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"Metamorph," or from the belly of the whale

Richard Ingersoll

It probably all began with a fish. Not Günter Grass's tale of the world-weary Flounder, but Frank O. Gehry's love of wiggly marine life. The hundreds of models that recently washed up for the central exhibition of the 9th Biennale of Architecture in Venice, installed in the half-kilometer-long Corderie of the Arsenal, appear like partially digested morsels of underwater creatures clinging to a series of colossal, stark white plaster ribs. Snack food for the Leviathan. The trend in architecture, that has been privileged by the Biennale's mercurial director, Kurt Forster, oscillates between the desire to represent natural forms that have metamorphosed from the conventional notion of building and the desire not to represent at all, but to create random shapes through the accidents of computer "morphing." Thus the syncretic title "Metamorph." The ribbed installation, designed by the digitally endowed New York office of Asymptote, breaks down the interminable axis of the column-lined hall by placing each exhibition platform laterally, forcing the visitor to meander in picturesque circuits. Each of the three dozen podia has an irregular streamlined shape that is different but related to the ones nearest to it. These sinuous ribbons are fascinating as sculpture, work fairly well for exhibiting the displays (except that the flat bases of each of the models had to be adjusted to the platforms' irregular curving surfaces), and invest the space with a resounding metaphoric unity. Like most of the projects in the show, however, Asymptote's whale ribs demonstrate a lack of interest in constructional or structural determinants, approaching form as something that could be grown rather than built.

As Hani Rashid, principal of Asymptote and spokesman for a new generation of digital designers puts it: "With the aid of computing... a newly evolved architecture is emerging... it is within the grasp of architects and artists today to discover and evoke a digitally induced spatial delirium, where a merging of simulation and effect with physical reality creates the possibility of a sublime morphing from thought to actualization." Let us agree that the Vitruvian categories of "commodity" and "firmness" have no place in this hallucinogenic purview. And even the third canonical objective, "delight" is much abused. Those who visit the main exhibition of the Biennale will come away with a clear sense of a style - vaguely organic, neo-picturesque, and sublimely homely. Most of the projects also seem technically dubious and extremely expensive to build because of their awkward geometries. While there is an undercurrent of concern for the environment, and many designs consciously simulate natural forms, there is no attempt to justify the works from a social, technical, or ecological point of view. Thus the show concentrates almost completely on a current taste, a new version of Expressionism, that appeals to some of the cultural elite of advanced capitalism.

Kurt Forster, a Swiss-born art historian, the founding director of the Getty Center, and for two years the director of the Canadian Center for Architecture, came to the job with a formidable intellectual and institutional background. While one may take issue with the content of the Biennale, its concept has been convincingly displayed, and given an excellent pedagogical armature in the three-volume catalogue. In some ways the basis of the show was prepared by Marina Warner, who curated an earlier art exhibition in London on a similar theme. In her view the taste for metamorphosis accompanies the anxious desire for self-transformation in an advanced technological society. Juan Antonio Ramirez sees the trend in a more political light, especially after the events of September 11th in New York and March 11th in Madrid, declaring that "the nascent 21st century's love affair with pulverized ruins, relies on the demolition of democratic institutions... Any analysis of our social political reality would define the sides of the triangle in which we move as: lies, usurpation, and ruin."

Unfortunately the critical and skeptical insights of the catalogue are unable to shape the experience of the exhibition, which by definition is an endorsement of style. Forster has pursued a personal theoretical agenda that revolves around two close friends: Peter Eisenman, with whom he founded Oppositions magazine in the 1970s and commissioned a project for an unbuilt house "Eleven-A," and Frank O. Gehry for whom he has often acted as an intermediary, or glossator. While recently the architectural styles of Eisenman and Gehry seem to be converging toward an organicist mode, their approaches to architecture are diametrically opposed: Eisenman, whose methods celebrate the autonomous capacity of geometry and computation to signify; and Gehry, who relies on artistic intuition, irony, and metaphor. Eisenman's line of thought has led to computer morphing, Gehry's has led to an appreciation of zoomorphic and crystalline iconography requiring computer modeling to be realized. The formal results of each are intentionally monstrous in rapport with architectural conventions and urban contexts, appealing to the aesthetic theory of the sublime. It is curious that the most successful works of each are in Spain, a country that is famous for harmonious works of modern architecture: Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which is probably the most famous work of architecture of the late 20th century, and now Eisenman's City of Culture in Santiago, currently under construction. Everyone loves the titanium-clad monster in Bilbao because it has achieved the contradiction of a recognizable figure that is completely indescribable and strikes such a brilliant contrast to the rigid order of the city's regular blocks. The City of Culture promises to have a similar charm as an immense complex set outside of the historic city which has assumed the shapes of geological folds, almost indistinct from the rolling landscape. More a work of Land Art than of architecture. Gehry is well-represented at the Biennale with the largest model in the show, his recently completed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a stainless steel–clad sibling of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Eisenman was given an entire room to make an installation about his work and was premiated with the Biennale's Lifetime Achievement award. His built works, so often instant ruins, such as House VI, or the Wexner Center at Ohio State, should serve as a parable for the Metamorph style: you can fantasize and digitize all you like, but that won't stop a building from leaking.

To give substance to the trend toward a new Expressionist taste, Forster assembled a separate exhibition on contemporary concert halls. The peculiar demands of acoustical engineering and the monumental imagery often attached to these projects give them a particular iconic power in an urban setting. Starting with the Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House and Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic, both designed in the 1950s, the 40 models of recent solutions demonstrate that the type has yielded some of the weirdest forms in architectural history. Acoustical engineering seems to have bestowed a functionalist precept for irregular forms that struggle against the orthogonality of most urban contexts. The prize-winner in this part of the show, an unbuilt project for a two part concert hall in Stavanger, Norway, by the Danish office Plot, is an ingenious solution that unites two monolithic parallelepipeds with steps that wrap around the base of the buildings and then continue as a louvered facade to the roof. The risers are translucent, allowing slats of daylight into the structure and at night creating a magical light box effect, like a Noguchi lantern. One can still recognize a Humanist bias in the approach, especially when compared to other projects such as the Dutch office NOX's recently completed installation "Son-O-House" which looks like guts spilled on a sidewalk. The trend in zoomorphic transformations and picturesque planning is evident even among the most technologically equipped offices: Norman Foster's Sage Gateshead hall rests like a giant sea slug on the banks of the Thames, and Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica in Rome like three beetles. Concert halls are among the most monumental and representative buildings for the contemporary city, and like the museum serve as a kind of scapegoat for the demise of civic life, and to see so many together, one has little doubt that they adhere to the underlying taste of Metamorph.

Despite its being the largest international exhibition for architecture, it would be difficult to say that this year's Biennale represents much of the world's architecture. And while there was no hierarchy, or singling out of any particular nation, the concentration on the quirks of a particular aspect of high style was necessarily discriminatory. Where the Biennale has always compensated for its elitism is in the dozens of national pavilions, where each country assigns a curator to assemble a show. The pavilion prize went to Belgium, which presented an artist's and anthropologist's vision of Kinshasha, a modest consideration of Congolese vernacular adaptations in a situation far removed from the patronage necessary for the projects of Metamorph. A work of post-colonial guilty conscience, it stood out from the rest of the Biennale as a reminder of architecture's misplaced priorities. The Japanese pavilion was exceptional in its conceptualism, bringing together a myriad of images from pop culture surrounding the figure of the eternally adolescent and aimless computer nerd, known as "Otaku." The chaotic but repetitious assembly of plastic toys and bright colored posters creates a very convincing idea of how the trivial products, games, and junk of consumerism have become elements of contemporary urbanism. The other pavilion that caught my attention was Germany's, a fascinating photomontage mural that was carried as a continuous undulating strip from room to room, gathering in a fictitious exurban landscape 37 contemporary works of architecture, which are blended seamlessly into the landscape of sprawl. Has sprawl finally become beautiful? The US pavilion, which relies on private sponsors, showed the work of six offices, three of whom are very morphy and three who are not.

Italy was represented only tangentially by Mirko Zardini's show on Italian interiors, which was at the most a passive overview of a sector where Italy indeed prevails. The DARC exhibition of ten works, ten critics, and ten photographers devoted to the Italian architecture of the last 50 years was particularly uninspired, the most interesting incident being Vittorio Gregotti as critic choosing to write about his own work at La Bicocca. Only in the "Cities on Water" exhibition, installed in a floating pavilion in the most remote part of the Arsenal was there an intimation of an active design culture in Italy. The elegant translucent polymer hoods, designed by Alberto Cecchetto, were inserted into the ancient Gaggiandre drydocks with Rationalist sensibility. Though far removed from the stylistic agenda of Metamorph, the chance to evaluate waterfront projects for 18 places as diverse as Alessandria, Egypt, and Pier 40 in New York, not to say five projects for Genova and Trieste designed by young italian offices, was refreshing.

The Spanish Pavilion received a fine renovation by curator Gerardo Ayala Hernández, who applied wooden louvers to the exterior and interior. The exhibition curated by Hernández, however, presented a very conventional collection of photographs, with didactic panels showing two works each by 20 Spanish architects. It did not particularly adhere to the metamorphosis theme of the Biennale, in fact, the offices were selected because they demonstrated "an unchanging approach to design." Spain was conspicuously represented throughout the exhibition, however, in the works of Juan Navarro Baldeweg (who designed a room in the Italian pavilion), Rafael Moneo, EMBT (Miralles & Tagliabue), Vicente Guallart, and Ábalos & Herreros. The juried prizes went to Japanese office of SANAA, (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishiawa) for their two works, the IVAM museum project in Valencia and the 21st century museum in Kanazawa. Other awards were also given to Foreign Office Architects (Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi) for their terraced, undulating hanging garden scheme for a car park at the Novartis campus in Basel, and to Martínez Lapena-Torres for the exhibition platform and photovoltaic tower at Forum 2004 covering Barcelona's water treatment plant.

The new Expressionism of Metamorph opens a perennial problem, not just of technique and social program, but of aesthetics: hybrid works such as many shown in the Biennale are misfits, linguistically closed, and difficult to adapt to, their meaning is circumscribed by their uniqueness of form, greatly limiting their chances to be understood as beautiful. They are doomed to extinction as they are unable to cooperate with reality. Shall we therefore all rally to save the architectural whales?

Richard Ingersoll
This article has been written for the Architect's Newspaper <www.archpaper.com>. We are thankful to Richard Ingersoll for allowing us to re-publish it on our pages with a special addition on the Italian participation in the Biennale.


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