Dennis Broe critically reviews the 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice.
Free Space: A Place for Creativity or a Hollowed Out Marketing Concept
This year, the Venice 2018 Architecture Biennale, the once-every-two-year exposition of architects, architectural firms and nations, takes as its organizing principle the concept of free space. This is defined loosely by the curators as the generosity of the architect in working with nature’s gifts of light, air and gravity, to give shelter to our bodies and lift our spirits.
If this sounds like architechy speak, that’s because it is. The language is a way of ignoring the contemporary conditions under which an ever greedier capitalism forces and shapes the way architects work, often designing private spaces for the super wealthy or, as happened recently the collapse of the Genoa bridge, designing public spaces that don’t work.
The curators, Dublin architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, are guilty of their own obfuscation, adopting the concept of “the earth as client.” So, no more Mother Earth of the indigenous as summoned up in the Canada exhibit – now the earth itself is fit into the neoliberal framework of development, where all these natural ingredients are for sale. Clients of course can not only be satisfied, they can also be cheated, sued, and abandoned for other wealthier clients, so the concept doesn’t put the earth in a very good position – but does reflect the modern neoliberal ethos.
The concept Free Space in actuality suggests the limited amount of space left over after capital has had its way: what Bertolt Brecht called the nooks and crannies of capitalism. Neoliberalism is all about filling in those nooks and crannies, both physically through the marketization of land, air, and water and in mental space, through the colonization of consciousness.
Free space, rather than expanding, is being closed down by neoliberal capitalism, and that is a fundamental issue often not addressed in the Biennale. The Luxembourg pavilion did it best, noting that only 8 percent of the country was currently in public hands, the rest being private, and constructing a thin corridor in the middle of the pavilion taking up 8 percent of the space in the exhibition which the spectator walks down to give the sense of this confinement.
The result of this privatization is that architects, in order to best use the limited space left to them, must build upwards. So the pavilion is taken up with all kinds of ingenious building patterns which also in their own way are a cry for help and give a sense of how architects working in public spaces are confined.
The Biennale translates the concept of Free Space into several languages, and it is the Indonesian reworking of the concept that gives it a more dynamic and living aspect. Here, Free Space is defined as “a place for all.” Too often in the main exhibition, however, free space is simply jargon for a formal application of spatial principles that effectively excludes the social, political and economic formations in which the work is being done.
Again this year, as in 2016 with the earthquakes in central Italy, reality intervened and cured the neurosis, as Freud would say. Or in this case, exposed it. That is, in the middle of this wealth of architechy speak, the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed. More than 35 people plunged to their death, and the city’s economy has been devastated, as the bridge links the city to the harbor and is a key to travel to the South of Italy.
The neoliberal idea of the state outsourcing to far more efficient private firms has been called into question. The collapse of what was seen at its inauguration in 1967 as the symbol of Italian modernity, a sleek structure that seemed to be light as air, was perhaps due to the use of reinforced concrete, a material that was thought even at the time to last perhaps 40 years, but not the 80 to 100 years most bridges are expected to endure.
Other Morandi bridges in Venezuela and in Sicily in have also either collapsed or are in danger of collapsing. The company the maintenance of the bridge was outsourced to – Autostrada, a subsidiary of Benetton, the streamlined clothes company which now looks much more mercenary than its projected image – has now had their communication devices seized by the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor wants to know why the company ignored numerous reports claiming the bridge was unsafe, including one in September 2017 which predicted the collapse of pillars 9 and 10, which ere the culprits in the actual collapse.
The business press last week, in the wake of the anger of Italian citizens at the company and the government for its faith in neoliberal outsourcing, counselled moderation, urging people to not get too angry at the whole architect/state/corporate complex which led to the collapse – though 20 families of the victims banded together and refused a state funeral as a sign of its culpability.
Standard and Poor’s, rallying to the company’s defense, warned that a huge bill for the damages could wreck the company and forestall repairs to the bridge. The new populist government meanwhile, influenced by its far right front with the Northern League, was too preoccupied with holding migrants hostage to care.
Needless to say, this complex web of issues was mostly absent from a Biennale that is desperately in need of expanding its reach beyond architechy speak, to address a populace that if they were engaged might be flocking to the show. As it is, the show is mostly for architecture students. Along with the neoliberal redefinition of no space as free space, the Swiss Pavilion which won the award as best national exhibition was a rounded “user-friendly” non-hierarchized house with sometimes tiny doors and rooms to accommodate all family members. The viewer in this so-called “free space”, however, is put in the position of real estate buyer, touring a house that is for sale. This is much more privately rented or bought space, rather than free space.
Similarly, with the at-first-audacious idea in the British Pavilion of the pavilion being entirely empty with an outside staircase leading to an equally vacant roof where 4 o’clock tea was served. Again, what was summoned up below was an unfurnished apartment, with the viewer treated as renter or real estate speculator. The view at the top was an imperial one of Venice – one former empire looking out over another.
There was also much left out that a more daring and less rigidly formal definition of free space might have encompassed. The French pavilion was about reclaimed urban spaces – reclaimed CentQuatre, a rap and cultural space that is overflowing with creativity. But the real story of French free space is the ZADs, the environmental zones of defense, one of which is currently being dismantled. These are examples of actual anarchist experiments in how to conceive new kinds of spaces formally and culturally, and there was not a word of these zones, which are located outside the state-corporate nexus.
Nevertheless, there was much to like. My prize goes to “Unceded: Voices of the Land”, the Canadian Pavilion turned over to First Nations, and about applying indigenous architectural principles to contemporary building. These principles begin with the idea that architectural form is inspired by the spirit of nature (picked up satirically outside the exhibition in Dalya Luttwack’s striated red iron plant, termed the first tropical mangrove in Venice, a result of displacement due to global warming). The indigenous pavilion reminds us that we all have a shared responsibility in regards to the land – the actual commons, not Client Earth.
The Russia Pavilion took up the ecological theme by validating the country’s romance with energy saving railroads. It included an imaginary film of a train trip to Vladivostok with the viewer watching out the window and the musings of famous Russian train travellers of the past, including not only Lenin and Trotsky but also Moma’s Alfred Barr, and the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Likewise, the Slovenian exhibit, a persistent fountain in a place where frequent floods occur, discussed that country’s relation to water, access to which is a constitutionally guaranteed right.
The US and Israeli pavilions, which were located next to each other, signifying their position of alignment as empire and chief client state, both had a thoughtful exhibit. The Israeli pavilion discussed the concept of Status Quo around the Holy Land, showing in matching videos how Jews and Muslims quickly set up and break down the shared space in Hebron of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. In these contested religious spaces, the exhibit argues, status quo is a way of maintaining equilibrium, although the exhibit elides the way that the status quo is being disrupted in the wake of Trump’s Jerusalem relocation of the US Embassy, and the new Israeli policy officially making Palestinians second class citizens.
The US Pavilion ,whose topic is Dimensions of Citizenship, takes a somewhat critical view of Trump’s anti-immigration and wall-building. It notes the similar geographical region around where Trump’s wall would go and documents the desire of the people on either side of the wall to cooperate. Elsewhere, a colonial aspect of the exhibition shows the US expanding into space mining, a part of the Musk and Bezos race to privatize space, in abrogation of a 1967 treaty prohibiting national appropriation of materials on other planets.
Both the Belgium and Greek pavilions returned to the concept of free space as that of the Greek forum, a place of free exchange of ideas. The Belgium exhibition simply recreated the forum in blue, with sound vibrations. It suggested that this return to an actual democracy in Brussels, the capital of the EU, was needed in light of the blatantly undemocratic way EU institutions and the European Central Bank now behaved. The Greek reconstitution of the forum was an ideal spatial reimagining of a university as more open exchange of ideas, against the current enclosure of the university as simply neoliberal thinktank.
Public housing as both success and failure was the subject of two exhibits. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibit remembered Robin Hood Gardens, a public housing complex destroyed under Thatcher so that the area could be declared a free enterprise zone for more profitable development. The Star Apartment complex in LA, home to 102 homeless artists and city dwellers, with each apartment individually designed, was also the subject of an exhibit.
Finally, much developing nations’ architecture designated itself around the concept of informal space, with one Chinese exhibit noting how people’s existing spaces around laundries, gardens and urban growing might be maintained. An Egyptian exhibit suggested that if in slums the problems of sewage and clean water were solved, the people’s housing would be beautiful.
Finally, an architecture firm presented an exhibit of Bangladeshi women using their own sense of creating abundantly coloured garments to clothe themselves, and sell them, instead of working for pennies for global corporations. This critque of commodification was called “This is not a shirt”, and it also replicated the tiny shacks these women live in with newspapers for wallpaper, with a television as their only solace and sole piece of furniture. Their free space must be carved out of taking back their own means of making a living.
This is Bro on the Art World Beat reporting from the Venice Architectural Biennale. I’ll be back next week with a report on this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.
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