Architecture of Frontiers

Architecting and Deconstructing Borders

7 NOVEMBER 2016,
Arsenale entrance exhibition at Venice Biennale 2016
Arsenale entrance exhibition at Venice Biennale 2016

The traditional Architectural Biennale in Venice this year has been engaged on several fronts, among which, in fact was... the frontier... or, at least one of exhibitions there, by the title, dedicated to the architecture on the front of national and international divisions - “Reporting From the Front”. Of course, such word is very much over-loaded with many various connotations of which, like a psycho-analytical Rorchach's ink-blot test, any specific denotation may be more telling of the observer-reader denoting the meaning than that of the intention of the scriber.

Some countries dedicated their show to different kinds of border-line lifestyle projects, from extreme follies to more practical ones. For example the Australian pavilion was filled almost completely with a large water-pool, symbolising an “Australian dream” lifestyle on the edge a pool as their most important lifestyle border-line and burying in the sand behind the fences of their gardens all other ones. Another obscure installation was that of now Serbian (old Yugoslav) pavilion, presenting an artistic installation symbolising interior of an old, sea ship, but in blue, symbolising sea itself accompanied by an obscure verses about a people heading for troubled times of rebellion and change, this being even more obscure considering that Serbia is now a land-locked country... possibly a lament of the time past, or a predicament of the things coming, but apparently far from the current time and situation.

Not much less obscure installation, bordering itself with yet another architectural folly, was a near conceptual and visual indoor replica of the permanent feature on the outside of the Alvar Alto's designed Finnish pavilion, resulting in an indoor wooden rather than concrete, staircase-pyramidal structure acting only as a repository for hosting leaflets presenting recent architectural projects in Nordic countries.

Taking a rather different approach, mainly Asian architecture, showed its concern with the borderlines between urban and natural and that of the sensitive borderline between an individual and (a small) community, and presented several interesting, designs of houses around the theme of interacting with and encompassing one or more trees, one such being also very appropriately named The Tree House. These were designed either for larger families or for sharing among several individuals (The House for seven people).

However, the issues of political borders did not escape form the Asian show-spaces. Namely, the natural life (p)reserve inside the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between the two Koreas, had been given a special attention in an installation in Arsenalle, itself accompanied with a large number of tentatively related military maps and historical documents to such extent that one may ask himself if these were not actually the main subject of the installation. It was also rather surprising that this installation was done in 1-1 cooperation with Japanese designers an historians, specially considering the strong and long-standing anemosity of Koreans towards centuries long history of Japanese colonial attitudes and territorial claims towards it (for an example, it was actually the democratic South, not North Korea, which only relatively recently allowed import of some of the consumer goods such music CDs from traditionally loathed and feared Japan).

Social housing in developing world or in under-developed regions of the developed one, was another of the sub-themes of the Biennale.

However, in addition to the borders of construction technology, lifestyle (Australia) or much less so that of aesthetics, this year it would be difficult to avoid mentioning the prevealing theme – that of the political borders. Several national pavilions and the international areas in the Arsenale exhibition space were dedicated to, or concerned with, the problem of accommodation of migrants, mainly interim for those political (e.g. like most o the Austrian pavilion, or a brochure of Calais district published in English, dedicated to living in Calais refuge Jungle), but also, with those mid-to-long term ones for the economical migrants, like German pavilion and those of several of development countries concerned with their rapid urbanisation and migration from their own or neighbouring rural to the urban areas.

Architects of American Dream

One does not need to read posters in the area crossing between the Biennale bookshop and adjusting spaces dedicated problems of sustainability to read that such sprawl bound lifestyle is not considered sustainable for planet and it is not optimal for most of the more densely populated countries.

Not so long ago, however, FLR (Frank Lloyd Wright) was, to say the least, playing into if not even consciously contributing to creation and then, also, the realisation of the so called “American Dream”, a sprawl-oriented life-style, and, thus, designing ideal, traditional rural and indigenous architecture inspired nature-surrounded suburban dwellings for the riches (Falling-water house), for those less so (Usonia dwellings) and the public spaces. But also, if not even more importantly, this was all more than well fitting into, if not even reinforcing, New Deal, the master-plan conceived by the team around another Frank, FDR, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for re-animating the US economy during its 1930s Great Depression and following the Great Crash of 1929. Such sprawl life-style was, by its design, in a great need and demand of a few economy boosting practices such as public or private works for the new roads and infrastructure needed, and also, consumption of those new market products such as cars, petrol and its supply stations needed to run them. This was thus boosting new private industries of both North and South of the US and, after the Civil War, with the last generations of those who personally experienced it and carried a variety of personal grievances, gradually retiring, the US and their mutual economic goals found themself again united on the new front of rebuilding model of American Dream Life ..and hence the industries of, by its design, required goods. And as we all know, some of recent US presidents went into a war to “protect American way of living”, which inevitably includes the lifestyle of sprawl habituation and long journeys to work-places but also, high turnovers for the industries supplying it.

...No further questions to be asked

Obviously, architectural aesthetics was hardly finding its way as a subject of the highly politicised Biennale. It is therefore understanding but still disappointing (as voiced by some of the visitors and architects I spoke with), that very little attention or accompanying information is given in relation to the actual pearls of architectural aesthetics and its history that are also permanent features of the Biennale Giardini exhibition space itself, for example the Finish pavilion by Alto, or the Venezuelan pavilion and a small sculpture and water-basin garden by the entrance to the library designed by the famous Venician, Carlo Scarpa.....

But then, this view may just be my own Rorchach's ink-blot test interpretation of a large blot of the complexity of the most prestigious of architectural exhibitions.