Now that its late summer, you may feel the need to bask in an architectural hotspot, and what better destination than checking out the Venice Biennale. This year it is extra special, whatever your tastes, traditional or cutting edge contemporary.
Firstly, and most importantly, the palazzo franchetti is hosting a major respective of Zaha Hadid’s artistic and architectural work. Zaha died earlier this year, and as a contemporary of hers at the Architectural Association school of architecture in the mid-seventies, I felt the loss of a brilliant fellow pupil, who was clearly marked for a stellar career: even if it took her over thirty years to actually realise her first built commission.
As a client of ours, she always kept us guessing, never completely satisfied with a fireplace or any other interior design solution; restless, questioning, always seeking a unique solution to each project. “We will never cease from experimentation”’ she said on more than one occasion, and that is an object lesson of a high order to all architects and designers.
During her early fallow years, she spent her spare time when not tutoring at the AA, making extraordinary intricate paintings of her architectural visions: fragmenting buildings endlessly seeking to defy gravity and convention. Her later projects realised theses aims with enormous panache and breathtaking skill and competence. A great example to young and old – and fellow contemporaries at the AA too.
The Biennale this year is one of the best of recent times. The Arsenale, the old naval dockyard where the famous Venetian merchant and fighting ships were built (coming of the production line at one per day in medieval times), is host to many fascinating displays of constructional and cultural innovation from architects and designers all over the world. The theme is ‘overcoming hurdles’. The exhibits range from a pop up city in India for five million temporary inhabitants, water tanks transformed into neighbourhood parks in South America, industrialised migrant accommodation in Germany and building envelope-popping apartment buildings in Seoul.
In addition, the old British favourites, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster produced fascinating displays, as well as Renzo Piano, Rogers original partner. Foster’s proposal for a Droneport network throughout Africa to support cargo drone routes capable of delivering urgent supplies to remote areas is particularly compelling. The Droneport itself is a building typology in its own right; a striking vaulted structure constructed using locally sourced building products and finished in pressed handmade bricks. It has a multi-purpose potential to be used for commercial and civic purposes, and to be a central hub of activity for rural communities. A most challenging idea in a difficult time for this great continent.
Hard to talk about, but equally compelling, were a series of blueprints made by architects for the gas chambers at Auschwitz in the 1940’s. . These were presented in Braille form, like a secret code, or for those who would not look and open their own eyes to the truth of what was evidently going on around them. It is stated as the worst crime committed by architects, and that is a pretty hard indictment of the profession.
A thought provoking and immense collection of ideas from all over the world, the Venice Biennale is especially relevant today, when old patterns are constantly being overturned. It is a great pleasure, therefore, when I revisit the Palladio’s Redentore; the great Church serene it’s its beguiling simplicity in a city of astonishing adornment. A great sense of peace descends as one enters the nave, and recognises the masterly control that Palladio exercised over the form, massing, scale, volume and intricate detail of every part of this masterpiece. It is a visual food of the finest quality, and continues to astonish and humble some four hundred years after its construction.