Vanitas. Venice Biennale 2008

Is there any criticality at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and if so, what does it suggest? Since ‘architecture beyond building’ was theme and issue, it should be possible to say what building is about and what architecture could be about. Michael Stanton discerns some patterns in this giant architecture fair and was saved from drowning by numbers by his long-term biennale experience.

Like its predecessors, the 11th Venice Biennale of Architecture is unfathomably deep in material and information. It stretches through the 30 national pavilions in the Giardini, the park devoted to the show, including the vast labyrinthine Italian Pavilion. It flows into the long warehouses and docks of the Arsenale where the curator’s own choices are displayed and where thematic installations and 13 other nations’ contributions spread out. The exhibition further seeps into many spaces throughout the city where another 13 national pavilions and many collateral events and exhibits temporarily lodge. Beyond studying each drawing and model, to view every video, review every site, and read every word of the myriad and fat exhibition documents (the official catalogue alone is five books!) would begin to replicate the labor of Borges’ cartographers in Del Rigor en la Ciencia who painfully aspired to cover, and thus smother, the Empire with their plan. The impossible conceit of every Biennale is that the viewer will completely – not superficially or partially – assess such a colossal display. I therefore yield to this quandary and confess to selectivity, subjectivity and at times a tendentiousness I hope is obvious, yet not dismissive. Finally, like Yourcenar’s Emperor, I find that ‘There have been moments when that comprehension tried to go beyond human experience, passing from the swimmer to the wave. But, in such a realm, since there is nothing exact left to guide me, I verge upon the world of dream and metamorphosis.’[1] What I did see, after a relatively careful visit, affected me unexpectedly. Bliss and dread interweave this year in Venice where a sprawling Vanitas pitches on the uncertain waters of the lagoon.

The official title of the show is Out There: Architecture Beyond Building. This is catchy and apparently transgressive, but the solutions that meet this challenge at first appear to be supercilious either in the direction of aesthetic cunning or social futility. While deeper study reveals a much more intricate pathology, in this year’s Biennale there ferments a carnival spirit in direct contradiction to, yet often in direct conjunction with, an almost apocalyptic anxiety about the state of both the art and the planet upon which it is practiced. Tears and laughter, fear and joy entwine without synthesis, recalling Manfredo Tafuri’s question in response to an interview with Venturi and Scott-Brown entitled ‘Laughing not to Cry’. Tafuri asked: ‘Why does the alternative to laughing or crying never get mentioned?’[2] The positions that initially appear to resonate uncomfortably in Venice, foiled indignation and euphoric formalism, do hint at a dire prognosis for our febrile art. The 11th Biennale has the demeanor of a Vanitas in its recognition of our mortality. But Tafuri has to be right! Such dualities are obsolete! It must be possible that another, at least one other, a third or more ways can exist!

Curator Aaron Betsky, former director of the NAI, lays out the program clearly in an opening document at the door of the Arsenale and again in a spoken manifesto inside and again in a film aired deeper in the exhibit. He says, and this is true, that ‘Architecture is not building…it is about building. Most buildings are ugly, useless and wasteful … though architecture exists most clearly in buildings, they are also its tombs.’ Furthermore, and again indisputably, he states that buildings are ‘also the built affirmation of the social, economic and political status quo.’ The way this exterior role of architecture should interact with the greater discipline of building structures and cities, iterated repeatedly in the curatorial manifestos that accompany those of the designers involved, is through ‘experimentation.’ This again seems irrefutable and essential. The exact experimental procedures take several routes. The show implies that formal élan is clearly one of those, most explicitly articulated in the various revivals of Expressionism seen in recent decades. Yet even on the level of form-making this is not definitive. The inclusion of groups whose work is more conceptual, such as Atelier Bow Wow and Diller Scofido + Renfro, clearly indicates a plurality within the canon.

On the other hand, particularly in the national pavilions in the Giardini, a troubled social mandate dominates. Earnest political-economic concerns drive environmental and cultural diatribes as if by simply being aware, architects can avoid the contradictions of a craft that will always be attendant to authority and wealth, can avoid irrelevance within the constrictions of power. This recalls my first Biennale, pre-architecture, in the late-‘70s, with its equally self-righteous polemics: piles of trash and graffiti, peeling manifestoes, hypodermic toilet seats. These expressions of protest and concern from 1978 share a climate of similar financial crisis and global conflict with the endgames of 2008.


To a greater or lesser extent the national pavilions respond to the show’s mandate with calls for sustainability and social responsibility. Many of these generate a degree of viability through, for example, community work or interactive systems that enable action. The Czechs, Koreans and particularly the Belgians react with notable humor and the Germans and British with a notable lack of same. On the other hand, the French especially but also the Scandinavian, Austrian, Finnish, Canadian and Spanish inclusions ignore the thesis of the show and thus produce some of the most intriguing and popular pavilions. They simply display work. The French go so far as to mount an enormous, illuminated OPTIMISTE on the roof of their pavilion. Through the medium of the education of designers the Swiss pavilion tries to engage the responsibilities those designers later face. The Dutch and Luxembourg exhibitions replace form with discourse. The Brazilians do the same but employ non-architects, pushing the year’s theme further. The variable qualities of the show are found in the ‘out there’ themes of the exhibit: mud brick and geometry (Egypt), urban sounds (Greece), magnificent photo-manipulations proposing a Kafkaesque future for civic buildings (Poland), developer horrors (Russia) and a brilliant play on reflection inside and out (Souto de Moura and de Sousa for Portugal).

The huge Italian Pavilion is given over to the experimental, the Italian national inclusion having moved to the Arsenale. Here are rooms cluttered in messy vitality, disparate text, video and graphics, collaging the facts of a careening culture with solutions beyond building, in the sense that their sculptural or symbolic extremes can only be critical. UPLOADCITY in the basement offers tiny video screens, headphones and big beanbags. Relevant websites are presented but when I was there all the occupants were asleep; a siesta room providing intense relief from all that intensity upstairs. Within these often muddled attempts to once again locate an architecture of good intentions, the section entitled Masters of the Experiment is most provocative. Here Gehry, Prix, Herzog, Mayne and Hadid (the former way too little and the latter way too much) present an exuberant history of recent big form. While Rem Koolhaas’ office is notably absent from the entire Biennale, the drawings of his wife and partner in the early polemics of OMA form a counterpoint to the other designs. They are joined by what is the oddest inclusion in the entire Biennale: claiming to represent OMA through the film-making team of Bêka and Lemoîne (listed weirdly within this pantheon of Masters) have included their piece on OMA’s Bordeaux House. This very funny movie is a great relief, for overt humor is scarce in this show. But its premise is banal and similar to so many films about great modern buildings in the popular press that debunk genius by pointing out technical difficulties and absurd gestures, always the byproduct of extreme design. The film’s inclusion thus challenges the premise of the show and returns to the tragedies of building and disciplinary politics framed by larger cultural issues. The hand drawings by Hadid and Vriesendorp as well as by Lebbeus Woods and Duke Reiter emphatically remind the viewer that analog media are efficient and speedy in comparison to the digital and also remain much more persuasive. Furthermore they are inexpensive and thus mostly immune to the consumerist snares set by the digital.


Always more impressive in their austerity and extension than the exhibitions they host, the long rooms of the Corderie are dedicated to a review of various directions explored by architecture and urbanism in recent decades. This is introduced by an animated light show that responds to passing bodies with sound and fractured images behind which segments of various iconic popular films repeat on a bed of TVs. The disco atmosphere offered by this exuberant installation is a halcyon introduction for what is about to come, the smooth production that proceeds through the next rooms and on into the various spaces that the Biennale occupies within the vast labyrinth of the Arsenale.

Continuing the paleontology of the Masters of the Experiment, dinosaurs roam the great rooms. Bio-morphs and tough-to-construct complexity abound in a history that has often remained ‘beyond building,’ confirmed by the inclusion of the Tyrannosaurus and master-shape-maker Frank Gehry who left intact the workshop in which his reptilian surfaces were created. Likewise Greg Lynn includes vivid images of the techniques involved in transforming innocent children’s toys into guilty works of design. Lynn’s discourse on factory-produced architecture is most intriguing, revealing a practice that has the potential to revolutionize and economize our craft. Among the dinosaurs are some delicate birds, younger designers with similar genetics, but their works are less compelling generally than those they emulate, depending more on new technologies and thus gaining less material traction. They have yet to attain the preposterous rapture of their forbearers.

Juxtaposed to all this delicious form are a series of ‘manifestos’ presented on screens with spoken texts. Winy Maas urges belief in technology. Hani Rashid imagines a practice, wind-tunnel testing, that has been a standard for making large buildings for decades. These talking heads often don’t talk. They glare with a grumpy ancien-regime disdain at the viewer as their statements are voiced-over. The seriousness of their funereal gaze[3] contrasts with the playful installations they produce. The compulsive experimenter Koolhaas is again absent. A very clever cultural predator indeed, the velociraptor of the group, lumbering consistently into the next epic, has left the building.

Diller and Scofidio with Renfro are cleverer, as usual. Their genuinely entertaining inclusion, a front and rear gondola ride through Venice and its far-flung simulacra, invites the exhausted and slightly disillusioned viewer to sit and glide, recalling the suave skepticism that their sort of cross-disciplinary borrowing has always necessitated, in particular their cool play on Deleuze and domesticity at the 1996 Biennale.[4] But their frowns are even more severe than most. Why such ferocity about such wit? The curatorial comment on their installation states that their inclusion calls the nature of ‘authenticity’ into question, but the funky landscape of Venice, its Blade Runner techno-exoskeletons and sordid patina, juxtaposed with its sterile corporate imitations, confirms the opposite, the continuation of a durable specificity undaunted by an over-maligned globalism.

Upon turning the corner at the end of the Corderie, an anachronistic recapitulation of the late ‘70s Roma Interrotta exhibition inaugurates an urban section that continues the diaphanous mood of the Corderie. Roma Interrotta, the redrawing of sections of the Nolli Plan of Rome by what were then the most lauded architects in the business, the royalty of Post-Modernism, has since come to represent the worst excesses of that confused moment. While this exhibit is largely unknown to those who studied architecture after my troubled generation, to now repeat it, in the frantic and nebulous Uneternal City in the next room, invites unfortunate comparison. A Croatian piazza, updated with a disco floor follows. The crass advertising, of the trade-fair sort, among the installations gives a new meaning to ‘beyond architecture’. A notable diversion is a quite lucid Italian Pavilion confronting the problems of, and solutions to housing.

Finally, the long walk ends with a garden: back to a brittle Eden. Entering through a dilapidated warehouse, its empty shelves like columbaria holding the names of plant types, possibly extinct, a path leads through the semi-wild foliage at the edges of Venice to the serenity of a manicured and contoured meadow, then out past a working vegetable patch. The relief is tangible after the kilometers of blissful angst behind.


Again, between laughter, the paradoxical excesses of the Arsenale, and tears without adequate remedy, the earnest marginality generally presented by the various pavilions in the Giardini there is only the hint of a third way. A decade or more ago cautions were offered in a mood of excitement felt by many of us in the hope that from the various problematic, exciting, but unfocused formal, theoretical and sociological axes of the era, confrontation with political and stylistic hegemonies might evolve. Now the cautions seems more elegiac.

To just call for another way is not enough. Aaron Betsky does it eloquently in his talking-head moment lodged between the designers he has re-canonized. But architecture is crippled by diminished authority and a relentlessly vulgar and increasingly cut-throat economic climate in which to try to produce. It struggles futilely to come to terms with inadequate training in design school hampered by the ‘new technologies’ that promised to free us.[5] We can all criticize and implore but in the end, certain suggestions and routes for production need to be identified. This is a risky proposition for it can lead to new critical action by others or to the inevitable flaws and failures in any overriding proposals for action. Nonetheless it is an obligation to do more than condemn or lament. So what then should we do, if not laugh or cry?

The last Biennale could be seen as an answer. It was urban, presented cities and implied rightly that they were the essential site for architectural discourse and action. But rarely was enough information about particular urbanisms presented for architecture’s problems to appear reversible. Cities are the most complex devices produced by our species. Their repair manuals remain very thick. We were reminded by the Biennale of 2006 how impossible it is to embody a city in statistics and images, especially with the fairly terse data offered by the exhibit. No matter how extensive the documentation, the complexity is too great, again like Borges’ map. This ‘collective work of art’ can only be subjectively portrayed; the dilemma of all historians and geographers, the liberation of all designers and artists.

Why not direct theory away from its perennial search for new forms with meager results, toward the processes and functions of practice? Why not recognize that the problems that plague our ailing profession derive directly from the economic systems it serves and the methodologies it embraces? Why not confront these with the interdisciplinary ingenuity that has characterized recent decades? Architecture and urbanism are the most expensive and symbolic of human arts; they are thus more vulnerable to current cultural economics than any other. While radically altering this picture is outside the direct prevue of our profession, acknowledgement that this is the case and a flanking assault employing the most radical of critical protocols immediately permits more effective responses.

The many alternative directions taken by those trained in architecture internationally are generally not given much attention. Many, if not a majority, of them adopt some sort of concomitant discipline, as film-makers, community organizers, systems gurus, designers of some lateral sort, artisans, etc. Beyond building for sure! It is they who are moving the discipline in more effective directions.

Enjoy formalism! Stop arguing about what it is and what it isn’t. Stop trying to justify it with other criteria whether political, theoretical or practical. The making of beguiling form is one of the most important and powerful aspects of what we do. Thought and analysis lead toward it. Why do we continue to deny that what separates us from all the other professionals and craftspeople who work on a project is primarily aesthetic training, in all the richest interpretations of that term? The meshing of significance and form; the metamorphosis of the given into novel configurations; the pleasures of the visual, tactile, material and compositional manifest in the best architectural projects; all seem to have been discredited by the last century. Beauty has been subsumed by the sublime and the rational. We seem to preemptively discredit ourselves by continuously insisting our role is more serious, more logical, more profound than that most profound, and traditional, of acts, that of imagining and making the beautiful and, for that matter, the sublime. Perhaps it is simply that when the mimetic aspects of the arts gave way to degrees of abstraction a century ago, when the place of mimesis was no longer underwritten by Classicism, beauty became immaterial. Yet just as beauty embeds in a DeKooning or the Farnsworth House, it continues to oscillate with the sublime in all our best endeavors.

We must redefine sustainability beyond easy and often industry-friendly, expensive solutions. Instead of focusing entirely on the environment, what about focusing on work or local protocols, or the relation to capital, or methods that are low-tech, cheap and humane? The environment often becomes an excuse for rejecting indigenous, low-income workers, local materials and regional initiatives. A good example of such endeavors is ecofeminism where any radical realignment is seen as a symbiosis with both the existing and the imagined.

A Vanitas always urges exuberant action while recognizing transience. The potential is there in both the euphoria and alarm expressed in Venice. Its actualization demands more of a critical adjustment than that proposed by the flamboyant lamentations and gestures in evidence, but commences with both.

Get the Balance Right!