The opening of the Venice Biennale has about it a general sense of raucousness and aesthetic cacophony. The entire scene is lush, almost overwhelmingly rich. There are thousands of places for eyes to land. There are outfits: the salty, wet Venice air manages to get at least a few architects to ditch the all-black outfit for its all-white summer counterpart, often cut through with brightly colored, geometric jewelry. There are events: at any given moment, at any point throughout the weekend, there’s a dozen or so architects gathered on a panel to talk about a topic relevant to a pavilion theme, or the edition theme, or to architecture generally. There are parties, picnics along canals, Aperol spritzes that glow bright orange, and designed-to-death tote bags that run out so quickly just carrying them is a sign that you were there, part of the early crowd, in the mix.
It’s all swirling and chaotic and bright and somehow you have to manage to pay attention to serious ideas about architecture while attempting to figure out how it’s possible that you’re still sweating even though it’s 4PM.
Even without the avalanche of architects, designers and their ilk that descend on it simultaneously for a week every two years, Venice itself—island city and pseudo-maze—always gives way to the unexpected. It’s within this vibrant context that Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara curated and staged this year’s edition, themed “Freespace.”
All of those potential distractions combine with more specific factors to complicate the task of Biennale curators. Among other things, curators contend with the actual architecture of the pavilion they’re working in, a task easier for some nations than for others. The pavilions that line the main drags of the sprawling Giardini—among them Switzerland, Spain, France, Great Britain—have ample rooms, high ceilings, and spatial sequences designed specially for exhibiting architecture. Meanwhile, countries whose pavilions are more recent additions to the Biennale line-up—like Bahrain, Perú, Thailand—are tucked away into small single rooms inside Arsenale, the darker and significantly less monumental of the two Biennale venues.
Biennale curators generally use one of two strategies to bring visitors’ attention away from the hubbub and into focus on their exhibits. The first is to try to beat Venice and the Biennale at their own game, to out-excess the excess. This year, the Spanish pavilion best exemplified this strategy by showcasing 143 projects submitted by architects from across Spain and selected by curator Atxu Amann Alcocer, all under the theme of “Becoming.” The project images—each rendered in disparate graphic styles and scales—cover the walls and ceilings, and the space of the pavilion becomes a small universe. Momoyo Kaijima, Laurent Stalder and Yu Iseki, curators of the Japanese pavilion, went a similar route, filling the pavilion (though not quite to the same extent) with 42 drawings by 42 different architects and groups of architects. Instead of wall labels, the curators provided a plastic magnifying lens, meant to help viewers see the fine detail in the smaller-scale drawings, set in the middle of a large cardboard ring printed with diagrams of the exhibit and the title of each piece. Other national pavilions—France, United States of America, Germany—use the go-big strategy to different degrees. To some extent, it works: stepping into these spaces feels like stepping into an alternate world where someone else is making the rules of engagement, and you have to follow them. At best, it’s momentarily freeing, and at worst, it’s stiflingly overwhelming.
The second strategy employed by Biennale curators is to try to cut through the maximalism of the whole show with a sharp, pithy theme executed in a minimal way. Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara, curators of this year’s Golden Lion winner, did exactly that by turning the Swiss pavilion into a series of generic interiors differentiated only by variations in scale. White-washed orthogonal walls homogenize the space as stainless steel fixtures and white plastic outlet covers hint at the scalar game at play. Moments of perspectival tricks punctuate the overall monotony of the pavilion, designed to be walked through in no less than five minutes but no more than ten, and to perhaps never be re-visited.
This edition’s strictest exercise in minimalism might be found in the British pavilion, themed “Island” by curators Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Marcus Taylor. The pavilion’s interiors are entirely emptied, marked only by traces of past exhibits—dried-up pieces of double-sided tape, ghosts of wall text that wouldn’t quite scrape up, the odd nail hole here and there. Outside, a massive scaffolding surrounds the pavilion with stairs leading up to a deck crowning the building’s dome, turning it into an island surrounded by a plywood sea, or maybe it’s the plywood sea that is the island in the vast ocean of the Venice Biennale. In any case, the strategy works, at least momentarily: it surprises visitors and gives them fodder for thought without necessarily challenging them, and the many interpretations of such open themes make for practically endless, if circular, topical conversations.
Both of these strategies, the maximal and the minimal, play a curatorial game of image-making that’s seemingly necessary to compete for attention with possibly literally thousands of other things. But the game ultimately fails at producing pavilions whose messages stick with visitors in a meaningful way. In both cases, the issue comes down to the difficulty of gleaning a substantial and coherent message—either from a deluge of things, or from almost nothing at all.
Of course, there are curators who choose neither route, and from among the group of pavilions in this year’s edition that fall into neither the maximal nor the minimal archetype, one stood out. Even within a context that’s seemingly constantly batting against substantial content, the Chilean pavilion, curated by Alejandra Celedón and themed “STADIUM,” put forth an exhibit that was at once laser-focused and complex.
The theme of the pavilion hinges on a single historical event: the transformation of the National Stadium in Santiago into a giant bureaucratic center on September 29, 1979, when 37,000 property titles were given to pobladores, or makeshift land-dwellers, in an attempt to resolve Chile’s housing crisis. On first approach, the pavilion is deceptively simple. In the entrance vestibule, a black wall shows a short explanatory text and a subdivided plan of the stadium infilled with what looks like a plan of the city. Reading the text reveals the history informing the plan: prior to the September 29th event, Santiago’s geopolitical limits, subdivided first into 17 communes and then into more than 60 neighborhoods, were each assigned to a sector of the stadium with a unique access door. This code, connecting the geography of the city to the architecture of the stadium, was then used to summon recipients of property titles to a specific stadium sector. Moving past the vestibule, visitors enter a dark room—too dark to take good phone photographs in—occupied by a giant, waist-height, rammed-earth relief model of the stadium/neighborhood plan. Two rows of screens line the edges of the space: one high above eye-level plays video of different events that have taken place at the National Stadium while another close to the floor shows footage of interviews with Santiago residents who’ve come into contact with the stadium through one of its many uses. As Pope John Paul II delivers a speech on one screen, Augusto Pinochet shows up on the one next to it. A few minutes later, Salvador Allende appears where Pinochet once was. Chile’s complex history begins to come into focus, with the National Stadium as the lynchpin.
The exhibit is accompanied by a catalog that delves deeper into the complexities housed in the history of the Stadium—the rise of authoritarian power hand-in-hand with the liberalization of the economy, the prioritization of private land ownership as a source of stability and happiness, the use of the Stadium as an extermination camp during Pinochet’s dictatorship—and by an informational website. It’s a self-aware project, but not anxiously so: the pavilion shows the truth of a painful and tangled history without simplifying it and without overbearingly reminding visitors of its own complexity. Visitors can spend a minute or an hour inside the pavilion and walk away with something substantial into which to sink their teeth.
The Chilean pavilion is a welcome moment of clarity within a landscape full of distractions, and distractions from distractions. It does more than invite visitors to consider the question of architecture’s entanglement with structures of power, it suggests answers to it. It frames architecture as having an essential role in history and politics, even if architects themselves have little say in how this role plays out. Sometimes, buildings are the theater within which events simply unfold; other times, they are a tool used expressly for political means. But, always, architecture plays a key part.
Featured image of “Stadium,” the Chilean pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale, courtesy of ArchDaily.