May 2012

Arts & Letters

A White Cube in a Black Box

By Deyan Sudjic
Denton Corker Marshall’s design for Australia’s new Venice Biennale pavilion

Ask John Denton, of the architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall, which he likes best of the score or so of national pavilions that fill the shaded landscape of the Venice Biennale gardens, and you get a wistful pause. He skips Russia’s Tsarist gingerbread villa, Britain’s Edwardian tearoom and Hungary’s ethnic fantasy, and talks for a moment about the dignified elegance of one or two of the more refined neo-classical structures built in the 1930s. I suspect that he has the chaste Danish pavilion in mind rather than the United States’ air-conditioned version of Monticello, or the sullen monumentality of Germany’s relic from the era of Albert Speer. He quickly settles on the memorable beauty of Sverre Fehn’s structure for the Nordic countries, built in 1962.

With exquisite sensitivity, Fehn co-opted the trees that stood on the site, and merged indoor and out, to create a design which has perhaps more architectural integrity than any of the other pavilions, and that includes James Stirling’s boat-like bookshop and Alvar Aalto’s not very distinguished building for Finland. Fehn’s pavilion has been the backdrop for countless fashion shoots and advertisements for up-market furniture and, on a hot day, its indoor garden offers a refuge from the art world mayhem.

But Denton reminds me that the Nordic pavilion is also notoriously problematic as a space in which to show art – its ostensible purpose. It is inflexible, turns quickly into a crowd-thronged corridor, and there is not enough wall space.

This paradox between architectural meaning and use sums up the constant struggle between content and container that has overshadowed the architecture of art spaces far beyond the confines of Venice and the world’s oldest contemporary art exhibition.

Take Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Guggenheim spiral. The New York museum may be one of the greatest landmarks of twentieth-century architecture, but it is also a deeply flawed art museum. A petition signed in 1956 by 21 of New York’s most celebrated artists, including Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, bluntly questions its suitability:

 

The basic concept of curvilinear slope for presentation of painting and sculpture indicates a callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference necessary for the adequate visual contemplation of works of art.

 

The Guggenheim building was, in Wright’s eyes, far more important than the art that it would contain. At that late stage in his career, he had no interest in compromise. The commission was a chance to get something off his chest. He had already sketched out a similar-looking form 10 years before, describing it as “an automobile objective”. The Guggenheim was his chance to build it.

He did not get things all his own way. James Johnson Sweeney was perhaps the first director of an art museum to have had to tackle an architect head on. Sweeney did what he could to make Wright’s design of the Guggenheim more hospitable for art, then moved on to try the same thing with the wing that Mies van der Rohe designed for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

 Sweeney invented the white-walled minimalist museum, the very opposite of the kind of space that Wright wanted. Sweeney despaired of Wright’s spiralling, sloping walls as a place in which to show serious art. Every attempt that Sweeney made to persuade Wright to modify the building was ignored. Wright responded by offering to find the museum a well-connected replacement for Sweeney, whom he described as “a picture hanger”. Sweeney, said Wright, was responsible for what he called a “malicious campaign to paint the museum white, thereby destroying its organic unity”.

 In the end, Sweeney had to wait until Wright’s death to devise a system of rods and cables to display flat rectangular canvasses on curved sloping walls.

It is a lesson that Denton had constantly in mind as he and his partner Barrie Marshall worked on the new design of the Australian pavilion. It had to be a place where art could take first place. And it had to be a place in which an enormous and unpredictable variety of forms and scales of art could be accommodated, from video and installation to work on paper and sculpture. Hence the snow-white 6-metre-high interior, which promises to do this in a dignified but unpompous way.

 At the same time, the Biennale gardens are no place for the architecturally characterless or the self-effacing. As much as art should be centre stage, every national pavilion is itself an exhibit. The Venice Biennale is a kind of culturally ambitious world’s fair cum expo, where the founding members all get to build a national pavilion that does its best if not to upstage its neighbours then at least to reflect well on the commissioning country. In the Venetian context, the concept of reflecting well has fluctuated over the decades. At present, it’s not size or bombast that counts. When Duilio Torres gave a facelift to the Italian pavilion in 1932, big certainly was better, and the language of Italian architecture was a kind of empty swagger. Twenty years later, quite different criteria applied when Carlo Scarpa created an exquisite sculpture court for the pavilion, and ticket booths for the entrance to the gardens. Meanwhile, Germany is still living down Ernst Haiger’s Nazification of its pavilion, when Arno Breker’s representations of muscled Teutons filled the interior and a stonemason carved the word ‘Germania’ on the façade. “Powerful, craning stone pillars support the front of the structure, whose main entrance is crowned with the emblem of the Third Reich, preparing guests for the new spirit of German art,” wrote Haiger at the time.

Every so often there are calls that the structure be demolished to exorcise the German trauma; Hans Haacke got as far as digging up the marble floor in 1993.

There has not been much in the way of pavilion building recently; the gardens have run out of space. When the chance does come, the best regarded designs are those that avoid making too much of national characteristics. Japan made an ethereal structure that seems to disappear into the trees. South Korea, whose pavilion is the most recent, was also careful to suggest modernity more than folklore. Credibility comes with avoiding the obvious.

Australia’s existing pavilion, a structure designed by Philip Cox and regarded as temporary ever since 1988 (it was put up in a hurry as a provisional effort to grab hold of the site before anyone else could build on it), is small and hard to get to. The entrance is through what is essentially a corridor between the neighbouring Czech and French pavilions. As well as being cramped, both for the showing of art and the nature of Biennale going, it has a character too insistent to accommodate some forms of art. As a work of architecture it has also come to be too closely identified with a reflection of the search for an Australian architectural identity that has its roots in the vernacular of the corrugated iron of agricultural sheds and sheep stations, which once seemed promising but in corporate hands has become as intrusive as over-oaked chardonnay.

Denton and Marshall have tackled the practical issues head on. Their design occupies more or less the same footprint – the site remains the same, but access has been turned round, so that finding Australia is no longer the problem it once was. And they have also addressed the need to deal with opening nights. Biennales are about the three months of regular visits, but they are also about parties. The new pavilion gets an outdoor terrace big enough for serious prosecco-swilling vernissages.

And in response to the Australia Council’s unstated but clear assumption that the architecture should reflect well on Australian culture, Denton Corker Marshall has proposed an exterior in South Australian black granite that is sophisticated and refined. The firm’s designs for Australia’s embassies in Tokyo, Beijing and Jakarta likewise suggest that the Australian national identity embodies these qualities.

Denton Corker Marshall’s combination of architectural quality and a sympathetic approach to art prevailed among an impressive-sounding shortlist of proposed designs for the new pavilion. Exactly how impressive these proposals were, we will not know for some months: the Australia Council is keeping them confidential so there is no distraction from attempts to raise the $6 million needed from the private sector to build the winner.

Due to open in 2015, the new pavilion also embodies some personal reflections by Denton Corker Marshall. As John Denton points out, much of the firm’s domestic architecture suggests a transplant of European modernism to an Australian landscape. But in Venice, they will bring Australian materials to a romantic Italian garden.

Drawing by Barrie Marshall of the winning Australian pavilion design. Image courtesy of Denton Corker Marshall.
May 2012

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