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FOA's British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Lucy Bullivant

[in italiano] "As a complex organisation, an interesting building always has an interesting epic, a story that is embedded in the organisation of matter", according to Foreign Office Architects. Their Yokohama International Port Terminal, a £135m project resulted from a spectacular international competition win in 1995, beating 665 other entries. Completed in 2002 after eight years it indeed represents an epic on many levels.


The creative approach of Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, the directors of FOA, to the architectural design task of Yokohama and interpretation of the brief epitomises a transformatory process in architecture. Of all the practitioners of their generation, FOA possess the most intensely focussed and highly innovative thesis about putting a specific set of design principles into practice.

  Architecture is about telling stories. Not only does such an epic set a challenge when it becomes the subject of an architectural exhibition -especially one created by the architects themselves- but in order for it to be understood more widely, it demands that the bigger themes emerging from such an intense process be given closer scrutiny. FOA were given the opportunity to make such an exhibition about Yokohama, and achieved a highly acclaimed success on both fronts. They narrowly missed winning the Biennale prize for best national pavilion to the Dutch. The judges' choice of veteran architect Herman Hertzberger identified a sophisticated solution, but one that didn't possess the same degree of imagination and wider vision. Not only did the FOA show explore the multiple yet consistent themes of their work, but it did it through exploiting to the full the medium used.

It was early in 2002 that FOA won an invited competition to explore the various aspects of Yokohama in the form of an exhibition in the British Pavilion at the VIII Venice Architecture Biennale (8 September-3 November 2002), commissioned and organised by the British Council.

Although the overall Biennale directed by Deyan Sudjic was a digest, entitled Next, of an international selection of soon to be completed buildings, FOA decided not to fall in line with the rationale behind the display in the Arsenale, presenting Yokohama conventionally with models, but to ‘dissect' -as they put it- their recently completed building -at the time of the opening of the Biennale in September 2002 little seen by Westerners beyond architectural critics eager to do their reviews- and open up a discussion about architecture through positing a series of themes central to the making of Yokohama, and above guiding elements of their work in general. It is this formation of a larger set of principles that distinguishes FOA's intention for their exhibition from the Next concept.

The brief, to realise a site-specific installation, also gave FOA the opportunity to transform the five room Pavilion space using any means they pleased. They decided to create a darkened space with blue light, which, given the sequence of existing rooms, then became labyrinthine in character. Each one they dedicated to a different aspect of the project -Landscape, Borderlessness, Growth, Complexity, Tools and Technology- at the same time extrapolating from it.

  These themes crystallise the chief areas of FOA's thesis of practice: the idea of generating organisation from a circulation diagram; on a hybridisation between a park and a building, a structure and a landscape, a "pure enclosure with a topography", in which the building becomes a continuous ground, the surface of which folds into itself. Such a determination of the materials used to make the building allows FOA to make one that is porous, without fixed boundaries between internal and external space. In so redefining the bordered nature of a transportation building or the linear quality of a pier structure into something with a multiple route spatial performance, they court a blurring between form and formlessness, questioning the very inert identity of matter through an identification with the immaterial mobility and yet patterned nature of the sea.

  That spatial performance is at the same time multiple in function, an interpretation of programme that is less pre-defined than architecture has tried to be in the past. This governs FOA's approach to structure (which performs several roles -walls, floor and columns- and is made from longitudinal girders that stack up as ramps, so that the structure and circulation system become part of a complex whole). As a result, the circulation directly affects the spatial definition. Because FOA's commitment is to an open-ended process of making ("growing") buildings, rather than designing a predefined solution, instead of traditional wet site construction, Yokohama was custom-built in a process more like shipbuilding, with pre-fabricated steel sections made in workshops in Korea over in ships and hoisted into position with cranes. It also allowed thinking concerning aspects such as the continuous topography of the building to evolve. The idea of asphalt and rubber was replaced by a wood deck with a geometry of surface following the geometry of the structural system. This geometry was reconfigured many times to allow for new information, and its determination as a surface extended through the construction stage.

Photo credits: Valerie Bennet.

The primary means FOA used to give the exhibition substance was not formal, showing models, but the high impact technology of projection, sponsored by NEC UK, exploring its full technical and visual capabilities -specifically the degree of shift and "keystoning" required to recreate their vision of Yokohama.


Photo credits: Valerie Bennet.

Photo credits: Valerie Bennet.

  Projections -using seven NEC projectors, four MT1050 models and three FT1150s with lenses- acted as an evocative design tool to demonstrate not just content (for instance, projected diagrams and photographs of Yokohama), but they work as immaterial actors in relation to the physical spaces, creating a dialogue in their interplay about the themes FOA chose. Yokohama as a project was above all about "how one can play and stretch the limits". The manipulable quality of the light beams working with the physical nature of the rooms created an appropriate, fluctuating set of spatial narrations. This way, FOA could "distinguish but also blend the separate rooms", creating "a kind of continuity of dark immersive spaces and walls that change", according to the nature of each projection specification. Such a concept suited the exploration of the growth of a building through its innumerable design stages. As a spatial experience the exhibition unfolded its identity -one that was not fixed as so many architecture exhibitions are, but in flux between states of being.

LANDSCAPE is about the geological conditions that create natural spaces used by humans in unlimited ways. Yokohama's artificial landscape results from the principles of its vision and external conditions as a space with a "limited flexibility". Here, three projectors operated on three walls, synchronised, so that the "line of the horizon moves up and down as if the sky is moving. This destabilises your view of the space", explain FOA.

BORDERLESSNESS refers simultaneously to the emerging, borderless condition of the world, the nomadic quality of the architects' activities and experience, and the historical symbolic point of entry of the site, when the country opened up to foreign ships in 1858. Angled projections were bled on the walls in this section.

GROWTH is the chosen description of the evolution of the building, with its parallels with nature, in relation to FOA's original design principle and to subsequent information fed into its development. This is about how a space changes as it develops, and natural processes are important analogies for architecture to FOA, they used animations of plants and other natural and artificial growing entities which become objects: "the frame doesn't matter".

COMPLEXITY is the resolution of principles and external pressures, which themselves result from both the brief, and the growth of the structure. The projection for this room therefore introduced an appropriate spatial metaphor: a figure, oval or round, that didn't relate to the surroundings, something that was difficult to achieve as a perfect fit.

TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGY is the means by which the building can be designed and realised, essentially through customisation rather than standardised techniques, and personalised for individual needs. The projections included in this section show some tailored manufactured solutions for products FOA are aware of. Here the projections fit exactly.

Lucy Bullivant
Lucy Bullivant is an architectural critic, author and curator based in London. She writes regularly for the Financial Times, Tate magazine, Archis and Indesign.
British Pavilion at the 8th Venice Biennale

Giardini, Venice, Italy

British Council


site specific installation in the British Pavilion on the work of FOA

July 2002

Yokohama International Port Terminal

Yokohama, Japan client: Port Authority, City of Yokohama


48.000 square meters of construction to handle 53.000 passengers a year to include:
- 17.000 square meters of Domestic and International Cruise Terminal facilities including check-in, luggage handling, custom and immigration and related administration
- 13.000 square meters of Citizens amenities including conference space, shops, restaurants and multi-purpose hall
- 18.000 square meters of Traffic facilities including public parking, pick-up and drop-off traffic plaza and coaches parking

May 27th, 2002



La sezione Allestimenti
è curata da
Paola Giaconia

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