The frantic oscillations of a seismic trace are painted across the front entrance to the Italian pavilion, a record of shocks both major and minor. Architecture on the Scale of Richter, with Venice as its epicentre. Earthquakes – past, present or soon to come – rumbled everywhere in the national contributions, main exhibitions and marginal activities of many kinds.
But not really. Apart from a frisson of excitement due to Liga Nord’s declaration of Padanian independence, the atmosphere in Venice was far from alarming. The function of the seismograph is on consideration not exactly cut out for the architect. At first sight the role of harbinger of eruptions and quakes seems rather heroic. It suggests the architect has his finger on the pulse of our times. But when you stop and think about it, nothing is as passive, emotionless and neutral as a seismograph.
The architect is implicitly a mere recording device, always behind events by definition. First there is the quake and then the architect comes along like a meter reader and assesses the damage. Viewed in this light he could have just as easily been a geiger counter, a thermometer, a sounding rod or a stethoscope, instruments that measure or detect damage but never prevent it – nor, should it suit someone’s purposes, cause it. Even as a shock absorber there is not much of a role for the architect here. Before you know it, all you have left is a pennant flapping in the wind.
Still, the chosen metaphor says a lot about the self-image that the Biennale’s general commissioner Hans Hollein would wish upon the architect. Passive response is apparently all that is left to the architect at the moment. This view corresponds to a new phase in the development of architecture in recent decades. The architect used to be seen as a reformer, an idealist who understood his profession as a tool for social change or for relieving the suffering of wartime destruction; in the eighties the architect was more often depicted as the rescuer of an autonomous architecture, as the very opponent of those instrumentalist dragons that threatened to devour his art form. In both these periods the future wasn’t something that might or might not be sensed, but something that was made.
Architecture was there to fight for or against something whatever it might have been, an intervention in its own right. But a seismograph doesn’t fight anything and doesn’t intervene between combatants. It is a concept that refers to a new outlook on the world of which architecture forms part – a world that does not consist of freely acting individuals pursuing their conscious goals, but of a set of forces which interact in an ostensibly chaotic fashion and over which the individual can have no hold.
What is more, these forces are forces of nature, blind energy, and that is by definition greater than the architect. And once it is seen in these terms the earthquake can indeed not be far off. Or the hurricane, the epidemic, the heart attack, the atom bomb, the flood or whichever scenario of doom you prefer.
At this point the image of the seismograph even becomes dangerous. Sensing devices believe themselves to be most useful of couse when there is something to sense, in times of bad weather, and they will always have an inclination to simulate that type of situation. Exaggeration becomes easy. From Arcadia to the Deluge nature metaphors always depend on extremism. Hollein’s theme thus contains a union of misplaced modesty and foolhardy pathos. We wonder what the fruits of this particular marriage are going to be.