/ 30 September 2008

Venice goes retro

When architects are asked to imagine futuristic buildings, they tend to come up with colourful sci-fi blobs, big swirling objects and intense videos set to monotonous electronic music.

Sure enough, this is what is being served up this week at the 2008 Venice Biennale in response to director Aaron Betsky’s appeal for new notions of what friendly, provocative and even sensuous buildings could be.

The result is an enjoyable and spirited if often uncertain exhibition. The Arsenale, the magnificent shipyard where the warships of the Venetian navy were made and launched centuries ago, is full of all sorts of fascinating exotica — but quite what it all adds up to, I’m not so sure.

Having got past some gigantic video screens bombarding the eye with abstract forms, visitors are confronted with acres of blob-like futuristic furniture, hanging from the walls and somehow morphing — in the mind’s eye — into architecture. The first of these is the work of young New York-based architects Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture; it is fashionable and well realised, but very much the stuff of fine-art shows rather than architecture. This sets the tone of what is to come.

The next voluminous gallery houses Astroballon 1969 Revisited Feedback Space. This sounds like a track by prog-rockers Soft Machine, and it proves to be a reworking of a would-be mind-expanding installation from the late 1960s. The original and the revision are by Coop Himmelb(l)au, a firm of Viennese architects that has clearly taken a very big trip indeed.

Once the darlings of the European pop avant-garde, they have now made a name for themselves as the architects of BMW Welt, Munich, the architectural apotheosis of contemporary corporate culture. The centrepiece of their exhibit is a kind of astrodome you walk into to experience something mind-expandingly psychedelic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working when I tried my luck, so I moved on to gawp, quite happily, at some more big blobby furniture-into-architecture things by UN Studio and Zaha Hadid and then a timber tower by Frank Gehry, being constructed during the course of the exhibition. It’s happily meaningless, Gehry’s contemporary Tower of Babel.

These are all fun, but it’s hard not to think of them as projects simply dashed off by big, talented architectural firms busy with major projects around the world, without the time to create something radically different or conceptually new. The biennale should be a chance for architects to let rip, free from the restraints of clients’ budgets, planning restrictions, politics and bureaucracy.

When I stumbled across yet another neo-Sixties installation, this one featuring naked, beautiful people playing neo-hippy music in the manner of the Hair musical, I began to yearn for some proper architecture. But, before I left the Arsenale show (the naked neo-hippies were, I have to say, the limit of what I could take), my eye was caught by a colourful display by New Zealand architect Greg Lynn.

Lynn has chosen to morph children’s toys into big, blobby pieces of comic furniture. It looked familiar. And I knew where I’d seen it before — the children’s TV programme In the Night Garden. Designed to lull small children to sleep, the BBC’s gently surreal programme is set in a land of odd plinkety-plonk music, colourful blobs, big swirling things and houses that, for the most part, visually echo cartoonish pop designs from the 1960s. I half expected Makka Pakka and the Pontipines (don’t ask) to pop out at any moment.

This unintentional childhood theme pervades much of the rest of the Arsenale. A room curated by Chilean architects is awash with tiny toy houses mounted on tall sticks. Perhaps architecture is too serious too much of the time; a bit of innocent fun, a trip back to our collective childhoods might be no bad thing. But is this really the message Betsky is trying to get across? As if to make sure visitors understand that architecture is also a serious, adult affair, one room in the middle of this blobby playpen has been given over, for no recognisable reason, to proposals to remodel Rome.

Outside the grand old naval buildings, in a part of the Arsenale given over until just a few weeks ago to brambles and nettles, the landscape architects Gustafson Porter have planted an intriguing garden of sweet-smelling herbs and voluptuous vegetables, shaded by billowing white sails held aloft by white balloons. In the morning, dew holds the sails close to a rolling lawn; as the sun rises, the dew evaporates and the sails rise to form artificial clouds above the Arsenale. This is enchanting and again very much, albeit unintentionally, in the spirit of In the Night Garden.

The second part of the biennale, held in the national pavilions dotted through the city’s giardini a few minutes’ walk from the Arsenale, begins to offer some real, adult answers to the question of how we can make warm and lovable buildings for people of all classes, creeds and incomes. The US pavilion takes the theme the most seriously, with displays of radical designs for $20 000 homes executed in some of America’s poorest states by such commendable US practices as the Rural Studio. These designs come as a welcome reality check.

Curiously, one photograph of a real and powerful building by the Rural Studio proves to be unintentionally surreal. This beautiful, shelter-like construction is a dog pound built in one of the poorest areas of Alabama, one of the poorest states in the union. It stands opposite a grim state penitentiary. But while the jail is crammed, the pound is empty. The story is that there are many packs of feral, formerly domesticated dogs in rural Alabama abandoned by poor and itinerant people. So there was a need for a dog pound. But it is empty because a local judge wants dogs held there to be shot after a short spell in their handsome cages, while US animal rescue groups oppose such trigger-happy ways. So the pound stays empty while the feral packs keep on roaming.

This is a story worth dwelling on. It shows how, with the best will in the world, it is often hard for architects to design and nurture truly publicly spirited projects. For all the help they get from officialdom, they might as well just dream and play.

But throughout the national pavilions there are signs that architects around the world are trying hard to address the gist of Betsky’s big question: how do we create a new and truly humane architecture? The British pavilion shows some decent new housing, notably by Tony Fretton, a serious-minded soul incapable of blobbery. The Japanese site is given over to walls of exquisite pencil drawings, drawn directly on to the wall by a dozen architectural students over 20 days, depicting a beautiful garden in which houses appear to grow with the plants.

The overall design, by the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, is strikingly beautiful. “The buildings and towns shown here,” Ishigami tells me, “include everything from actual projects to studies for works-in-progress to imaginary exercises. I hope some new vision might come into clearer focus by laying out these different realities.” Here, then, is a dreamlike architecture that could be made real — a gentle and rather beautiful vision of buildings growing like plants, as appealing to adults as to children.

What makes the Venice Biennale special is, of course, Venice itself. Here is a city that, every two years, invites today’s architects to push their dreams somewhere new. This year too many of the big players are playing too hard with pop revivalism — blobs, swirls, funny shapes and wacky colours — as if releasing their inner child. But, somewhere between Ishigami’s Plants and Architecture show and the work of the altruistic Rural Studio in the US, it is just possible to see a warm new architecture slowly emerging from a jumble of half-realised, half-remembered dreams. —