Standing at the rope-laden front entrance to the Venetian Arsenale—a 16th-century peeling brick shipyard oozing dilapidated art-world charm—visitors to this years' Venice Architecture Biennale will experience a vision of unprecedented clarity. Celebrating the spirit of generosity in architecture, curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin-based firm Grafton Architects have cleared out the building’s 1,000-foot-long expanse. It’s a first in the history of the Biennale, which typically takes a perverse pride in conjuring a labyrinthine layout to break up that straight shoot.
But when that initial euphoria settles in, the readily forgettable nature of the work on display becomes disturbingly apparent. Hard-hitting conceptual work and impactful installations are ditched in favor of neat models, polished videos, and polite benches: the utopian ideal of architecture. Architecture’s messiness, its poetry, and the speculative and playful side of the discipline—so lauded in the curators’ opening essay and touched upon in seemingly every placard lining the work on display—is demoted to a peripheral status, as a rhetorical question, or a one-liner exhibition, like the Swiss and British pavilions, which respectively received the Golden Lion and an honorable mention within the international jury that took place last weekend.
The success of their simplicity, against the backdrop of polite unremarkability characterizing this year’s biennale at large, should come as a warning sign. The Venice Architecture Biennale is, by all accounts, the most significant architectural event in the world. It takes a special pride in its historic ability to hone in on the heartbeat of the discipline with near surgical precision. With its two most recent themes set on decoding political borders and mass human migration (curated by Alejandro Aravena of Elemental) and exposing the crisis of national identity in an increasingly globalized world (curated by Rem Koolhaas of OMA), the Biennale is our one opportunity, granted every two years, to suss out the state of the discipline and its place in current world events. Considering the dire state of both, we simply must do better in 2020.
With a set list of over 100 participating architects and 65 national pavilions, there are of course exceptions to the bland reality of Freespace: diamonds in the rough outer skin of mind-numbing okayness. I counted exactly two. They are not the recipients of any Lions, golden or otherwise—but they do share a key characteristic with this year’s winners: a sense of speculation. The most provocative exhibitions in Freespace were those that reflected the overwhelming uncertainty of our current political condition but chose to take a nosedive inward instead. They fumbled underneath the mad surface, and rather than holding a mirror up to it as a cunning one-liner (as did Britain and Switzerland), these exhibitions emerged from the eye of the storm with a new speculative future for architecture that contains that glimmer of optimism so coveted by Grafton. In the midst of the multiheaded hydra that is Freespace, the Greek and Scottish Pavilions were each a vision of clarity.
Each, because there were perhaps no two more opposite exhibitions in the entirety of the Biennale (if nothing else, it should be a red flag that the two national prize winners were carbon copies of the same one-liner approach). Whereas the British and Swiss pavilions enlisted the stately architecture of their national pavilions to do much of the talking—even while strategically lining them with banal rental home interiors, as in the case of Switzerland, or covering them in scaffolding, as with the U.K.—Scotland instead opted for the courtyard of a late 17th-century palazzo way across town for The Happenstance.
Everything down to the grassy field housing The Happenstance—which the curators spontaneously asked for and received when coordinating the rental of the building behind the sumptuous palace—represents the kind of playfully serious approach to architecture that the discipline so desperately needs, and which Freespace promised but largely did not deliver. As a “living library” with the “right degree of wrongs,” according to its curators, the architect Lee Ivett of Baxendale Architects and artist Peter McCaughey, everything in The Happenstance is left up to improvisation and open to intervention.
During my visit, I watch as a bunch of kids storm the L-shaped modular structure, some clambering atop its joyously colorful geometric walls, while others construct a new game with ropes. Several volunteer construction assistants, many of them students from the nearby university, stand by at the ready to bring the kids’ imaginations to life, while the more exhausted Biennale-goers take it easy in the lawn chairs provided. There are rumblings about a film screening and parade soon to come; but nobody seems to know what’s next, and that’s precisely the point.
While The Happenstance is a “free space” in its most literal sense, its political and spatial context within the Zenobio Palace (owned since 1850 by Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers of Venice) gets it closer to some of the biggest issues facing architecture today, from affordable housing for artists to globalization.
Back in official Biennale territory, the Greek Pavilion has just debuted The School of Athens. Curators Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser meet me for a tour of their sculptural intervention in the fresh, linen-white space. It’s a big leap from last year’s black box of video works. “Getting rid of the black paint was an exhibition in itself,” jokes Neiheiser as we enter into a multilevel landscape of idealized academic commons within the Greek National Pavilion. The School of Athens is comprised of 56 specimens of open and generous educational spaces, 3-D printed and stuck on poles. It’s a white-on-white world, and the effects are ghostly, making an immediate impact.
Organized without hierarchy, the models are scattered as randomly as a forest across the ambling floor of the pavilion, itself modeled after the steps in front of university buildings where students would congregate for lessons back in classical Greece (or to smoke and gossip before class today). Spanning 2,000 years of built and unbuilt projects, from Plato’s Academy in the olive groves of Athens to SAANA’s swanky Rolex Learning Center in Lusanne, Switzerland (2010). Some are instantly recognizable, while others provoke a curious sense of déjà vu, like the visual allusions to The School of Athens, the iconic Renaissance masterpiece by Raphael for which the exhibition is named.
Seeing an idealized 2-D space transformed into a 3-D sculpture is both exciting and confounding, and that’s just the half of it. For the “real” buildings, Argyros and Neiheiser, along with their students at the Architectural Association in London and the National Technical University of Athens who helped select these idealized commons, have chosen to include only publicly accessible space within their models. Teacher’s offices, bathrooms, and administration buildings have been removed from the models entirely, creating warped, half-familiar spaces that leave us questioning how we value public space within the academic commons.
“Architects tend to overemphasize efficiency when it comes to designing schools,” says Neiheiser. “Over the past two millennia we have seen universities retreating from cities and becoming insular, when we really ought to be focusing on how the university and the city can collide within the urban commons.” By revealing what’s invisible, The School of Athens triggers the speculative potential of the academic commons as a fundamentally public and social space.
Though flying under the radar of the awards ceremony, the Greek and Scottish pavilions have rescued the 2018 Biennale from a soulless jumble of hype and boredom. Both The Happenstance and The School of Athens make a case for a rare breed of speculative architecture that is rigorously optimistic and joyful, critical instead of pessimistic, intelligent but accessible, eye-catching and heartfelt. It is an architecture that believes in itself, and the future of the discipline. There are no one-liners—nor Instagram-friendly oversize doorknobs—in sight.