July 2018

Arts & Letters

Two worlds at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale

By David Neustein

Inside the Australia pavilion. © Rory Gardiner

The consumption of space, land and habitat is Australia’s focus at the world’s pre-eminent architecture event

In Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo entertains the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan with stories of the many exotic cities he has visited in his travels. One of the twinned cities of Valdrada, for instance, is built on the shores of a lake, with everything that exists above duplicated in the other city reflected in the waters below. “Valdrada’s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image,” writes Calvino. Spoiler alert: eventually Marco Polo reveals that each and every one of the strange and fantastical cities he has described is actually an allegorical version of Venice. The adventurer’s stories add up to a composite portrait of a city so complex and improbable that it requires an entire atlas to encompass it.

Invisible Cities suggests that Venice is not a singular place but rather the embodiment of an endless multitude of other possible places. Perhaps this is why the city remains the venue of choice for a biannual gathering of architectural designers and thinkers. Now in its 16th edition, the Venice Architecture Biennale (until November 25) brings together many of the world’s most famous and important architects, along with a diverse cross-section of contributing nations and institutions.

Australia’s place in this international forum has a complicated past. We had no national pavilion of our own until 1988, when a temporary structure designed by Philip Cox was hastily erected in the Giardini (Biennale gardens). Australia’s first official exhibition opened at the 5th Architecture Biennale in 1991, but no exhibitions were held at the 6th, 8th or 9th Biennales, and regular support from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and the Australia Council for the Arts was only secured in 2006. In 2013 the Australia Council opted to demolish the temporary pavilion, which was replaced in 2015 by a permanent one designed by Denton Corker Marshall. While this new building has been touted as the Giardini’s first 21st-century structure, Australia is also the only nation to have demolished and replaced its own pavilion.

Australia’s difficulty in formalising its representation at the Biennale, and the public debate that resulted in the recent replacement of our pavilion, are indicative of long-running contention regarding our architecture’s international image. Much like the mirrored cities of Valdrada, there are two opposing schools of thought about how Australian architecture is best disseminated in Venice and elsewhere.

One school closely follows the example set by Glenn Murcutt, who is not only our most internationally renowned architect but also, as chair of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize’s judging committee, one of global architecture’s most influential figures. The singular clarity of Murcutt’s built work has always been linked to the uniqueness and expansiveness of the Australian landscape. Many other Australian architects have shaped similar narratives around their work in an attempt to emulate his success.

Adherents to the other school of thought would like to dispel romantic and reductive notions such as Murcutt’s “touch the earth lightly” mantra by pointing out that few Australians actually inhabit Murcutt-style bespoke pavilions in idyllic wilderness settings, that Australia is in fact one of the least dense but most highly urbanised countries on earth, and that inclusion of the land’s traditional owners remains unresolved. While they are generally less celebrated abroad, there have always been architects who see the benefit of exploring such realities in an international context, adding their stories to the prevailing mythology.

Due to this ideological divide, visitors to this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale will hear compelling stories about two very different Australias. One is a country of thoughtful, considered architecture built in absolute harmony with the landscape. The other Australia has the highest rates of land clearing in the developed world. Together, these seemingly incompatible tales provide an accurate portrayal of contemporary Australia and its disparate architectural endeavours.

In 2018, Australians have a rare level of visibility at the Venice Biennale. For the first time since 2004, Australian practices have been selected to participate in the curators’ main exhibition. Another Australian features prominently in the Vatican’s much-heralded debut installation. Then of course there is the exhibition in the Australian pavilion, curated by a Melbourne-based architectural practice and presenting 15 architectural projects from around the country.

Hailing from Victoria and Tasmania respectively, John Wardle Architects ( JWA) and Room 11 are deserving recipients of the invitation to take part in the curators’ main exhibition. The two practices have recently been responsible for some of our most significant public and private buildings, for which they have garnered numerous awards and accolades. Presented with an open brief, both have chosen to address the geographical distance that divides Europe and the antipodes, with each attempting to create a poetic connection between Venice and the Australian countryside.

Portals, scopes and viewfinders are recurrent motifs in JWA’s work, so it was natural that this fascination would continue in Venice. Incorporating mirrored panels by artist Natasha Johns-Messenger and atmospheric videos by Coco and Maximilian, JWA’s Somewhere Other is a three-dimensional device that offers glimpses of picturesque interiors and bucolic landscapes. Built in Geelong and reassembled in Venice, the installation doubles as a caravan-sized example of the practice’s highly crafted and often geometrically elaborate work. Somewhere Other conveys a preoccupation with detached houses in remote locations, omitting the apartment buildings, office blocks, libraries, schools and galleries that are the practice’s main output.

As anyone who has seen the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park’s dramatically coloured glass walls can attest, Room 11 is interested in framing and cinematic effects. You Are Here, its contribution to the Biennale, consists of a video projection that runs in a long panoramic strip along one wall of an otherwise lightless room. Featuring several minutes of languid scenery, including grass moving in the wind, water lapping at a jetty, and mirrored windows overlooking an expanse of snow, the video reveals little about the practice’s actual work. It is curious that Room 11 has opted not to showcase its intriguing current projects such as the MONA Heavy Metals Lab, which brings visitors into close contact with a polluted waterway via a spectacular partially submerged platform.

Perhaps the most anticipated event at this year’s Architecture Biennale was the first-time involvement of the Vatican. In a move befitting one of the world’s most rich and powerful institutions, the Holy See decided not to merely stage an event or exhibition, but to invite 11 international architects to construct full-size, semi-permanent chapels within the previously inaccessible monastic garden of San Giorgio Maggiore. Sean Godsell’s chapel commission provided an ideal opportunity to experience why his work is so revered in Australia and widely published worldwide. The Melbourne architect has created some of our most impressive and iconic buildings, including the Peninsula House and RMIT Design Hub; his monolithic totems attest to an uncompromising mastery of materials. But while Godsell is best known for making singular objects that react to the vastness of the Australian landscape, his work seems less assured within the confines of a cultivated garden. Resembling a gold-lined shipping container that has upended and washed ashore, the design appears more a utilitarian response to logistics and transit than a joyous affirmation of nature and spirituality.

This year’s Australian exhibition draws attention to the continual consumption of space, land and habitat. Curated and designed by the Melbourne-based architects Mauro Baracco and Louise Wright in collaboration with artist Linda Tegg, Repair offers a window into the anthropocentric environment of the near future. In an inverted Biosphere-type experiment, a garden of fragile plants struggles to survive beneath an array of bright white lights, within the mostly windowless box of the Australian pavilion. It’s an arresting, seductive and melancholy scene.

Transported to Italy as seeds and grown in a San Remo greenhouse, the 10,000 plants embody more than 65 species of Western Plains Grasslands indigenous to south-east Australia. According to the curators, “only 1 per cent of this plant community remains from pre-European settlement times, having been removed through urbanisation, agriculture, grazing and industrial land use”. Mounded in the centre of the room in felt pots, the plants form a fragrant, flowering hillock that re-creates the natural landform prior to the Australian pavilion’s reconstruction. Speaking at the exhibition’s opening, Baracco delighted in having encouraged a variety of local fauna to reoccupy the site, claiming that “you can already find frogs, butterflies, lizards and birds inside the pavilion”. Repair is intended to remind us that every new building necessitates the displacement of what was there before, be that a natural or cultural landscape, and that architects have an opportunity – if not an outright obligation – to seek to reinstate what has been displaced.

Ranging in scale from private cottages to public buildings and vast urban terrains, 15 architectural projects were selected by the curators to exemplify this reparative approach. Collectively, these projects represent some of Australia’s foremost contemporary architects and are worthy of prolonged engagement. But while the projects are comprehensively illustrated and explained in an accompanying exhibition catalogue, the way in which they are displayed within the pavilion is less illuminating. Every 10 minutes the LED lights suddenly snap off, and large-scale projections play across two walls. Plunged into darkness, visitors hush and freeze in place while slow-moving imagery of aerial landscapes and architectural spaces floats by, with no identifying text or audio commentary. Eventually the lighting is restored and the garden scene reappears. Given that Repair offers a thoughtful and timely refutation of the myth that Australia is blessed with “boundless plains” of pristine wilderness, it would be especially unfortunate if the image of a picturesque landscape were all that its audience retained.

While guided by differing approaches and philosophies, all of our representatives in Venice have sought to satisfy a perceived international demand for sublime Australian landscapes and scenic architecture. Ultimately, what distinguishes these architectural visions is the extent to which they simplify or complicate prevailing narratives, perpetuating tourist-poster imagery or embracing the country’s networked, diverse and highly urbanised reality. This political divide is not unique to Australia, but instead a rift that runs through the entire Biennale.

FREESPACE, the theme chosen by overall Biennale curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Ireland’s Grafton Architects, celebrates how architecture creates space for social interaction. In their manifesto, the curators envision that “FREESPACE can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived”. Such spaces rarely exist beyond enclaves of extreme privilege: the 71 projects presented in the main exhibition predominantly depict high-cost public buildings produced by established Northern European architects. Furthermore, the space of the Biennale itself is anything but free. Australia is just one of 29 nations with a dedicated national pavilion, while others are required to rent space in other Biennale venues or the surrounding city. Many nations, including India, South Africa and New Zealand, are not represented in the current Biennale at all.

That the Biennale can be something of an echo chamber is encapsulated by its curators’ dubious claim that “FREESPACE provides the opportunity to emphasise nature’s free gifts of light – sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials – natural and man-made resources”, as if access to all of these “gifts” were universal, abundant and uncontested. This claim is forcefully disabused by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman’s installation in the American pavilion, which examines how the border wall between the US and Mexico bisects natural environments and ecosystems, impeding flows and creating unequal access to resources on either side. Similarly, Israel’s exhibition identifies the strategies of segregation, mediation and control that govern the use of holy sites claimed by multiple religions, while the Netherlands pavilion speculates about the societal effects of changing labour practices and automation.

While Australian architects might imagine themselves on the periphery of global discourse, this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale demonstrates just how close to the core they are. FREESPACE calls to our attention the existence of two worlds, one above and one below: the first a place of calm and optimism, and the other its anxious reflection. However distant and illusory the Biennale might seem, this divided world offers a perfect reflection of the global present.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

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