Monday, 24 November 2014

Ciao Biennale di Venezia 2014

The Biennale - Venice's international architecture festival, which takes place every two years - ends this weekend after five months in situ.

As trips to the Mediterranean coast go, for London architects, MIPIM (where architecture is a sideshow to the world of commercial property) might get you more work - but the Biennale offers a lot more inspiration and food for thought.  Quite apart from the relative merits of Venice and Cannes as places to visit.

This year's Biennale - the best I have been to - was directed by Rem Koolhaas under the rubric 'Fundamentals'.  The Central Pavilion in the Giardini was divided up according to the 'Elements of Architecture' - subject headings related to elements or components of which buildings are made - stairs, facades, roofs and so on.

Unfairly satirised as 'a bit like being at B&Q', what each of the different sections offered - admittedly in a slightly random way, since each was curated by a different group - was constant stimulation and provocation.  What they had in common was an understanding that the present can learn from the past, and that architecture, though to succeed it needs to be more than the sum of its parts, will not emerge without an understanding of the parts, considered individually at the practical level of craft and science as well as at the level of culture and history.  Some examples of what stuck in the mind:

In a hidebound culture, deciding how to deal with new needs that have no obvious precedent is a challenge.  The architectural fantasist Piranesi (1720-1778) was excited in his day by the design of fireplaces - a 3D print of one of his designs, above, shows also his drawing of the fire in the grate - precisely because there were no classical precedents and therefore invention rather than conformity to a pattern was called for.   He might have sympathised with the problems that environmentally sound projects today may have in gaining acceptance if they don't fit with the established (energy-profligate) look of a place.

In the section on stairs - where one learnt of Prof Mielke who, if in fact he has not been made up by Rem Koolhaas, was founder of the Institute of Scalology in Regensburg, has written 31 books on stairs and, if one is allowed to say this, could not possibly be anything other than German.  Typical of the exhibitions thought provoking approach was a section that considered the slope of stairs - a technical /geometrical / ergonomic consideration that all architects have had to deal with on a daily basis - in relation to the social status of those who would be using stairs, through the course of history.  As with a lot of research of this kind, you can guess the results, but it's still worth doing the exercise.

The entirely separate 'Monditalia' section in the Arsenale was terrific as well - one of many highlights was the story of the 60s new town of Zingonia, brainchild of Renzo Zingone - with superb contemporary accounts of its conception and partial realisation.  On reflection, it also looked suspiciously as if it the whole story could be completely made up - but then most of the 60s does now.

Venice will be even better next time if the Comune di Venezia ( the city council) brings in its proposed ban on luggage on wheels.  That is a relatively easy one, though - will they be brave enough to tackle the blight of the giant cruise ships as well?

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