SPACE Magazine
SPACE Magazine

Peter Maxwell
If ‘Common Ground’, the theme of the Biennale, can be interpreted as a call for the wholesale revaluation of a discipline that has in some sense ‘lost its way’, then it is also a call for a re-analysis, even a re-establishment, of first principles. As such it is perhaps unsurprising that that most basic and originating of architectural units, the home, is an emphasis that runs through two of the most carefully considered national pavilions, the Canadian and the Japanese.

The theme of this year’s Biennale is partly a plea to an industry that has yet to find an effective response to a global downturn in which the failures of its product could be seen as both cause and symptom. Each story in the news is a local riff on an international problem. There are 100,000 new apartment blocks with no occupants in Chenggong, the Chinese government surprised that its penchant for development through instant urbanization isn’t matched by the population’s desire to live in a ghost town of concrete extrusions. Likewise, the American construction industry is yet to recognize that the single family home is no longer what is publically desirable or economically sustainable, despite the swathes of foreclosed homes that lie abandoned across the country.

While the events that provide impetus for Toyo Ito’s presentation at the Japanese pavilion, Architecture Possible Here? Home-for-All, originate from a natural, not man-made catastrophe, the response is certainly an attempt to work beyond the influence of architecture’s current market system. Greater than any loss of infrastructure, the tsunami of 2011’s destruction of personal property left a population bereft of the spaces in which to congregate, either as a community or individual families, that are vital for rehabilitation to begin. To address this issue effectively, Ito wanted to define a process that ‘transcended personal and professional individuality’, effectively escaping the cult of personality that can see such high-profile projects acting as a vehicle of architectural ego rather than a fulfillment of on-ground needs. Instead Ito invited forward three young architects, the ‘star’ stepping aside, to collaborate both together and with the citizens of Rikuzentakata on the production of a support center for those within the disaster zone.

This project places its emphasis on ‘primal themes’ in opposition to originality-obsessed individualism, as well as re-capturing the genius loci of an landscape now robbed of many of its significant features. The exhibition is a chronology, marked mostly by exploratory models and working notes, of the conversations engaged in by architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata as they sought to divine a building functionally and symbolically appropriate to its task. The structuring paradigm of the pine forest, much of which surrounds Rikuzentakata and with which the residents associate relaxation and recreation, but whose fallen trunks now also mix with the debris of human habitation, is the clearest result of their period of embedded consultation. In the re-erection of this lumbar a proficient metaphor has been found for a larger process of regeneration, one that is unequivocally of its place. The resulting Home-for-All continues in its construction as the Biennale continues in its discussion, and for once the fact that the architectural exhibitions object is definitively elsewhere is the very reason for the Japanese pavilion’s success.

If the Canadian pavilion’s display is a conceptually analogous exploration of home-making with an adherence to cultural context, its concerns are linked to very different kinds of rupture and reparation, namely those that accompany the increasing flows of human capital as they traverse a globe demarcated less by national boundaries than investment opportunities.

Canada accepts more immigrants per capita than any other country in the world and, while recent economic hardship has triggered a sharp rise in negative sentiment towards immigrants elsewhere, the country is still largely open to this mobile global population. Favorable immigration laws are tied directly to the positive economic effects migrants are perceived to have on the sparsely populated but richly resourced nation.

The pavilion hosts an investigation into how diverse cultural memories manifest themselves when settling within another country. This layering of memory over Canada’s rough topography creates a form of hybridity that can be inspiring to those new arrivals who work within its growing creative sector. An extensive competition process was used to select designers and architects who could associate with this mutative form of cultural transfer. These were invited to produce models that represent their own attempts at ‘dwelling’ within a welcoming but unfamiliar landscape, and to document the narratives that have informed their work.

Like the Japanese pavilion, Canada’s exhibition has had a lengthy process of gestation, with regional shows and discussions held to decide which participants would combine for the finale in Venice. Dissimilarly, gestation in this case holds far more significance than outcome, as the relevance of those dialogues does not translate as easily to the Giardini, a place where cultural memories don’t come so much to settle as to compete. This is not aided by the installation of a lackluster wooden event-scape, an exhibition platform that, conversely, finds it difficult to ‘dwell’ comfortably within the pavilion’s quixotic plan. There is a further irony in that the building itself was designed by the Milanese firm BBPR, part of Italy’s Second World War reparations. An Italian interpretation of a North American wigwam, it could hardly be a more fitting site for ‘Migrating Landscapes’ central conceit.

Within this, however, the personal stories of the participants do occasionally break through. Travis Cooke and Jason Kun offer a short discourse on what they term ‘The Winnipeg Condition’, turning their focus away from the migrant and onto those spaces and people that they have left behind. These voids in the ‘physical and psychological landscape’, the temporarily deserted home, is at once migration’s negative and positive shell. A ‘freed’ space often attracts new and diverse populations. Romanian Canadian architect Felix Tue’s has produced a project that is the inverse of such stories of departure: the dynamic steel structure attempts to concretise the merging of two mental spaces, characteristic of the immigrant experience. As Tue describes it, ‘This new landscape is surrounded by borderless territories, which makes it feel enclosing and protecting. It’s slowly changing into a home.’

In Wolf D. Prix’s recent diatribe against the Biennale published in Dezeen, the architect ridiculed the event as compromised and celebrity obsessed, not in the least concerned with the bigger questions facing the discipline. He particularly highlighted issues around home building and settlement. While the general theme of his complaint might hold up (if not the manner in which it is expressed), a little more attention would have showed that, at least in these two nations, serious answers are being proposed by a generation of young and largely unknown practitioners. <Material provided by la Biennale di Venezia>
no.539 (2012.October) 
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