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Tuesday22 August 2017

Venice Biennale 2012: The Giardini pavilions

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Hard bitten by recession, this year’s national pavilions have seen even the most inventive employ a minimal approach

The common Venice greeting of “Seen anything good yet?”, exchanged between visitors strolling amongst the trees of the Giardini, has this year been something of a conversation killer – universally followed by a pregnant pause.

It is foolish to have high hopes for the national pavilions, often being the compromised product of a stodgy state-led process of design by committee, but nonetheless there are usually one or two must-sees, standout unforgettable moments that buzz around the opening days of the Vernissage.

Not this year.

Architecture runs several years behind the economy, and it appears that the financial crisis might have finally dinted the bloated bubble of the biennale. Thankfully gone are the prosecco-fuelled bag-fights, the dash for the freebies, but also absent are the more ambitious kinds of structure that used to populate the Giardini – from saunas sprouting out of rooftops, to elaborate superstructures clambering up facades.

Curators have had to make do with a bit less, and they have fared with varying degrees of success.

The Czech and Slovakian contribution is perhaps the most symptomatic of funding cuts, consisting of an empty white room and a couple of iPads – which you use to conjure a series of projects through augmented reality software. Only in this case, augmented reality means a jumpy, illegible slide show.

Across the way, the Russians have embraced the digital future in an altogether more ambitious form, in a manner that betrays the oligarch-backed developments of Skolkovo (“Moscow’s Silicon Valley”) that are on show.

The galleries are entirely lined with back-lit QR codes, that swell up to form a futuristic pixelated dome, in a bizarre aesthetic of Pantheon meets the Matrix. Again, you look at the work on an iPad, which kind of negates the point of having an exhibition.

Two doors down, the German pavilion is one of this year’s strongest. Its name, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, might seem tediously familiar, but the projects on show are possibly the most relevant of all the work here, comprising adapted, recycled structures, with “a pragmatic and affirmative attitude toward dealing with existing buildings”. Designed by Konstantin Grcic, the exhibition consists solely of beautiful wall-sized photographs by Erica Overmeer, and brief explanatory paragraphs of each building. It is a welcome antidote to the visual diarrhoea on show elsewhere.

German pavilion, Venice Biennale 2012

Source: Oliver Wainwright

Erica Overmeer’s photos in the German pavilion.

By contrast, the US pavilion starts out with a promising premise – “Spontaneous Interventions: design actions for the common good” – but the generous desire to include 124 projects, each displayed on forest of pull-down placards, spoils the appetite to engage with any of them.

Next door, this year’s Israeli pavilion provides a much-needed dose of wit, conceived in the form of a shop selling strange symbolic knick-knacks, each representing specific events in the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Israel pavilion

Source: Oliver Wainwright

Israel Venice Biennale pavilion

From cut-and-fold cardboard models of settlement buildings to chocolates printed with M16 rifles, they are a baffling array – until you progress to the second floor where each is explained in context, “telling the tale of an unprecedented embedding of liberal and capitalist principles in a country that was known as a socialist welfare state”.

Across the water there is little joy to be found, save for the Polish and Serbian pavilions. The former is surreally titled “Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers”.

It consists of a brooding raw plastered chamber, with canted timber floor, in which speakers have been secreted that relay distorted sounds sampled from around the Giardini. The interior spaces have been “tuned” to maximise reverberation time, with apses forming depressed sound chambers, transforming the building into an acoustic instrument, creating a powerfully uneasy space.

The Serbs, meanwhile, have built an enormous table. It is the work of 10 recent architecture graduates, 22m long, covered in bright white Corian and braced by an ingenious system of cables that run beneath. It brings a smile to everyone’s face and is an impressive feat of engineering.

Serbia's Venice Biennale pavilion

Source: Oliver Wainwright

Serbia’s Venice Biennale pavilion

Inspected by architects, bashed by children, crawled through by toddlers, it is an active piece of common ground in the most literal sense.

The Dutch have followed a similarly minimal tactic with equal success, employing Petra Blaisse of Inside Outside to install two 16m-long curtains that progress around the pavilion at a stately pace on two intersecting rails. It has no pretence of being anything more than a beautiful thing to watch, as the variously diaphanous, metallic and rubbery fabrics overlap and interweave.

Serbia's Venice Biennale pavilion

Source: Oliver Wainwright

The bracing beneath the Serbian table.

With 60 such pavilions to take in over an average two-day visit, it is these ones that can restrain the urge to concoct a convoluted manifesto, or display the entire nation’s architectural output, that will always stand out above the din.

Like the best work on show at the art biennale, these pieces have the confidence to stand up on their own, without the need to hide behind acres of inflated posturing, fruitless “research” and other rhetorical smokescreens turned to by the architectural profession when it is faced with the task of exhibiting its work.

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