From Baukunst to Kunstwelt: The Biennalization of Architecture

Graph showing the growth of biennales, exhibited at the entrance to the Monditalia exhibition of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Graph showing the growth of biennales, exhibited at the entrance to the Monditalia exhibition of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

There is no doubt that architecture is an art. The eternal question is which kind. Is architecture a building art? A social art? A visual art? A performance art? An urban art? (though that seems to have other connotations these days) All of the above? Who knows. But we can say one thing with certainty: architecture is becoming more and more of an art in the ‘art-world’ sense of the word. Look at how the number of architectural exhibitions, museums, galleries, biennials and triennials has grown in the past decade. Last year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture was the (extra-) largest, most ambitious, and longest-running ever. The Chicago Architecture Biennial has just announced the line-up of its inaugural event, which has been scheduled to alternate annually with Venice’s architecture biennial from now on. A host of other international events from Shenzen to Lisbon via Rotterdam have also been crowding the busy architectural events calendar over the last years.

There is no doubt that a new kind of architectural ‘industry’ has emerged and is becoming consolidated. A growing number of talented ‘artist-architects’ and ‘architect-curators’ are building –pardon the expression– solid careers in this industry. Many young architecture graduates are joining the gallery circuit, making ephemeral pavilions with the latest digital technology, doing provocative artistic-architectural performances, or exhibiting architectural-historical research in innovative ways.

But at the same time, judging by what can be seen at certain architectural biennales, an unsuspecting visitor could easily think that architecture no longer has much, if anything, to do with ‘bricks and mortar’, and more to do with information technology, geopolitics, macro-economics, biology, agriculture, philosophy, history, public art, art theory, art therapy, activist art… you name it. According to these biennales, architecture would seem to be about everything; everything except building, oddly enough.

Of course, we know this is not really true. Bricks and mortar are still the bread and butter of architecture, its very sustenance. It’s just not politically correct to say that in certain circles anymore (i.e. the chattering classes). Is building-architecture seen as not ‘critical’ enough? Or is it seen as too complicit with the ongoing corporate destruction of the planet? Or is it just passé?

Learning how to design buildings half-decently in architecture school requires so much effort and dedication that it prepares graduates for just about anything, and so a high percentage of graduates find more exciting opportunities in related fields, of which there are of course many. A number have gone on to become famous musicians, film-makers, editors, novelists, graphic designers, product designers, real estate agents, developers, planners, politicians, and of course also curators and visual artists, not to mention small-time celebrities and people who are famous just for being famous. But does this mean that architecture school curricula should abandon Building-Architecture 101, as appears to be the case in some schools, and replace it with courses with names such as Architecture Beyond Building 101? Should structures no longer be taught in architecture school, and classic textbooks such as Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture, or  Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down be banished to the basement of architecture school libraries? Should Herman Hertzberger’s classic book Lessons for Students in Architecture be updated under headings retitled ‘Public Art Domain’, ‘Making Gallery Space, Leaving City Space’, and ‘Inviting Formalism’?

For here is the real question: if architecture is discursively no longer about boring ol’ buildings, then just who, exactly, will only be too happy to step in and take that discussion over (if they haven’t  done so already)? Corporate architects? Developers? Engineers? Planners? Contractors? Whoever the people are who write building codes?

Do we no longer have a need for ‘ordinary’ buildings anymore, be they new ones or revamped old ones? Is there really no more room for improvement in the building of our built environment? If that were the case, then fine, we can move on and talk about, say, the hermeneutics of identity politics in Andorran contemporary curatorial praxis. But then again, on second thought, maybe that discussion is best left to the art-world and its experts. In other words, maybe topics beyond architecture-as-we-once-knew-it are best left to experts of those fields, and we should focus once again on building-architecture, even if that’s not as much fun as hanging out with artists.

Oh, by the way, please don’t misconstrue me. I have nothing whatsoever against artist-architects. I directed an architecture gallery for several years, and I exhibited in a biennale myself once –a memorable experience. I just have a problem with the idea of architecture becoming art writ large; of architecture becoming something that is increasingly rarefied, exceptional, and ‘special’; something limited to Saturday gallery-hopping, Sunday museum visits, or holidays abroad. Furthermore, I can’t help but suspect that architectural biennales, like so-called ‘starchitecture’, are being utilized by the powers that be as a form of compensation for urban and especially suburban environments that are mind-numbingly banal but highly profitable. Panem et circenses. An architecture that is ‘biennalized’, I fear, serves all too conveniently as a compensatory smokescreen behind which business as usual can continue unimpeded.

Whatever kind of ‘art’ architecture is, it should primarily be one that we can live and work in every day. I, for one, would never want to live in a city in which developers effectively design all the buildings, even if that city puts on the best architecture biennale in the world.

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