Paul Finch Letter From London: 2 June

Venice suggests that architecture is alive, well, and still has a social conscience​

Most early visitors enjoyed this year’s Venice Biennale, where Alejandro Araveno’s theme, ‘Reporting from the front’ prompted some striking work and ideas. His own curated pavilions in the Arsenale and the Giardini featured more work by regional architects and rather less by the big names, probably no bad thing.

The national pavilions were the usual mixture of excellent, ok and baffling, but there was more than enough good stuff to occupy the mind (and feet) for several days. This included exhibits by several British architects suggesting we are still punching above our weight, as they say.

Rogers Stirk Harbour’s small room on housing and community was a model of how to gain maximum impact from the use of vivid wall colour, models shown at a sensible height, and simple messages in big type (design was by Ab Rogers). Alison Brooks’ Palazzo Mora contribution was a reminder that social housing in the UK is not the dead duck it is sometimes assumed to be. Both these contributions suggested that mass housing is beginning to get a hold on the debate as to how we can accommodate incoming economic migrants, quite apart from the question of refugees.

No doubt that will involve more discussion about height, density, land and construction cost. These subjects were the basis for what I thought was the best national pavilion, Korea. ‘The FAR (floor area ratio) Game’ was the title for an exhibition which combined fascinating information, historical analysis, architectural invention and propositional outcomes. It is not easy to bring verve to the subject of building regulations and sectional exploration, but the Koreans managed it.

Spain won the prize for best national pavilion, for a how called ‘Unfinished’. Beautifully displayed, it provided a catalogue of buildings that had been affected by the recent economic crisis but had ended up being completed. Each building was shown in images which were entirely context-free, and which did not really explain why, or at what point, the concept of unfinished applied. Still, a great piece of work.

By contrast, the US pavilion was entirely about context: in this case Detroit, and various sites which become the subject for provocative speculations by a dozen architects. These included Greg Lynn, who had visitors gazing through virtual reality headsets at his model of a site where all the tall buildings had been given a ‘haircut’ before further ground-scraper treatment.

One of the excellent things about any Biennale is the range of subjects on offer. A good example was the intimate and haunting Irish pavilion by Niall McLaughlin, dealing with that increasing and apparently inevitable scourge, dementia. Difficult to do it justice in words, but it combined more than one thousand hand drawings then used to provide simulations of how people with memory loss experienced/understood/part-remembered the architecture they occupied.

I was surprised it didn’t feature in the ‘best pavilions’ awards, since not only did it deal with the human condition, but it did so by exploiting the possibilities of exemplary exhibition design: a soundtrack that would have meaning for the people connecting memories, a striking arrangement of cameras projecting images onto a constantly moving floor surface, and simply, effective graphic messages.

Again in complete contrast, another Irish contribution (by Grafton Architects) suggested that the spirit of architects like Denys Lasdun is not just with us, but is being effortlessly extended. The film of the practice’s new university building in Lima was a model of how the moving image can enhance understanding of the static object, in this case a superb amalgam of closed and open spaces and volumes, taking advantage of a climate associated with analysis by the 1th century scientist Humboldt, whose striking explanatory drawings became part of the exhibit.

History was also evoked in a memorable way in a pavilion marking a co-operative venture between the Biennale and the Victoria & Albert Museum. ‘A World of Fragile Parts’ told the ongoing story of the copying of cultural artefacts, from sculptures and furniture to the Arch of Palmyra and outdated computer games. It was Henry Cole, founder of the V&A, who produced the 1867 international treaty on copying, signed by most of the crowned heads of Europe. He might have been surprised that it is now copies that outlast originals, the copy becoming intrinsic to our appreciation of the past.

Other national pavilions worth the detour: Germany (holes knocked through to represent open borders, and host of a World Architecture Festival reception); France (improving on the ordinary); and Japan (a hymn to models large and small). By contrast the British pavilion seemed a bit underwhelming, though the subject matter (housing, time, sharing) was interesting enough.

Overall an excellent experience, and one I would urge all tutors to visit with their students. These are architectural ideas at their most concentrated, not least Foster & Partners’ ‘drone-port’, facilitating the delivery of materials and medical supplies in areas lacking basic transport. Literally and metaphorically, the world is shrinking.

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