Venetian Mirror

In “Le Rouge et le Noir” Stendhal famously wrote that the novel was a mirror carried along the highway, reflecting at times the blue skies and other times the mud of the road, a sentence that soon became a banner for realism in literature. This 13th Venice architecture Biennale directed by David Chipperfield, could be proposed as a version of Stendhal’s passing and, in principle, innocent mirror.
Chipperfield´s mirror locks on very diverse places, always relevant: this is one of the most inclusive Biennale to the date, conveying in its kaleidoscopic character a quite complete vision of the many open fronts of today’s architecture, from the most personal researches to the very militant or committed.
The theme of this Biennale “Common Ground” appears well intentioned and general, emphasis being made on shared aspects and collaboration. At the exhibition this will have multiple readings:

One of its poles explores the common ground of the practice and history of architecture itself. The profession is understood as a cumulative, fertile and dense discipline, its own continuity becoming then the shared territory. Here we would place the very beautiful drawings from restoration works of Mario Piana in Venice, or the recovery by OMA of public architecture made by civil servants during the sixties and seventies.
In this first “intradisciplinary” group we could include the profound dialog of the Irish Grafton Architects with the Brazilian master Mendes da Rocha and the intriguing room showing construction details in half scale turned into dialoging totems by Toshiko Mori. And finally I would highlight the tridimensional exploration on the theme of the copy that Cino Zucchi displays in “Copycat”, an elegant taxonomy on the recurrence of form.

At the other end of the specter we find exhibitions that document free initiative and emerging processes of collective citizen action. Claiming the transformation of our cities, these projects, between dialog and subversion, invite us to rethink de definition of public and private.
Here we can place the golden lion winning project “Torre de David”, the record of the occupation by the homeless of a banking headquarters skyscraper in Caracas, portrayed in a direct and vibrant manner by Urban-Think tank and J. McGuirk. Also the “Spontaneous interventions” presented by the United States Pavilion and “the banality of good”, a very political installation on urban dynamics by Crimson Architectural Historians.

But somewhere between the sky of a self absorbed profession, and the mud of compromise and urgency, this Venetian mirror succeeds in overcoming the dichotomy between romanticism and realism. It then reflects the territory where both ends meet, precisely the horizon line, the common ground of architecture. On this territory stand both the Japanese and the Danish pavilions.
The pavilion curated by Toyo Ito documents the possibility and transforming power of architecture after the concrete catastrophe of the tsunami. Pragmatic and delicate, the project is necessarily contextual but paradoxically utopist in its social ambitions.

The Danish contribution, “possible Greenland”, assumes with decision the geopolitical challenge and the compromise with the history, the land and its inhabitants, through concrete projects, the outcome of collaborative efforts between Danish and Greenlandic teams ranging from the architecture of extreme conditions, postcolonial anthropology and visionary prospection. Both the Danish and the Japanese pavilion share an inaugural breath, engaged, propositive and optimist.

This chronicler watches the varied, successive and boundless Venetian mirror passing by and gets interested in almost everything. Some moving reflections though, persist in our retina:
“Pictographs”, the exhibition of Valerio Olgiati is apparently simple. A large white slab is locked in midair by the powerful columns of the Corderie of the Arsenale.
This rotund gesture prepares the occasion: on a white table a number of architects lay a sort of sediment of their creative world, through self chosen postcard-size images. Beyond the self-referential cultivated game, this reminds us of the presence of the artistic, esthetic and even autobiographic universe of each creator within the architectural process. An intense and unsettling phenomenon takes place: on this big table of clinical whiteness, these creators are on display, scrutinized, fixed in their horizontality. We are entering a very private territory. We watch the dissecting table, the aseptic laboratories of modern archeology. There remains the work, hard, insufficient and partial, of reconstructing something that once was living pulsion, creative flame.

We get similar uneasiness from the installation of Williams and Tsien, “wunderkammer” at the “Giardino delle Vergini”. In the garden, inside a small shed that awaits with its doors open, we find rows of shelves that perhaps once held garden tools. On the shelves, on the floor and even hanging from the ceiling we find boxes or trunks that each architect has filled or transformed at will. The result is a motley blow of colours, shapes, textures and even smells; powerful and very architectonic as an ensemble, when we wander from box to box, we also experiment a feeling of trodden privacy, of being somehow too close to the architect. Pigment bottles and medicines, old books and pictures, coffee grounds, bread, hallucinated sample boxes. Toyo Ito for instance fills his box with building debris. As if modern tomb riders had just left in haste, leaving the open boxes scattered about. The wunderkammer becomes ossuary and the effect, voluntary or not, is that of melancholy.

After the long enclosed “passeggiata” of the Corderie, with our gaze dense with appeals, the Biennale disperses towards the North under the open sky. We reencounter Venice and witness then the slow dance of three Portuguese architects with the city.

Siza and Souto de Moura meet again in this “Giardino delle Vergini” which, much like their careers, looks at the water and the city.
Souto de Moura’s intervention, smaller in size, stands at the periphery of the garden, by the water, leaving center stage to Siza, his old master. Part ship and part dock, the little sand color pavilion consists of a linear open corridor flanked by a low wall towards the garden and three openings of different proportions framing the view across the water. A virtuous exercise that stages the capacity of the architect to interpret the environment, through the dimensioning of openings and the election of views. We enjoy the pavilion mostly standing on it, but in the "vaporetto" on our way to the airport, it revealed also its precise and calm proportions from the waterside.

Alvaro Siza’s pavilion is essential and deeply contextual: he erects a wall, and with this act of a primordial marking off, sets in motion a reflection on the extramural and intramural condition and the scale of Venetian urban morphology.  What seemed to be a pavilion in the garden becomes a courtyard, because the bare walls surround and shelter two tall trees. We look towards the house but also from the house. The path along this broken red wall that shakes and surveys the terrain, reveals also Venice. Somewhere along the thick wall, we discover, flush with the ground, a small niche. Tiny shelter for bird or cat that suddenly floods the intervention with domesticity.

Not far from there, Aires Mateus place “Radix”, a reflection on weight and space, between pavilion and sculpture, which lies with ease within the naval-industrial world of the Arsenale. A volume made of oxidised steel partially hollowed, it shows in its interior a vaulted space of complex geometry with golden finish. In close dialog with the powerful archways of the  Gaggiandre, the docks designed by Sansovino in the XVI century, this red and golden big box leaning against the water conveys at the same time delicacy and weight, the rugged and the luxurious. Water reverberates on its shadow sides, while the direct impact of the sun on gold causes it to levitate: we witness a rare moment of esthetic intensity and historic vertigo.

(This text was commissioned by DAC, and slept at the bottom of some ones drawer until today).

Aires Mateus.