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Missing the Biennale – or not so much? The Essence of architecture lies on its crossable space

Architectural space is what makes a void into a place, the element that defines architecture is exactly what no exhibition can ever provide. Architect and writer Gianni Biondillo reconsiders

Venice Biennale Architecture

I don’t use to go to the Venice Biennale of Architecture every year. I come up with implausible excuses every time, I always find a reason not to drop by. That makes me the worst architect, I know. The Biennale is like a tax, obligatory, even just to have topics for discussion when one encounters a colleague. My luck is that I’ve been known as a writer for longer. I can basically afford not to go. I didn’t even go back when I used to argue with local technicians about work or when I used to muddy my shoes at worksites. I’m the problem, see, not the Biennale. The few times I find myself at an architecture exhibition – be it in Milan, London or New York – when I come out, I am red-faced, and almost ashamed to admit that architecture exhibitions, as such, bore me. What we go to see is not actually architecture but a likeness. There is no sensory experience of space, of the process, of materials, of the symbolic exchange. It is like an art exhibition where instead of art works on display there are critics’ reviews, or a film retrospective that exhibits screenplays in- stead of showing films. An incredible bore. You feel cheated. And it isn’t the curators’ fault, mind. The defect lies at the helm and there is no solution. All architecture exhibitions are forced to rely on other disciplines to express themselves – video, photography, installations –, and the actual architecture becomes the hole in the doughnut, the great absentee. Of the very few Venice Biennale exhibitions I visited, I remember the Venezuela pavilion by Carlo Scarpa, closed and abandoned, rather than the variations on the theme picked by the then curators and realized by the invited architects, which look more like contemporary art than architecture itself. 

There is a quote, sometimes attributed to different people (including Frank Zappa) that goes, «Writing about music is like dancing about architecture». It makes no sense. If you don’t experience music, you really cannot understand it. It is just the same with architecture. It was Bruno Zevi, in his Architecture as Space. How to look at Architecture, who explained that the essence of architecture lies in its crossable space, which can be perceived by all the senses. Friezes, moldings, symmetries, orders, facades. They are all things that come later. Architecture is first and foremost space. And there will never be any kind of photography that will be able to give me the same experience I get by walking through a work by Hans Scharoun or by Luis Barragan. The basic element that defines architecture is exactly what no exhibition can ever provide: the scale ratio between the person and space. 

biennale 3
Franco Fontana, Venice, Los Angeles, 1990

Venice Biennale architecture exhibitions

Architectural space is what makes a void into a place. Thus rendering it livable. Words, for a writer, are important. Inhabit comes from Habere, to have familiarity in (and with) a place. Living is a habit. But mind, even Habit, in the sense of a garment, has the same etymological origin: Habere, having with us, carrying around us, like a state of being. Basically, the home should be like a person’s garment, made to measure. It is no coincidence that anecdotes are often told about the relationship between architects and their clients. A conflictual relationship, when the sensibilities of one party and the other just cannot meet half- way. The viper that was Adolf Loos, for example, recounted that Henry Van De Velde not only designed houses but forced his wealthy clients to dress in keeping with his design. Including their slippers. The famous Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, a twentieth century masterpiece, was called with undisguised contempt by its rich owner Edgard Kauffmann seven springs cabin, due to the continuous leaks. And what about the psychodrama that arose around the erection of Farnsworth House? Ludwig Mies van de Rohe had designed a minimalist glass platonic solid on steel pillars. Doctor Edith Farnsworth, its owner, was embarrassed by the idea of walking around a house where everyone outside could see her. The battle between the two was solved with the de- sign of blinds, bills never paid, litigations, lawsuits and sexist slander about the woman attracted to and then betrayed by the genius. It is not a question of style. It is not because the houses of the Modern Movement, conceived as machines for living in (according to Le Corbusier), cannot evoke emotions. It can be seen when the designer and the client are one and the same, like in the more unique than rare case of Casa Cattaneo in Cernobbio.

Casa Cattaneo Cernobbio

The building was designed in the ultimate conditions of creative freedom for the young architect. Cattaneo, just graduated, had been given the land to build on without any restrictions and as he pleased. The home was designed in the minutest detail, with fanatical meticulousness. A sort of enormous prototype that was to show the poetic power of modern language, its feasibility, its intrinsic quality. Nothing was left to chance, all subjects were explored: the double height shop on the ground floor, opening out onto the city, the apartments on the upper floors, the terrace on the top floor overlooking the panorama of the lake. A design free from conditioning since it did not depend, as Cattaneo said himself, on ‘the tyrannical desire of clients. A masterpiece that was never repeated, since Cattaneo died very young. (I realized that architects either die extremely young, see Sant’Elia or Terragni, or very old, like the almost 100-year-old Giovanni Michelucci or the centenarian Oscar Niemeyer. Having passed my youth some time ago, I hope more and more to belong to the second category). All houses have a story to tell, a world. I often see all the things an apartment can tell me about who lives there. Everyday objects, furnishings, pictures or photographs on the wall. They dress us, represent us, like when we wear a garment. All houses, from the luxurious mansion to the rented bedsit, resemble the person who lives there. And here too the play on etymology can be useful. Person derives from Per Sonar, the wooden mask used to reinforce the sound of the voice in ancient theatre. The home is first of all the creation of an ideal environment, an ambience. Ambience comes from Ambire, namely to go around like air, or like the people we live around: when we live in a place, we wear a mask that gives an impression of ourselves to the world around us. Today, in a world of poor resources, living means inhabiting a sustainable, ecological house. And I must point out that Ecology comes from the Greek Oikos logos – ‘discourse about the home’: the study of the relationships between man and the living world. 

The homes we are – Luca Molinari Studio

Living in an ecological environment means talking about a home that can relate with the surroundings: and we are most familiar with the city. Luca Molinari in his The Homes That We Are talks about how teleworking has cancelled the difference between the home and the office, to the point where anywhere can be a place for production, and how the reaction to increasingly alienating and solitary home working is that many white collar workers colonize coffees shops and public places with their computers, working yet still keeping in contact with people, with reality. We are domesticating public spaces. Some cult objects from the modern home, the twentieth century middle class home, are perfectly useless to the new generations. Do a test (I did so with my children): between the television and the computer, the computer wins. Between the computer and the smartphone, the smartphone wins. Everything is getting smaller, ethereal. Today, the necessary, indispensable infrastructure in all homes, in all cities, is Wi-Fi. Does this mean we won’t have any more furnishings in our homes? Of course not. We wear the ‘habit’, and we have an anthropological limit: our bodies. Ergonomics teaches us: interacting with technology means making it usable. Customizing it. I think this is the task for future design: enable the body and technology to interact in a personal way. We don’t need to have ten, twenty or fifty standard product types that each one of us picks from a catalogue.  We have to design production processes that can adapt to the needs of each individual. Everyone will have their own chair, their own bed, their own wall unit. It can already be done. It is what is called today industry 4.0. It is the future of a kind of manufacturing that forges new links with craftsmanship. A bespoke suit for each one of us. A home designed for each one of us. The future of home living will not be the same for everyone, as each one of us will decide how to live. Tailor-made.

IMAGE GALLERY

Venice Biennale of Architecture also known as Mostra di Architettura di Venezia is an International exhibition held every other year on even years in Venice, Italy, in which architecture from nations around the world is presented. It is the architecture section under the overall Venice Biennale and was officially established in 1980, even though architecture had been a part of the Venice Art Biennale since 1968. The main agenda of the Architecture Biennale is to propose and showcase architectural solutions to contemporary societal, humanistic, and technological issues. Although leaning towards the academic side of architecture, the Biennale also provides an opportunity for local architects around the world to present new projects. The Biennale is separated into two main sections: The permanent, national pavilions in the Biennale Gardens as well as the Arsenale, which hosts projects from numerous nations under one roof.

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