BY JESSICA BRIDGER
Rem Koolhaas, the director of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, calls for the “end of starchitects” and a refocusing on capital-A architecture, which is usually marked by insecurity and ideological cliquishness. While no one, not even the chief starchitect himself, could remove this high school mentality, Koolhaas did succeed in wrangling what is usually a messy biennale of murky disconnection into a unified exhibition of buildings and their contexts. This approach is a switch for Venice and turned the biennale into an introspective, research-driven look at architecture and influence. With any luck, it will resonate into the future and bring more analysis within the building disciplines of what we build, beyond Internet posts of the latest and greatest, as architecture and landscape increasingly draw themselves into the greater task of urbanism.
Koolhaas united the biennale, titled Fundamentals, around the history of modernity over the past century. The most successful national pavilions, all following the modernity theme, gave nation-specific takes on modern life and situated architecture within that context. Connecting architecture to political, cultural, and economic forces is important, but embedding these factors within geographic and environmental contexts is essential, and largely nothing of the sort was done.
Every two years architecture is put on its Venetian pedestal, yet landscape architecture continues to stand outside the spotlight despite its involvement of environment, geography, and the inherent interconnection of all systems. The political and cultural forces at the biennale were often satisfyingly quantified; the biennale’s Golden Lion prize went to the Korean pavilion, which was a particularly good example of depicting modernity’s power of seduction with its melding of propaganda posters and infographics, for instance. But the larger sense of environment was limited in most cases to public space, or, as in the Canadian pavilion, illustrated by the abstract whiteness of the Arctic landscape. Representations of the landscape were, at best, mere backdrops, and at worst they were the ubiquitous, unfigured white space of building plans. You cannot properly discuss what is not shown.
Perhaps this approach will not surprise many people who work in landscape architecture, which in the modern segregation of the disciplines is frequently sidelined. Architecture, planning, and engineering are still seen as the key players in the shaping of the environment, despite abundant evidence that each still has serious limits in addressing living systems. The creation of urban areas can and must involve the systems of the landscape, which ultimately underlie everything. Who better than landscape architects to understand and act upon this need?
There were glimmers of hope at the biennale that this is not the outlandish wish of a small profession. Stig L. Andersson, a landscape architect and the Danish national pavilion curator, articulated the value of a landscape perspective in his installation-based pavilion, which identified the “grown environment” as an essential counterpoint to all the architecture going around, and successfully reframed landscape-based elements in ways that were otherwise absent at the biennale. His pavilion presented the idea that the Aesthetic—the sensual and the experienced, as well as the intuitive—must be revalued in the face of modernity’s love of the Rational, and a new terminology developed. Just as you cannot discuss what is left out of representation, you cannot debate what lacks language.
Argentina’s pavilion pointed at a means of representing urban space, public space, and civic landscapes through film. The concept was simple: Research into key projects of urbanism, architecture, and landscape were featured on simple exhibition boards, with screens playing scenes from feature films set in those particular spaces. The key idea linked the ideals of each project with the films’ portrayals of the “real” outcomes and spatial realities of these projects. This was uniquely effective as a means of getting across the aesthetic qualities of spaces and a powerful embrace of nontraditional concepts for proper architectural representation.
The more holistic strategies for representing the built environment in the Danish and Argentinian pavilions hint at a better integration of landscape, cities, and people as confluent forces. The biennale could stand a more inclusive understanding and coupling of the building disciplines. It can be done in the simplest way possible: by showing up. Architecture is self-obsessed, but landscape architecture has long stepped aside from, or, worse, ignored its role in shaping modernity and the built environment.
“I don’t go to the biennale; it isn’t relevant to us,” an Italian critic of landscape architecture said to me recently. The remark suggests that something is wrong with parts of a profession that lets others represent and give language to landscape, and in doing so has allowed landscape architecture to become latent and divested of real power. In not engaging with (or confronting) architecture at the level of ideas, staking a claim and laying the groundwork for a new understanding, landscape stands to lose out on fully participating in the creation of human environments, and therefore the values of landscape architecture are not expressed or even included. This has a profound impact on quality of life in the most sustainable sense. When will we get tired of bemoaning the undervaluing of something that we ourselves too often undermine?
The Venice Biennale of Architecture runs until November 23, 2014, with ongoing programming, events, and publications throughout its six-month run.
Jessica Bridger is an American landscape architect, urbanist, and journalist based in Berlin.
Credits: Biennale Architettura 2014: Photo by Italo Rondinella, Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia; Argentina, Denmark, and Korea pavilions: Photo by Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.