FREESPACE: Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

by Phillip Baldwin

Scandanavia (Norway/Denmark Pavillion)–Bio-Spheres


FREESPACE describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself. FREESPACE focuses on architecture’s ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers. FREESPACE celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project–even within the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions. FREESPACE provides the opportunity to emphasis nature’s free gifts of light–sunlight and moonlight; air; gravity; materials–natural and man-made resources. FREESPACE encourages reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the well-being and dignity of each citizen of this fragile planet. FREESPACE can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. FREESPACE encompasses freedom to imagine the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.” Yvonne Farrell + Shelley McNamara Curator of Biennale Architecturra 2018

Me thinking with my feet.


Soap Wall Extractor, in the Arsenale


I was at the architectural Biennale Venice today.  I have seen about a half a dozen biennales there at the Gardini and the Arsenal.  Whatever the utopian ideals, FREESPACE as a particular utopia curation this time, the joy of this event since the fascist years of Italy will always be the exuberance in miniature.  The elegant and decaying surroundings of both the Garden and the Arsenal are always joys to encounter.  It is always a joy to see ‘full scale’ models, in all of their utopian excess line the Arsenal.  I have only seen something similar to this in the Amerida colony of Con Con in Valparaiso Chile where the architectural students of Catholic University built full scale ‘utopian’ ideas on the beach.  Here it is in these two places of the ancient floating city of Venice.  This never disappointments.  The pompous utopian themes, especially in the ear of big capital construction for rich folks strikes–an immediate contrast:  ‘free space’?  Get a grip.

Once you are past the curatorial pomposity you have the pleasure of a hot day walking through (I spent six hours there) enormous sites which are the material aesthetic equivalent to the World Cup.  The Gardini, with its national agendas, or the flavor of the year, were not memorable except for the British pavilion. There was nothing on the inside of the pavilion, but a stairs going to the top of the structure so you could see, and compare and contrast the notion of Venice and Britain as (sinking?) islands.  Very ironic.  The rest of the pavilions were a series of pyramid scheme completions of ‘the best national architects.’  The Dutch pavilion was also clever with its trope of the ‘lockers’ that opened up  into sequestered spaces of the domicile.  Idealized.  It was hard to detect the ideas behind free-space in the other national pavilions.  Through these installations it was hard, yet delightful, to get around the ‘scenographic’ element in the spectacle based architecture.  As it should be.  I was sorry I did not have the time to attend one of the many dramas within these structures.


Grafitti Sculpture on a Wall


I soaked up the ‘scenography’ through the Arsenal though.  This place is always a joy of re-appropriation.  There is a complete and natural means of displaying the newness of thoughts in space in the sequence and the manipulation of space, as one walks through the prepared spaces, a projection, spectacle utopia, and interruption.  With this theatrical drift you get a processional aspect to the parade of utopian tropes.  The Chinese pavilion at the end of the arsenal never disappoints in this at the quiet corner miles from where you started; the sun was beating down hot and humid.  You are away from the tourist and with the die-hards here.   That whole experience of ‘culture wars’ between an international community, which started under Mussolini in the 30s, is at full tilt in the late ‘international styles’ of contemporary architecture.  The global real winner of these architectural culture wars is high capital, posing as beneficent Medici for building, though barely giving an urban population  ‘free-space’ in the form of parks.  These pavilions, exposing the best or the most clever commentary on their current society, would demonstrate their physical artifacts as ‘the best for their common people’, while under state agendas of building.  I re-write this on the edge of Hudson Yards, which are the opposite examples of ‘free-space’.  This is the next example of the rich, gated community where the poor weave in and out of this on the innovative, processional, high-line .

But what, within the sense of spectacle, is so different about this prepared spaces of spectacle which are supposed to dwelling spaces? What would be different if we showed demonstrated skyscrapers built design by someone other then graduate students? There they were on the outside not on the inside, the ‘youngish Asian countries’ demonstrating their best at the top of their food chain. There are pyramid schemes which anointed those who would continue on their spatial articulation working in vast architectural offices as worker bees. The Biennale represented a ‘free-space’ of ideation to most of the young designers.  It was a long and arduous walk. These spaces were very beautiful with a sense of an art installation as well.


Down the Arsenal


When I entered the arsenal, So many poets of space take this so seriously–as they should.  This is one of the only global communions on the topic of spatial utopia.  The pomposity of the curation should be taken with a grain of salt but not the agenda… it is serious. When they are under the sun and the ancient spaces of Venice, unfolding again, it is beautiful.   In that forgotten, non touristy corner of the city away from the bovine hoards we can appreciate that utopian project also in its failure:  Venice, and most of Italy, is living off of tourism:  the commodity of history.  It is good to see this new stuff in this context.

What was in it for me was to contemplate how a photograph could suture the rest of history back together.    It is important that I stapled together in that reality (History as a buffet brunch for tourists?) that no longer had the utopian agenda of the West:  fraternity, equality, and liberty.  The world is made up of eight billion people.  It is a photographic, scenographic, spectacle of spatial history, this Biennale.  It is a suturing of the present with the future. And then, one young gentleman turned to me and said: “No, there is no photographs in this place.”  Why that?  Free-space?

This is the joy of remembering a miniature utopian project.

Closes November 25, 2018

 All photographs by Phillip Baldwin

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