Architecture at the Venice Biennale

September 2004

Wilkinson Eyre-Reflections; Guardian - Pods and Monsters by Jonathan Glancey

The building proposed by Wilkinson Eyre - seen by the Crystal Palace stakeholders' forum and featured on the BBC, London website - has had a new airing at the Venice Biennale.


In addition to exhibiting works in the Arsenale at the IX Venice International Architecture Biennale this year (see Guardian article below), Wilkinson Eyre has created a special installation in the Padiglione Italia. Invited by Director Dr Kurt Forster to explore an architectural idea by conveying the process of its evolution, 'Reflections' will have the practice's design ethos "Bridging Art and Science" as its theme, complementing the 2004 Biennale's overall theme of Metamorphoses.

'Reflections' will take place at the Padiglione Italia Room 29, La Biennale di Venezia, from the 12 September to 7 November. Wilkinson Eyre will also be exhibiting its scheme for Crystal Palace and the Bridge of Aspiration, Royal Ballet School, London at the Venice Arsenale, Giardini della Biennale.

Pods and Monsters

The Venice Biennale is bursting with blobs, gimmicks and computer-aided design. But there's no substitute for imagination

by Jonathan Glancey

The Guardian, Monday, 13 September 2004

Few architects have transformed their cities so much for the better as the stonemason-turned-architect Andrea Palladio did in Venice 500 years ago. It is hard to turn one's back on this city-on-water, basking in the summer sunshine, and plunge into the largely obscurantist national pavilions and dark dockyard exhibition venues of the ninth Architecture Biennale. Not least because the theme of this year's show is metamorphosis: how contemporary architecture is bursting out of the chrysalis of rectlinear (Palladian) design into something more fluid.

Computer-aided modelling, new materials and ways of building have something to do with this. So, perhaps, does our collective fear of what we often, if wrongly, perceive to be the puritanical zeal of modernism and the corsetting restraints of an older architecture that, in hock to Euclid, Plato and Palladio, has made our towns and cities elegant and worthy, but, for a brave new blob-crazy generation, a little dull. The trouble is, as the biennale proves, letting architecture off the rational hook is rarely wise in practice. In the hands of real artists, sure; in those of designers who appear to be playing compulsive teenage computer games, forget it.

What the computer cannot provide is imagination. Nor can it create the poetry found in the new Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Science in Niigata, Japan. Here, in conditions hostile to human life for parts of the year, the Tokyo-based husband and wife team Takaharu and Yui Tezuka have created something very special, a hard-pressed building that adorns the landscape it invades. A compelling model in the Corderia captured the museum's snake-like, superficially rusted steel structure feeling its way through a mountainous forest landscape. Each winter the building is covered by prodigious snowfall; so exaggerated is the difference between that and the summer heat in Niigata that the museum's structure expands by at least 20cm. Huge picture windows offering what must be captivating views from the museum, which is also a scientific laboratory, do not fall out when the building stretches. Each custom-made window weighs 4,000kg, costs about £400,000 and stays firmly put. Snow makes the Matsunoyama Museum special; so does common sense, and a sense of place.

Few of the wackier designs on display in Venice will ever, when built, need to cope with such extreme conditions. Equally, few appear to want to demonstrate how ultra-modern buildings might fit happily into existing urban settings. Far too many are about showing off: gimmickry is very much of the moment. On show in the Corderia, for example, is a design for a museum that looks like a mechanical hedgehog, a glum blob covered in keep-away-from-me steel prickles. Elsewhere, there is a display of OTT designs for a gamut of buildings encapsulating an "Absolute Internet/Non-Stop City" of the near future. One for Tokyo, or the happening Thames Gateway, perhaps, but not for anyone who loves architecture or cares for cities. Then there are laser-cut architectural models, meant to represent brave new successors to yawn-making Palladio churches and basilicas, that would sell just as nicely, in fact rather better, as ranges of modern lampshades for Ikea, or jewellery in Ratners.

But there is also sensitive work here, even on a heroic scale, that demonstrates how modern design, coupled with computers and shot through with a modicum of sensuality, might yet transform our cities for the better. A public park for Barcelona in which trees, steps, pathways and auditorium benches blend seamlessly into each other, designed by London-based Foreign Office Architects, is a model of its kind. So is the new wave-like Paul Klee Museum, under construction in Bern, by Renzo Piano's Building Workshop. Even such an energetically playful design as Wilkinson Eyre's Zeppelin-like New Crystal Palace might yet find its place in a suitably ambitious public park.

So much of the new computer-gone-haywire architecture is silly and redundant that it seemed a pleasure, at first, to stroll into the biennale gardens and come across the show on display in the Belgian national pavilion. This looks, in film mostly, at the city of Kinshasa in the Congo. Here, colonial Belgian architecture has yielded to later generations of tin sheds and mud compounds and buildings. The horror, the horror, an architect might say, but not the Belgians curating this show. What they appear to be saying is that a city may well be able to get by without any of our conventional notions of architecture, whether Palladian, modern movement or computer-generated whoopee.

The biennale proves that letting architecture off the radical hook is rarely wise in practice

After a bout of visual indigestion brought on by all that digital metamorphosis, it was tempting to go with the Belgian flow. Sadly, a few key sentences in the accompanying text dampened my enthusiasm. Kinshasa is essentially architecture free, I was told, not because its people live in great poverty, but because they believe in "building their bodies into a state of beauty and perfection" instead. "Indentity is expressed corporeally, through dress and dance" and the "physical body with its specific rhythms thus determines the rhythms of the city's social body and generates the relational networks through which urban space is shaped". Whoever wrote this seems to be saying that these African chappies have a natural sense of rhythm that's great for dancing and drumming, but God forbid the idea of them training to be anything as sophisticated as an architect.

Thank goodness for good old British inclusiveness. The British Pavilion, curated by Peter Cook, is a happy, and well-crafted celebration of the diversity of really good architecture. A chaste and newly consecrated Cistercian monastery in Bohemia by John Pawson jostles gently for attention with a delightfully organic house by Kathryn Findlay, a priapic tower by Future Systems, a solid green office block by Caruso St John and the hedonistic pleasure of Ron Arad's tantalising, super-modern hotel, straddling the chasmic interior of Battersea power station, boasting horizontal "lifts" and bathrooms that can be opened to the elements.

For rock-solid modern architecture, the Spanish and Swedish-Norwegian-Finnish pavilions are the ones to head for at Venice. For irony, the Japanese pavilion - like a toy shop stuffed with Godzillas eating trains and school-girl soft-porn - is hard to beat. The Brazilians provide political commentary, while examples of how to fit small, intelligent new buildings into the panorama of everyday suburban landscapes are shown at the German pavilion.

Back at the Corderia, the Estonians have put on a comic, strangely delightful display of the "outhouses" local architects have designed in many guises as necessary appendages to their rural cabins. One, made of glass (opaque, thankfully) and lit by candles, stands proudly in a field of snow. I am not entirely sure why, but this curiously winning display of a practical and fundamental architecture outdid much of the extraordinarily pretentious computer guff on show in Venice.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Main photo by David Levene

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16/9/04 Last Updated 16/9/04