Architettura Biennale, Venice

Architecture has always felt to me a limited breed of art: tied as it is to functionality but often desperate to be more than just a good solution to the repetitive problems of how and where do we live. David Chipperfield – the convenor of the thirteenth Architecture Biennale – opens the citywide exhibition with a few thoughts on the theme: Common Ground. The most relevant for my outlook was his claim that architects have to be responsible – dealing practicality with functionality. Considering the thirst I have for contemporary art, I acknowledge that I see fine art as essentially limitless. Artists are irresponsible. That is why so many audiences catch them red-handed in an artistic act they d not agree with. Art has given them no specific purpose and so just by making objects that intrigue and thrill them, their very creativity often appears rebellious. It would however be wrong to think of architecture as abiding by conventions and restrained by rules and certainly, this year’s Biennale proves that accountability to society, to the state and to the patron, does not make architecture unimaginative.

Common Ground, in my eyes then, became about the traditions of architecture and the contemporary designer’s ability to innovate, and this was curated with a sharp but easy stylishness by Chipperfield and his team. Hung in the fifth gallery were four sets of 2 pairs of photographs of almost identical buildings. Two resonated; above the first was written, “Replica as diplomacy” and under the second “Architecture redeemed by its double.” Rejecting the idea that appropriation could be harmful, we are told that it is first flattering – like body language, we mimic who we most respect – and that the original is invariably sometimes bettered, which can only be to the good of excellence in design.

On the same wall, on the other side of the doorway, was FAT’s contribution entitled The Museum of Copying. Here the collaborated drew on the example of Palladio’s infamous Rotunda – some of which was cast like a sculpture and positioned in the centre of the gallery – which is probably the most copied piece of European architecture, arguing that not only is this appropriation of previous architecture not deceptive or sly and therefore innocent, but as a product, it allows the new viewer to ponder the art as well as the new. It is through this process of copying and adapting that architecture itself evolves. This mind set was shown to be the legacy of Adolf Loos who declared “no more original genii! Let us repeat ourselves again and again!” But is this not a painful thought? Does it not make you shiver just a little? For if copyrights are to artworks what human rights are to people, there is surely some injustice to creativity here?

I pondered on standing in front of ‘Copycat Empathy and Envy as Form-Makers’ – cabinets of collected items: photos of facades, memorabilia of iconic buildings, and the like. The curator expressed it perfectly: “copycat puts its finger on something difficult to define: the way that a family of objects can contain infinite variation, creating a rich common ground not dependent on originality but resemblance.” Suddenly it is the subtleties that mean everything. And suddenly, Venice couldn’t have felt like a more apt place to explore this theme.

Every street, square and canal – every single vista – is more or less the same in Venice, and yet we find each one beautiful, sometimes even breathtaking. This simply wouldn’t be the case if they were actually all the same. One thing we as a population love is consistency, but not uniformity – its tiresome and frustrating. A fellow student illustrated this best – if only by accident – when he described the area of his flat: the ghetto of Venice as being different from the rest of Venice. Yet on my probing questions, could not pinpoint anything that was different to what we all know of generic Venezia. Here then, is my lesson of architecture: it’s not to be judged like art.

Visiting the Biennale could not come with a higher recommendation. I couldn’t have been more impressed, inspired and allured by contemporary architectural design. While the debates of originality were explored as though architecture is always guilty of monotony, what I found in each gallery was continually expected and exciting.

Image credit: All photos taken by myself.


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