Text: Sanjay Puri
As the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale opens its doors to the world, eminent Indian architect, Sanjay Puri makes his way through this enigmatic collection of ideas, concepts, drawings, models, installations and most importantly, inspiration in the field of architecture. He words a special review for mondo*arc india|STIR.
This is the 3rd Venice Architecture Biennale opening I have experienced consecutively, and it was definitely better than the previous two in every way. Based on the theme ‘Freespace’, the curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara delivered an overall layout that in itself was very unique – creating an openness throughout.
During the previous two Biennales, I had visited the Arsenale, which is the long building that houses installations by architects from across the world. It had always felt very closed and constricted. This year, all the windows were kept ajar allowing an influx of natural light, while doorways opened onto gardens at various points. For those who have not visited the Biennale, it has three areas of exhibits and viewing spaces. The first one is Giardini, where several countries have their own permanent buildings containing exhibitions put together by a curator from the respective country. The second is the Arsenale, a 1039 ft. long building with an area of 1,23,032.52 sq.ft. fitted with installations by various architects from across the world, usually selected by the Biennale curators. And the third is a series of spaces across Venice concurrent to the Biennale with different themes and exhibits, usually curated individually or collectively by various people.
It is extremely exciting to see that virtually the entire city comes together to celebrate architecture. In every part of Venice, including the numerous boats that ply every minute, the airport, the railway stations, all have large posters and banners proclaiming the exhibition, its timings and its dates. While in India it is rare to find even an article on architecture in a newspaper, every international newspaper carries extensive coverage on the Venice Biennale – a result of numerous international press reporters swarming the city and its coveted exhibition. In Giardini, of the pavilions I visited, the Germany Pavilion seemed to have the most interesting display concept. Upon entering one only sees numerous black vertical panels. Titled ‘Unbuilding The Walls’, the message conveyed here is the fragmentation of the iconic Berlin Wall. As one walks further they realise that the black panels are in fact rendered white on the opposite side with projects displayed on them. These ‘walls’ curve up from the floor fluidly creating a strong visual impact compelling one to see all the displayed projects. This, in my opinion, was the most intriguing installation of works.
Another fascinating set up was at the Central Pavilion, which had an extensive display of models by Peter Zumthor, De Vylder Vinck Tailleu, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Bjarke Ingels Group, Caruso St. John Architects, Cino Zucchi Architetti, Assemble and Wang Shu. Each of the displayed models was constructed in different materials; the one of the coal mine was actually created with coal by Peter Zumthor Architects. After visiting the country pavilions in Giardini, I made my way towards the Arsenal, which in the past has always been a more informative exhibition. Just outside of the entrance was a separate exhibition titled Vertical Fabric: Density in Landscape. This was Hong Kong’s contribution to the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale 2018. In many cities, towers are a choice but in Hong Kong, they are a necessity. How a highrise tower can generate free space was the underlying concept of this exhibit. 111 model towers by different architects were on display in the courtyard of a small Venetian house. Each of the participating architects was given the same template to work with – 360 square millimetres of space and a height constraint of 2 metres. There were extremely interesting concepts in some of these towers and I feel this exhibit is definitely a must-see in the current Biennale. However, the most interesting model was titled The Library of the World by Chu Karl Metaxy.
Within the main exhibition space of the Arsenale, there were several brilliantly created installations. From architectural drawings as an art form to small spaces built with eco-friendly and sustainable means, to meticulously curated works; everything was delightful to explore. A circular school model had animated people moving across its premise, which made one feel that the model was almost real. An incredible display of drawings by Peter Rich in a series of floating canvas-like prints was breathtaking. There was a model made of steel, which was in 3 parts that could be rolled away along guides to view the internal spaces. There were many other interesting models, unique display ideas and thoughtful interpretations of the theme ‘Freespace’ throughout the exhibition. The Croatian Pavilion had an installation titled Cloud Pergola, The Architecture of Hospitality. This was an ethereal composition created by Alisa Andrasek and architect Bruno Juricic; definitely among the best displays in the Arsenale. One of the world’s largest and most complex 3D printed structures, this work is composed of 300kgs of 3D printed biodegradable plastic. The Pavilion of Chile had an amazing concept with an entire city mapped onto the model of a football stadium. In the outdoors a unique bamboo pavilion created by Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia housed a seating area by the water. The Chinese Pavilion displayed an array of sustainable projects created in bamboo through models and drawings, of which the model by Philip F Yuan of Archi-Union Architects Ltd. was absolutely arresting. The Chinese Pavilion opened onto a garden with a stunning installation titled The Cloud Village, also by Philip F Yuan.
The most interesting part of this Biennale, however, was the Vatican Chapels, which was a concurrent event. The Vatican participated in the Biennale for the first time and invited 11 architects to create chapels. Each of these chapels was situated within a forested area by the sea on an island called St.Maggiore. After the conclusion of the Biennale exhibition, each one of these chapels will be moved to places in Italy where they will become permanent buildings. Of the 11 chapels, three of them created rather peculiar experiences that were delightful in terms of space, light and perception. A must-visit is the chapel by Sir Norman Foster constructed in wood slats with minimal metal framing that angles and weaves abstractly within the landscape. The eccentric circular chapel by Javier Corvalan with a ring of wood that tilts up one side to allow visitors to enter and see the cross against the sky was my favourite. A simple, large vertical stainless steel ‘cross’ mirroring the landscape and continuing into an elevated horizontal ‘cross’ along the ground, which becomes a seating bench was breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty. This stunning creation is by Brazilian Architect, Carla Juacab.
Having visited the Venice Architecture Biennale repeatedly, I strongly feel that this year’s production is a must-see for every architect. The myriad experiences and explorations cannot possibly be summarized into merely a few words. Although I spent two full days exploring most of the exhibition, I would surely like to revisit it while it is on until November. Where else can one get such varied experiences and insights into design, all within walking distance from one another; and where else can one see an entire city celebrating architecture together.