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Celebrating Architecture

Celebrating Architecture

Tradition and Location of architecture events 2016-2018

To understand the biennial as a wider cultural object means to reflect on its global network as well as on the emergence (or rather the establishment) of a new mode of practice; to look at its geographic, financial, discursive, and strategic aspects and limitations. Architecture exhibitions are hardly something new, but in light of the recent proliferation of events, what has changed?

Are biennials or triennials a medium, a critical project, or a message? Phillip Ursprung suggests that it is “the most dynamic platform of mediation and exchange,”[1] Pedro Gadanho highlights its “potential for new critical possibilities,”[2] while Joseph Grima conceives “the exhibition space as a laboratory.”[3]

One thing is certain: it is not a disciplinary niche anymore and to treat it as such would be to neglect a major shift in contemporary architecture culture. The biennial is conceptually twofold: it acts on the discipline’s discourse as well as on the role architecture plays in society, and how it represents itself to the general public.

It is a platform to project, to reframe the present, to make ideas public, to speculate about the future, to share histories, to build utopian or near-future scenarios and reflect upon them. At the same time, it is the place where architecture engages with larger, contextual issues such as politics, ethics, economy, gender, ecology, technology, and so on.

Tradition and Location

First, the facts. In 2016 and 2017, at least ten design or architecture biennials or triennials were launched, of which 80% were in Europe. More than half of the total number of events happen in Europe now but this is only fairly recent. South and Central America evidence a longer biennial habit—an average of sixteen editions which translates to approximately 32 years of tradition. The Bienal Colombiana de Arquitectura y Urbanismo in Bogotá, for example, sums ten editions more than the Biennale Architettura di Venezia, rendering theBiennial of Design Ljubljana, with its 25 editions, as an isolated event. The events in South America are usually shorter, more condensed than the newer editions. Their format resembles a festival or a conference that focuses on lectures, public programs, and international guests for a local audience, rather than on appealing exhibitions.

Last year, in North America, the Chicago Architecture Biennial celebrated its second and constituting edition. The biennial focused on several foundational modern and postmodern moments and participants were commissioned to make an appeal to those histories. In South America, the Architecture and Urbanism Biennale Chile honored its 20th anniversary with an activist stance. In Europe, the Vienna Biennale on Art, Architecture, and Design also held its second edition and, in Asia, the Seoul Architecture and Urbanism Biennale was launched. The latter two problematized post-humanism: the first intended to restate contemporary values by defining a digital humanism focusing primarily on robotics and bio-technology; the second, however, defined humans in a wider network of things embedded in the commons exploring the relation between design and cosmopolitics.

A great deal of criticism—sometimes simplified but necessary—has been dedicated to the frequently slanted lists of participants regarding their capability to equally represent global interests and tendencies. More than 75% of the participants in Chile were Latin Americans (53% were Chileans), more than 60% in Vienna were Europeans (18% were Austrian), more than 50% in Seoul were Asian (11% were Korean). Local presence varies, but the statistics show the importance of the region over the nation. Chile explored the potential of the regional connection as one of its aims was to explicitly reinforce the relation between Global South practices and professionals. U.S. American participation in Chicago was high (36%) but European offices were actually a majority.

Timetable of architecture events 2016-2018

Presentness

As a platform for architectural thought that is lively and different, biennials usually cost less, may reach a wider public, and bring together more diverse practices and opinions than a building or a publication. For attendees, the draw of the biennial is to be present to debate (or chat)—preferably during the opening days. Standing questions might be answered, and new ones, which promise to be answered in the following event, are sure to be triggered. New biennials and editions are already filling next year’s calendar, creating a continuous schedule all around the globe. With culture’s financing capital being spent on exhibition formats and plane tickets, is Koolhaas’s paradigmatic archaeologue actually a curator?[4]

Funding a biennial is cheaper and has a more immediate impact for a city than a star-architect building. Municipal administrations increasingly incorporate such events in their annual budget as a city branding strategy. Instead of being financed by cultural institutions, foundations, or private developers, they are mostly supported by the local authority, using an innovative way of promotion that profits from the so-called ‘creative economy’ and stimulates a culturally-oriented tourist industry. Most cities give strong arguments for why their biennial has to happen in exactly that location as they rely on history to create a curatorial narrative. Press releases highlight the architectural significance of the host city: the Chicago Architecture Biennial drew upon Chicago’s skyscraping tradition (a reputation that was itself cemented in the 1922 competition), the Seoul Architecture and Urbanism Biennale accentuated Seoul’s logistical competence, and the Vienna Biennale revived its modern, avant-gardist spirit from the end of the 18th century.

Biennials are not about the exhibited objects but the experience as a whole. In that sense, architecture has an immense advantage over art: as Aaron Betsky has put it, “architecture is the only art that represents and presents at the same time.”[5] There are two basic curating strategies: either designing frameworks or working selectively on the things to be included in the exhibition. For instance, in Chicago, the Artistic Directors’ concept was inspired by the impressions of the Strada Novissima at the first Biennale Architettura di Venezia of 1980, which was conceived as an immersive space. Being an ‘administrator of space,’ the architect as a curator has the expertise to engage with the first strategy, to blur the spatial limit between exhibit and architecture, and to squeeze the potential of the framework in order to enhance the sensorial, esthetic, and political experience while exploring modes of self-representation. As Pedro Gadanho states, “curating became an author-based practice rather than a merely organizational one, and with this subtle alteration comes also the possibility for other, more subjective critical projects.”[6]

Collectiveness

The biennial is becoming a collective experiment: first it is a group effort and later a group show. Building and caring for a team is primordial. One connected group of locals and internationals comprised of architects, artists, photographers, cultural theorists, scientists, whoever, can be organized according to themes, status, regions, categories, actuality. Grouping in national pavilions has become outdated as specially commissioned entries are more flexible to enter the curatorial narratives. Nowadays, there is a mix of commissioned, selected, and competed works that ensure the heterogeneity of the group. Exhibitions at the Architecture and Urbanism Biennale Seoul responded, on the one hand, to specific thematic sections, and in fifty city projects, on the other. Chile, for example, held two open calls: to choose the curatorial team and to select contributors along the invited participants.

The public is a different collective. Expanding on Grima’s statement, the biennial as a laboratory could involve the public to test architecture and vice versa. In the statement for the upcoming Biennale Architettura di Venezia, curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara state that “With the theme of ‘Freespace,’ the Biennale Architettura 2018 will present for public scrutiny examples, proposals, elements—built or unbuilt—of work that exemplifies essential qualities of architecture.” Are curators responsible for making architecture understandable and interesting for non-architects, for “public-scrutiny?” As biennials intend to open disciplinary debates to a bigger audience, the public remains an unexplored group. How to reach them is one key question that is only incidentally addressed by the commitment of the architect-curator-designer to the whole spatial experience. The conveyance between architecture, culture, and the public, presents a challenge for evidencing a ‘freespace,’ a hiatus, still awaiting further reflection.

Inconclusiveness

Once the event has finished, what is left—apart from the hangover from opening night—is the catalogue, a photographic and digital archive. Only rarely are exhibits purchased by a museum for its collections; sometimes a thinned version of the exhibition travels to other locations. Biennials have the characteristic of being open-ended, their conclusions are slippery and difficult to grasp. For instance, in Chile, the last paragraph of the catalogue’s introduction reads, “It will not end with its closing date but will transcend through propositions, projects, and actions that arise from it.” Therefore, it is hard to say that the biennial is a refuge, because things do not end up taking a precise form or formulating a concise message. Or, does its comfort actually reside in the inconclusiveness? Some curatorial statements can be provocative or trendy but, as a publicly funded event, the risks for them to become institutionalized and lose their experimental ground are high. Yet, it is encouraging to look at spaces in which architecture can be discussed in a festive, extravagant way. While waiting for the biennials on the 2018 calendar, fingers are crossed for a critical re-enactment of the Deutscher Werkbund Exposition of 1927.

Tradition and Location of architecture events 2016-2018
Tradition and Location of architecture events 2016-2018

[1] Aaron Betsky in conversation with Javier Agustín Rojas. In: “Plot”, n. 34, December 2016.

[2] Pedro Gadanho, “Is Curating the New Criticism?” In: “Architecture Beyond Criticism: expert judgement and Performance Evaluation”. New York: Routledge, 2015.

[3] Tom Vandeputte, “Sites of Experimentation: In Conversation with Joseph Grima.” In: OASE 88, available online at oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/88/

[4] Rem Koolhaas famously stated that “The archaeologue (= archaeology with more interpretation) of the 20th century needs unlimited plane tickets, not a shovel.” Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City”. New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc., 1995.

[5] Aaron Betsky in conversation with Javier Agustín Rojas. In: “Plot”, n. 34, December 2016.

[6] Pedro Gadanho, “Is Curating the New Criticism?” In: “Architecture Beyond Criticism: expert judgement and Performance Evaluation”. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Find our updated take on biennales in Celebrating Architecture 2, part of our Editorial 2–What’s Your Story?

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