September 11th, 2006


Starchitects in Venice

I've been dreaming about Venice recently. In my dreams I'm sitting with a friend in a huge cruise liner which plows down the Grand Canal. We jump out from time to time to see radically refurbished palazzi housing exciting experimental installations. It's clear where my dream comes from: this time last year I was just preparing for two visits to Venice, one to conduct workshops at a conference called Teach Me, the other to perform my first concert in the city.

This September I have no glamorous Mediterranean gigs co-inciding with art conferences -- although October will see a visit to London's Frieze Art Fair and a concert at the Kosmopolis Literary Festival in Barcelona (October 20th). But if you want a culture-rich "fantasy holiday in Venice", come with me to the excellent Venice Super Blog covering the Architecture Biennale currently occupying the national pavilions at the Giardini.

Despite the presence of "starchitects" like Rem Koolhaas talking about his work in the Gulf, or artists like Olafur Eliasson, talking about his contribution to architectural projects in Iceland and Denmark, it's interesting to see how the architects seem to feel overshadowed by the art biennial.

Sarah Ichioka reports her friend Leah asking "Why are all of the architects that I've met at the Biennale embarrassed to say that they are architects? They all introduce themselves as 'curators' or 'installation artists' or 'researchers' or 'critics'". And Shumon Basar laments that "this congregation of A-list architects, curators, and critics—though celebrated widely in the specialist press that also descends upon the carnival—are unlikely to make it to the front page of newspapers or TV headlines. They just don’t quite cut it. This relative lack of populist attention puts that contemporary phrase du jour, ‘The Starchitect’, in a humbling, relativistic perspective. Should this be a cause for dismay or dejection? Or does the lack of a broader attention point to a deeper problem suffered by any desire to exhibit architecture or urbanism on a par with its more glamorous sibling, the art world?"

The British pavilion features a very shelfish presentation of the city of Sheffield. Curator Jeremy Till explains that he's chosen artists rather than architects to give the human feel of Sheffield because architects tend to focus too much on the 1:100 - 1:500 scales; the bird's eye view. Japan has an interactive weave hut (pictured above) and some striped vernacular architecture. The Canadians have the largest sweater in the world and some bicycles powering a Madonna / Pet Shop Boys video. Latvia's pavilion is made of folded cardboard and sits outside the Arsenale. The Belgians are celebrating The Beauty of the Ordinary with mirrors and pebbles. The Germans have installed a red roof and the French have a bunch of "clochard chic" architects living amongst scaffolding, cooking and conversing in their space, which features a sauna on the roof. The French are the clear winners, on cool alone. But most agree that this biennial is about cities, not countries.

I found the ruminations of one Rowan Moore interesting. Reporting a discussion with Saskia Sassen, he summed things up with: "So you have ever more gigantic building projects, inequalities, shocking poverty, astonishing urban inventions, driven by necessity. You have catastrophes... You have the erosion of the public, including public space. What possible connection has all this to do with the decision architects make sat at their computers, when they choose to arrange building materials in this or that configuration? Especially as the beauty of cities is in their messiness, which allows all kinds of histories to be made, whereas most architects that I know of like things orderly and empty."

"The beginnings of the answer go something like this. Architecture is an ultimately measured intervention -- in other words architects whether they like it or not are always going to be a little straight compared to the messy vitality of cities. So the trick is to make sure there's a conversation between the orderly and the messy. And perhaps that intervention could be a more complex smaller scale presence in public space. Perhaps there could be an engagement with street level complexity."

At the Doge's Palace, Moore was asked an "urgent beauty question": "What new word is there that can be used instead of beauty? In other words how do you describe that experience of the world acquiring extra dimensions and perspectives which is what we really want architecture to do?"