narrow and ceilings too high or too low Photos: Christian Beutler

The grounds of the Venice Architecture Biennale are divided between the Gardens, or Giardini, where a central pavilion is surrounded by a number of national pavilions; the Arsenale, a sprawling old fort with a long, wide exhibition hall (Corderie); and even more national pavilions displaying intriguing works.

Pavilion of Switzerland

(See main picture) Once you enter the Giardini of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, you are a few steps away from the Pavilion of Switzerland, which won the Architecture Biennale’s Gold Lion for best national pavilion. The white-walled empty interior feels like a newly finished dwelling ready for use, as carefully composed as a Swiss watch.

Within moments, you see that the proportions are all wrong. Deliberately all wrong. Ceilings become too low or too high, doors too thin or too narrow, as the passage from one space to another slows you down and makes you feel dizzy.

The house tour draws as much from amusement parks as it does from architecture. The lesson from a culture of exactitude is that perception is fallible.

Peter Zumthor’s museum show

The central pavilion features designs by architect Peter Zumthor, most of which were never built. Christian Beutler
The central pavilion features designs by architect Peter Zumthor, most of which were never built. Christian Beutler

In the Biennale’s central pavilion, Dreams and promises – Models of Atelier Peter Zumthor is a museum show within a show.

Almost all of the designs on view were never built, a sad truth that even the greatest architects face. They range from a wavy zigzag for the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to a wheel-shaped hotel in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

The small scale and the painstaking detail force you to adjust your eyes, but it’s worth it. This is among the best offerings of the biennale.

Zumthor is often called a minimalist, probably due to the simplicity and low cost of his buildings. The range of styles on view shows an imagination at work, turning fantasy into practicality.

Tread Lightly by Gumuchdjian Architects

Philip Gumuchdjian is a London architect of Armenian origin. His project, Tread Lightly: A Linear Festival Along the Transcaucasian Trail, is a plan for structures in the dramatic landscape along a trail in the mountains that extend from Armenia to Jordan.   La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE  
Philip Gumuchdjian is a London architect of Armenian origin. His project, Tread Lightly: A Linear Festival Along the Transcaucasian Trail, is a plan for structures in the dramatic landscape along a trail in the mountains that extend from Armenia to Jordan.   La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE  

Philip Gumuchdjian is a London architect of Armenian origin. His project, Tread Lightly: A Linear Festival Along the Transcaucasian Trail, is a plan for structures in the dramatic landscape along a trail in the mountains that extend from Armenia to Jordan. The delicate models sit on cylinder pedestals in the long galleries of the Arsenale. Gumuchdjian’s vision of what could be built there is as much about the landscape as it is about his designs, with lakes, gorges and thick vegetation. Are they fantasies? The more the magical landscape becomes known, the more likely they are to be built, he says.

Fuji Kindergarten by Tezuka Architects

The architect Takaharu Tezuka of Tokyo is represented in the Arsenale exhibition by a building that has been built – a school for children in the shape of a doughnut where the roof is a wide circular track of a playground La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE  
The architect Takaharu Tezuka of Tokyo is represented in the Arsenale exhibition by a building that has been built – a school for children in the shape of a doughnut where the roof is a wide circular track of a playground La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE  

The architect Takaharu Tezuka of Tokyo is represented in the Arsenale exhibition by a building that has been built – a school for children in the shape of a doughnut where the roof is a wide circular track of a playground. In the model on view, Tezuka and his team created a hologram superimposed on the playground and on the interior court to show the activity there as an interplay of charged particles. It’s a study in paradox – serenity and perpetual motion.

100 Towers, 100 Architects at the Hong Kong Pavilion

If “Freespace” is the theme of the biennale, the only free space in Hong Kong is upward. With that in mind, the Hong Kong Pavilion takes a vertical approach with 100 Towers, 100 Architects, reflecting the architectural response to density. The exhibition – an unofficial or “collateral” event in the Biennale – is in a brick courtyard across from the entrance to the Arsenale.

The space is so constricted that it can’t help but remind you of Hong Kong itself, minus the water view. Scale models of skyscrapers of every material and design sprout up like rigid weeds. The sheer variety makes this space worth a visit.

Star Apartments by Michael Maltzan Architecture

Star Apartments by Michael Maltzan Architecture. Providing a subsistence dwelling, Star Apartments has taken people off the streets.  La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE  
Star Apartments by Michael Maltzan Architecture. Providing a subsistence dwelling, Star Apartments has taken people off the streets.  La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE  

This building for the homeless in Los Angeles, which we see on a wall-sized street map, is in the same city as Hollywood, but a world away. The white structure looks like an amalgam of cubes or containers atop a pre-existing base.

In each of those spaces are apartments for homeless people, and the installation that surrounds a massive model of the structure removes walls so visitors can observe its households and their basic contents.

Providing a subsistence dwelling, Star Apartments has taken people off the streets. The suggestion is that this handsome addition to a city is a lesson that can be transferred elsewhere.

Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse by the Victoria and Albert Museum

If architecture is about designs that go unbuilt, it is also about ruins. In the Arsenale, Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse, is a project of the Victoria and Albert Museum that salvaged fragments of the London housing estate, built in 1974 in a brutalist style, that is now under demolition.

The Victoria and Albert Museum acquired part of the Robin Hood Gardens for the exhibition – to much criticism – which is on display at this year’s biennale. The exhibition is fragmentary, yet immersive, evoking the commitment to public housing of an earlier era (where elevated walkways were meant to replicate city streets), with videos that visit some of its interiors. It’s a reminder that even nostalgia can be controversial.

Pavilion of Spain – Becoming

The Spanish Pavilion is an act of ambition – in the form of a slapdash catalogue of building plans and a catalogue in the form of a pavilion. Its title is Becoming. Most of what you see on the walls are text, diagrams and imaginings by those excluded (up to now) from building – a deliberate act of inclusion by the pavilion’s organisers, in accord with “Freespace,” the biennale’s broader theme. Sometimes the walls look like intricate art installations; sometimes you feel as if you’re inside a do-it-yourself graffiti museum. If the plans don’t all make sense, you can’t avoid being overwhelmed by their energy.

The Venice Architecture Biennale runs until November 25

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Read more:

Beirut Design Week explores the ideas that shape the contemporary city

Radical re-imaginings of what a chapel might look like at the Venice Biennale

Alleys, gardens and people: Examining the UAE Pavilion at the Venice architecture biennale

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