Wednesday, September 12, 2012

88. What is the Venice Biennale of Architecture?

 ...As well as addressing the academic side of architecture, the Biennale is an occasion where big-name architects and designers can showcase new projects, arranged in different pavilions, each with different themes. The Biennale is currently held in the Biennale Gardens.
-crowdsourced / WIKIPEDIA

...the Biennale offers an incredibly diverse and dense display of ideas and responses that aim to provoke us to reconsider the role of the architect and the ways in which we create public life for citizens of the contemporary environment.
-Linda Taalman / DWELL
The Venice Architecture Biennale is the world’s most important celebration of contemporary architecture.
The Biennale is a unique insight into what is happening in the architecture profession around the world at this moment in time.
-Jonathan Davies and Anna Meyer / DESIGN WEEK

If one did not know that the media constantly exaggerates, one could almost conclude ... that the Venice Biennale of Architecture really is the world’s most important architecture exhibition.
... let us not deny the truth. This event is an expensive danse macabre. In a city of plunder (an exhibition of plunder) hordes of tourists (architects) roll along broken infrastructure in order to satisfy their petit bourgeois desire for education (in the case of the architects: vanity, envy, schadenfreude, suspicions). Even the glamour that the visitors are supposed to feel is staid and faked by the media for whom a star architect is like a film star.
In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning.

If we are to accept a certain validity in Prix's remarks, it is important not to attribute special privilege to the Venice Biennale — it is only indicative of a more widespread political naivety in contemporary architecture, and the ineffectiveness of its various governing institutions. The failure, if you will, is endemic. However, unlike Prix, I don't think the starchitects are at the heart of the problem. I would prefer to lay the blame elsewhere.
-Jack Self / DOMUS

Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Wolf D. Prix came under fire for this attack (especially when it was realized he didn’t even set foot at this year’s Biennale). And yet, had he written this critique for any other Biennale, he wouldn’t have been so far off. The Biennale is, after all, an expensive affair of prosecco-filled parties and, often, inaccessibly esoteric exhibits
Prix hedged his bets that this Biennale, with its fluffy-sounding name, “Common Ground,” would be just like its precedents. Unluckily for Prix, it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the most politically-engaged Biennale yet.
...that is exactly what this year’s Venice Biennale was – and should be. Not just a display of architectural ingenuity but a “fresh look, from the [common] ground up, at what architecture really is.” Even if was at times reductive or idealistic, the Biennale grappled with our political reality, reflected our cautious optimism, and put forth the question of our decade: what purpose do we serve?

Vanessa Quirk / ARCH DAILY

Biennales by their nature are sprawling, skin-deep omnibus festivals, contrived above all for tourism and congenitally awkward as a medium for architecture...
It (This year's Bieannale) pays almost no attention to the developing world, to designers from Africa or China, and precious little to female architects, aside from Zaha Hadid, who, like Peter Zumthor, Renzo Piano, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi and a surprising number of the old boldface names, hogs much of the spotlight.
-Micheal Kimmelman / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Bieannale is a typical gossip place. "who slept with whom?,Who drank too much? Who is on their way down because they drank too much?"..."His last project wasn't very good, he must have been drunk all the time. Maybe he is going blind?" Its a lot of personal gossip.
-Kjetil Thorsen / SNØHETTA 

But the exhibition itself, despite that determinedly optimistic and wide-ranging approach, feels limited, exclusive, stiff, starched and a bit cloistered. And for a show that is so keen to question the value of architectural celebrity — Chipperfield writes in the catalog that he wanted it to "emphasize shared ideas over individual authorship" and reject "solitary and fashionable gestures" — this biennale includes an awful lot of stars, many of them longtime friends and colleagues of Chipperfield's.
Though Chipperfield makes a big show of casting a wide net with this biennale, mostly what he's caught with it are the kind of big fish immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the architectural scene of 20 or 25 years ago. The architects featured most prominently include Norman Foster (given two separate rooms to work with), Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, Peter Zumthor, Bernard Tschumi and Jean Nouvel.

Christopher Hawthorne / THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Saturday, September 1, 2012

87. You Don't Have to be Good Part 5: The Taxonomy of Architectural Fame

For a long time the diagram above represented how I understood the mechanics of famous architecture.

That all famous architecture was the result of good work that was well promoted. 

While this is more or less a nice truism, it is far from the norm when you look at the full scope of famous works.

The fact is, that like most neatly packaged truisms, it is an oversimplification of a vastly deeper and more complex reality.

A more accurate-to-reality diagram would begin to look something more like this

Because lets face it, not all architecture that is famous is also good: Some are and some are not.

There are a lot of famous architecture out there that are just plain deficient in a lot of respects, but because they are interesting to a few influential people and are well promoted, they receive a lot of attention in the press, and stand a better chance of getting singled out for awards and accolades.

So what do I mean when I say “good architecture” you ask?

As I mentioned in part I of this series, I had a teacher in college that once told me that in order to make really outstanding works, you have got to innovate; push the envelope and do something interesting or you have to go the way of Mies and raise the detailing and craftsmanship to a level of high quality.

However, I always thought that to be really good it should be a combination of the two. Like this:

However, what I have noticed after travelling and seeing more and more architecture both famous and non-famous is that there are a lot of works out there that are famous that is either interesting alone and are poorly crafted (like The New Museum or The Mountain Dwelling ) or conversely, there are others that are very well made alone but does little in the way of innovation (eg. the works of Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld).

So maybe my old professor was right after all, maybe it just needs to be one or the other...well kind of.

I say kind of because the other thing that I have noticed as well, is that I have never ever in all my life, come across any famous architecture that was not well promoted.

This is something the old guy never told us about. 


Do you think Mies, Corbu or Wright promoted their work?

Yes! Absolutely Yes! and fuck yeah!

The general exception (if you want to call it an exception) is where it was designed by an extraordinarily famous architect. In this case he or she does not really have to make that much of an effort to promote it because the press are usually all over it like a pack of hungry wolves. And if the press is writing about it, ta-da!... it is being promoted!

When you start taking individual works of architecture and begin to look at them through this paradigm, immediately it becomes much more interesting.

Take the mountain dwelling and the new museum for example.
In my view this is where they fit (space #2).

They both have interesting concepts and ideas, but they are constructed and detailed at a  commercial grade quality. So as you can see, I had to create an extra classification to properly define them. 

Both projects are also extremely well promoted, so it should come as no surprise that they are very famous. The lack of quality has no effect and does not tarnish the popularity or the reputation of the work.
And therein lies the essential flaw in this diagram - quality. Quality is no prerequisite for famous architecture.  It is optional and in most cases irrelevant.

As mentioned in part 3 of this series, unless the project specifically discusses quality in craftsmanship, detailing, or construction, this is a non-issue: It is the ideas of the work that takes precedence.

Mies, Pierre Chareau and say Louis Kahn’s work would generally fall in the overlap of quality detailing and interesting ideas.

Now before I could have finished that sentence I felt a massive scream in the universe. It was the voices of all the architects who believe Mies is boring. I hear you. I think his work is boring too in a lot of ways, but I also believe the idea of his work in itself and what he was aiming to accomplish is very interesting.

More importantly though, what I consider interesting really doesn’t matter in this diagram.
What matters is what the architectural community as a whole finds interesting and (as I will argue in a future series of notes) what matters supremely is what key influential members within this community believes is interesting. Form follows taste and so does celebrated works of architecture.

So if we take away this stuff about quality and say exactly what is meant by interesting then we get

You will also notice the addition of the “Celebrated Works” category. It confirms that it is the famous architecture which key influential members of the architectural community finds interesting that are the ones that wins awards and are celebrated. After all, who do you think sits on a jury and decide who will get the awards?

If you remember this line from note number 76 - (Predicting the Pritzker part 2- Take a lesson from Brad & Angelina), then then you will understand exactly where the Pritzker fits into this picture.

The Pritzker only celebrates the celebrated and gives more attention to the already famous. It does not advance architecture or humanity in anyway beyond creating mindless chatter in the hallways and online chat-rooms throughout the architecturally-interested world about whether the latest pick was worthy enough to be crowned America’s top star-architect.

The Pritzker picks it awardees almost exclusively from the architects who have already got a few buildings in this narrow sliver of celebrated works.

The other category that we have up there is Anointed Works. This is a rather strange area, it consists of works that key figures in the architecture community finds interesting and even though it is well promoted, for some reason or another it just does not have enough appeal to make it famous or celebrated.

This I will talk about next week in more detail with some real world examples.

Stay tuned.

Conrad Newel 
Liberating Minds Since August 2007