The common good provides the common ground at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which runs till November 25. With an exquisite display of housing designs for tsunami-stricken areas, Japan nabbed the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Among the quirky offerings in Home for All are tepees with thatched roofs and a hive-like fortress composed of gently winding, meticulously stacked beams. The models, perched atop roughly hewn wood blocks, evoke an undulating sea. In a stirring play of scale, the miniature logs that hold the models in place mirror the massive ones that rise through the pavilion. Visitors walking amidst the models are confronted by floor-to-ceiling images of Rikuzentakata, an area devastated by the 2011 tsunami. The pavilion could be a disaster zone, monument or factory. Japan’s curator and master architect Toyo Ito, who worked with local community organizers and emerging architects to construct the models, has explained that the pavilion aims to put heart and hope back into housing.
The U.S. and Europe are also engaged in some serious soul-searching and going back to basics. Spontaneous Interventions: Design Interventions for the Common Good, the widely-praised U.S entry, is a colorful pulley system with which visitors must interact to learn about each of the 124 urban interventions. Spain’s pavilion is really a black box for performance art. Young architects, who have dim employment prospects, hold models of iconic buildings — ghosts of Spain’s glorious architectural past. Dressed in futuristic white suits, the unemployed architects steal the show just by being there. For all its visual and technological awesomeness, Russia’s i-city has drawn as much attention for being invaded by Pussy Riot protesters. At its best, Urban Think Tank’s re-creation of a vertical slum in Caracas gives the city’s informal sector due recognition.
Spectacular architectural innovation has been displaced by down-to-earth urban activism at the Venice Architecture Biennale. But if recent incarnations are anything to go by, the 2012 edition is no more than another skin-deep attempt at feeling good. Common Ground, the theme conceived by festival director and starchitect David Chipperfield, seems no more radical than many of its predecessors — Less Aesthetics, More Ethics (2000), Cities: Architecture and Society (2006), People Meet in Architecture (2010) come to mind.
Or perhaps my suspicions have been roused by too many Olympic Games and World Expositions. It’s plausible that Common Ground really is being taken especially seriously; many participating nations have been ravaged by much dismay and turmoil of late, and appear eager to explore any viable lifeline. The art critic Arthur Danto saw the biennale as a “glimpse of a transnational utopia,” and I am inclined to agree. More accurately, perhaps, we see each participant’s conception of a universalizing utopia.
Having good architects with good ideas and intentions is not always enough. Revisiting the case of Pruitt-Igoe in class yesterday reminded me of this. In 1950, the city of St. Louis, M.I., commissioned architect Minoru Yamasaki’s firm to build a high-rise public housing estate. Yamasaki, who later conceived of the World Trade Center, based his award-winning design of Pruitt-Igoe on the utopian planning principles of modern architecture pioneer Le Corbusier. Now I like Le Corbusier, though admittedly, I’ve mostly been taken with his breathtaking, impressionistic descriptions of skyscrapers and parks. His preoccupation with the ways in which a steel and glass facade could reflect its surroundings told me that I was not alone. But a series of design and policy failures quickly made it clear that, at least in mid-20th century St Louis, the radiant city was not to be. Ultimately, the crime-ridden, decrepit apartment blocks were demolished, and an inconclusive blame game began — was inappropriate architecture (Yamasaki’s original design was severely altered), inadequate social policy or something else altogether at fault?
An obvious lesson is that things are often more complex than they seem. It is too easy to write off seemingly simplistic shows of bettering the world. “There is no such thing as atheism,” the writer David Foster Wallace asserts in his now-famous Kenyon College commencement speech, “the only choice we get is what to worship.” And that choice is crucial because whatever you worship will “eat you alive.” Wallace likens many people to fish who live in water, but don’t know what water is. They go about their lives in a kind of “default setting,” quick to judge and slow to consider what could be the reasons behind the words and actions of others. That’s a scary story. But it’s true.
As New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman observes in his review, the 2012 installment highlights the public’s relentless appetite for “better design and better living” and “the public isn’t waiting.” That’s encouraging. At the very least the Biennale gives us hope that it’s possible and necessary to realize grandiose ideals, as Wallace puts it, “in a myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”