22 September 2014
The architecture biennale acts as a melting pot of cultures, and gives countries the opportunity to present themselves and their identities through various physical structures all housed within two separate areas. For people visiting the biennale, they will notice a very defined difference between the Arsenale and the Giardini.
While both areas are dedicated solely to the biennale, and the activities that surround it – that’s where the similarities end. The Arsenale is an area where pre-existing structures have been transformed on the inside to house pavilions from various parts of the world. The Giardini on the other hand, is a space where the majority of the structures were purpose built by various countries to act as pavilions for the biennales (both art and architecture) over the years.
In the Giardini, it is interesting to then see how the architecture of the buildings is representative of the country that the pavilion belongs to. Not coming from an architectural background, I wouldn’t be privy to the finer nuances – however it is very clear to see that every country is quick to define its identity through architecture alone. You are most likely to understand a bit about the country and its heritage even before you’ve walked into the pavilion. Walking around the Giardini, the environment creates a spontaneous dialogue for the visitor through this mix of architecture that is visible all around the ‘garden’
I felt that certain countries stuck to their roots in terms of who they are as a people, and this is very apparent in the structures. For example, the German and French pavilions are housed in very imposing structures. In both cases you have steps leading up to pillared entrances – the Germans with square pillars (more defined), and the French with rounded pillars representative of a historical legacy. You can see how the architecture evolved, as the people and perhaps political circumstances also changed. Similarly you have the Finnish pavilion – small, with a couple of tiny openings, and overall a sleek, modern, clearly defined structure. Never having been to Finland, this is the image I now have in my mind of this tiny European country.
On the other hand, you have pavilions like the one put together by the Koreans, which is very unique in its surroundings. Being one of the most recent structures commissioned in the Giaridini, it really doesn’t abide by any of the environmental influences that surround it. It was produced as a set of pre-fabricated pieces that were put together to form the final structure – like a lego set. The contemporary approach is very clear in its overall appearance – so much so, that I would liken it to a space ship, both alien in its form and presence alike.
As far as having one favorite pavilion goes, I would say I am spoilt for choice. There is so much on offer at the biennale and each unique pavilion comes with a different offering, and makes it really hard to compare. Having said that, my vote would go to the pavilions from the Far East, with Korea being on top of the list followed closely by Japan – both situated in the Giardini, and Indonesia in the Arsenale.
The Korean pavilion provides visitors with an unprecedented insight into not only the architecture, but also the culture and more importantly its people. What’s really unique about this pavilion is that it represents elements of both North and South Korea – a combination that is rarely seen in a Korean context. With lots of information and interactive installations, the hustle and bustle is almost palpable. The only thing missing is the scent of fresh bulgogi.
The Japanese pavilion is another island of information and delves beyond what one would expect a strictly Japanese experience to entail. Again, the visitor is bombarded with information and invited to flip through archives that consist of pictures and records, which provide details of a diverse heritage.
A very interesting aspect of the Japanese pavilion, which has stayed with me, was a small section of the floor, which was in fact a circular piece of reinforced glass. This section of the floor looks down into a lower area where one can see people socializing. I feel that this was literally a peeping hole and can be seen as a reference to how the Japanese society functions – where people get together and talk while sharing a meal or some tea.
By contrast, the Indonesian pavilion is very simple and might seem stark in comparison to its sister countries. This might be due to the fact that in the Arsenale, countries are allowed to play only with the interior of a structure, which dates back a few hundred years. This is unlike the newer structures in the Giardini. I feel that the smartest use of an already existing space is prevalent in this case. The Indonesian narrative consists of stories told through videos projected on large glass screens. These stories talk about how architecture and in turn modern day structures have been affected by the introduction of new building materials.
I feel that the Indonesian story is very relevant to the setting that it is told in – what would seem like a large warehouse space from the peak of Venetian glory. As the visitor moves along from screen to screen this story progresses to show how structures were affected over the years by various factors including the political situation, mother nature and of course, the people. For someone like me, who has visited Indonesia in the past, these simple stories really took me back to the streets of Ubud and Nusa Dua where this history has given shape and form to what is seen as modern day Indonesia.
This may come as a bit of a surprise, but one last pavilion which I think is worth mentioning, is the Israeli pavilion. As an Arab coming from the Gulf, I don’t think I’d be visiting the state of Israel anytime soon. Having said that, I was very curious to see what was on offer. I did not have any expectations going in, but was greeted with what I would describe as a sterile environment in a very calculated structure – mirroring what some would believe is the basis on which the state was established. Without leaving too much to the imagination, I believe that the curator effectively delivered the message with a simple yet very smart installation – a cartographic tool outlining maps and structures on a patch of sand.
Using various structures and installations, countries are effectively able to tell their unique story and exist side by side with other countries – a task that can only be achieved through a platform such as the biennale.