“Out There: Architecture Beyond Building” is the title of this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, curated by Aaron Betsky. The implication here is that architects do more than “merely” build buildings. So what else do they do?
Firstly, it has to be said that there has been no shortage of construction activity at this biennale. There are lots of highly labored installations of drawings, models, photographs, furniture, sculpture, and even some full-scale constructions one is actually allowed to enter and (gasp!) touch. I guess that’s the “building” part we were expecting anyway. Architects are hard-wired to build, when all is said and done. Fine. But what else is there beyond all the steel, wood, plastic, styrofoam, projections, monitors, paint and lighting that transcends building?
There is one added element in the Arsenale group exhibition (curated by Betsky himself) that is telling. The Arsenale exhibition includes, beside each installation, a panel printed with a “manifesto” together with a portrait-mounted LCD monitor displaying a video of the architect talking about their work. This multi-media form of extended labeling is intended to explain each architect’s installation, which might not otherwise be understood. Normally, the texts of extended labels are written by the curator of an exhibition, and limited to a paragraph or two. Here, the architects have been given a voice, as it were, to explain their designs themselves.
Indeed, the architects were each asked to issue their own manifesto, no less. As Betsky states: “The architects communicate with the visitors by means of their Manifestos, declarations of intent presented by the authors themselves to involve the visitors in their visions and in their idea of architecture.”
Manifestos became fashionable in the early 20th century, when avant-garde artistic and architectural movements were sprouting in Paris, Rotterdam, Berlin and Moscow. They went out with the rise of Post-modernism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, or at least that’s what we thought. The Arsenale exhibition oozes with avant-garde overtones, not only because of the manifesto panels, but also because of the earnest and sincere tone with which many of the architects talk in their videos. “We must…” comes up frequently.
It is interesting to compare this biennale of architecture to its art sibling. Artists are not required to explain their work, but when they do, they very rarely use the urgent, serious and missionary tone of a manifesto. If they did, it would probably be taken with a large dose of irony. It would seem then, at least from visiting this exhibition, that what architects do “beyond building” is above all talk. Seriously.