[Originally published in Mark Magazine #51]
We’ve all heard of ‘selfies’. What about ‘groupies’? During the opening of the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale, photographer Sergio Pirrone and I casually interviewed and photographed groups of Biennale attendees. Normally commemorating an extraordinary collective achievement or special occasion of some sort, group photos are historical markers laden with cultural significance. Sergio and I aimed to capture architecture’s group dynamics, team spirits, collective antics, social networks and political allegiances.
The Venice Biennale is architecture’s biggest media event – its moment of truth. The aim of virtually any media event is to create as many trending topics as the web can handle and to stir up as much buzz as possible. And without people, especially big-name personalities, there is no buzz. The Venice Biennale is, therefore, mainly a social event. Who, after all, doesn’t like to mingle with the rich and famous? The social calendar of this edition of the Biennale kicks off the evening before the three-day-long preview with cocktails at Ca’ Giustinian, a Grand Canal palazzo that doubles as the Biennale’s head office. The invitation informs us that the president of the Biennale, Paolo Baratta, will be in attendance, as well as the artistic director, Rem Koolhaas. The former wears a striped shirt and a dark sport jacket, the latter a polo shirt that fits loosely over his tall, lanky frame. Luckily, pleasant views of the lagoon and Saint Mark’s Campanile make up for the ridiculously few canapés being served. Nearly everyone in sight seems to be associated with architecture periodicals of one sort or another, from newspaper critics to mega-online platforms such as ArchDaily / Plataforma Arquitectura, probably the biggest media contingent at the Biennale. The four who pose for us are, from left to right, Gili Merin, Becky Quintal, Joanna Helm, and Pola Mora.
The Venice Biennale is, then, essentially one big shmoozefest. It’s all about meeting, greeting and networking. The exhibitions are a useful pretext for striking up a pseudo-intellectual conversation with a big fish or angling for a flirtation with small fry. Either way, appearing blasé and unimpressed by the whole thing is de rigueur. Overheard: ‘Elements? Not much that’s new in Koolhaas’s exhibition. Reminds me of a building fair.’ Thankfully, a new topic of conversation emerges when the mayor of Venice is arrested, along with 30 others, for flood barrier-related graft on day one of the Biennale preview – not to mention the uncanny coincidence that both the Italian and the Catalan exhibitions have the same name, Grafting, and that a firm called Graft Architects is involved in one of the many collateral exhibitions held throughout the city. Turns out the 14th Venice Biennale won’t be opened by the mayor, as tradition dictates. Stuck inside the lift at Ca’ Giustinian are, from left to right, Oliver Bloor, Tania Davidge, David Neustein, and Fiona Scott.
The growth of the Venice Biennale – this year bigger and longer-running than ever before — is definitive proof of the ongoing biennalization of architecture (when spoken quickly, the B word sounds a lot like ‘banalization’). In other words: the transformation of architecture into an autonomous aesthetic activity increasingly divorced from the design and modification of buildings for people. In this new world order, architecture is, to an increasing degree, something for culture vultures to take in on weekends rather than something to be lived in every day. The Biennale encourages us to book a few nights in a designer hotel and visit the spectacular buildings of Barcelona or Beijing, to enjoy a curated architecture exhibition in a gallery or museum, to saunter through another biennale – as a leisure activity, as a member of a leisure class that seems to shrink as this event expands. The over-academicism of architecture, like art, can be counted on to follow suit. At Palazzo Mora, from left to right are (rear) Giuliana Valenti; (middle) Gabrielle Hächler, David Guerra, Florencia Costa, Andreas Fuhrimann, Asko Takala; (front) Kirsti Sivén, Tuuli Tiitola-Meskanen.
The largest, most glamorous party is undoubtedly the one thrown by the US pavilion in the sculpture garden of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. The ambience is a curious mix of electronica, bearded hipsters, Ralph Lauren preppies, short skirts exposing artificially tanned legs and, yes, incredible as it may seem, the occasional bow tie sported by certain Ivy-League academics. Some things will simply never change in the land of the free. Odile Decq, contemporary architecture’s best-known Goth, peers out from a veritable mask of black make-up that matches her black dress. Bjarke Ingels wears black, too, but perhaps for the same reason that so many architects adopted black in the 1990s: as a knee-jerk reaction to ‘black goes with everything’. But Ingels is not being retardataire in terms of fashion; he’s simply on the cutting edge of a ’90s revival that’s just around the corner. Mark my words. From left to right, representing Stylepark, are Christian Gärtner, Sophie Stigliano, and Robert Volhard.
The OfficeUS exhibition at the USA pavilion is a huge collection of nearly a thousand binders, each documenting a building completed during the last century by an American architect outside the USA, a great many in countries that were, at the time, US-controlled, CIA-implemented puppet states. In the dry bureaucratic form of an archive, the exhibition presents this accomplishment uncritically for the most part. Only certain categories, such as ‘Trojan Horses’, offer a bit of comic relief to ease the weighty impact of the solemn and ambitious paperwork that lines the pavilion walls. By contrast, Fair Enough, the exhibition at the Russian pavilion, is a satirical ‘international trade fair’ of the best and worst Soviet and Russian architectural ideas and precedents from the last century, which run the gamut from ‘Chernikhov Creative Solutions’ to ‘The Russian Council for Retroactive Development’. The show is an engaging riot of deadpan humour. Russia 1 – USA 0. The youngest groupie consists of Kate Mathers (left) and an unknown visitor.
The Monditalia exhibition is a saucy sourcebook of sex, drugs and disco. The makers used installations – among which The Architecture of Hedonism: Three Villas on the Island of Capri; Pompeii, the Secret Museum, and the Sexopolitical Foundations of the Modern European Metropolis (in which Pompeii, it is argued, is a ‘modern pornotopia’); Nightswimming: Discotheques in Italy from the 1960s until now; La Fine del Mondo; and Space Electronic: Then and Now – to indicate a clear theme in their portrayal of Italy as a microcosm of the world. If an opportunity had arisen to present an architectural analysis of Berlusconi’s island villa, complete with the infamous ‘bunga-bunga room’, rest assured the Monditalia exhibition would have grabbed it. So why no party, no disco – not even a lousy cocktail opening – at Monditalia? What happened? Did the money run out after they printed that kilometre-long ‘map curtain’ that winds down the middle of the Corderie dell’Arsenale? Good thing, then, that Canada hosted a garden party. Behind the Giardini greenhouse windows, from left to right, we shot Mark Pimlott, Matthew Spremulli, John Shnier, Bakul Patki, and João Ó.
Venice is literally inundated by the thousands of architects who descend on the city to catch the opening of La Biennale. Professionals of every type, taste and tint can find something of interest at the ‘universal expo’ accommodated by Giardini’s National Pavilions, at Monditalia’s ‘high-school science fair’, inside the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that Koolhaas gathered together for his Elements of Architecture exhibition – or at one of the many collateral events throughout the city. The Biennale demonstrates the wholesale diversification of architecture, its entry into every niche market available, and its potential to conquer those still to come. Venice shows us the when and the where in a group portrait that exposes all the facets of architecture, for better or for worse. On the Viale Garibaldi, from left to right (rear), are Neil Aspinall, Jimenez Lai, Mark Penner, Geoffrey Cox; (front) Morgan Ip, Annick Labeca, Sasa Radulovic, Johanna Hurme.