Men Explain Frank Gehry to Me at the Venice Biennale

ERIC PETERSON (MED Alum)
Shortly after arriving in Venice, my friend took me along with him to a party at Foundation Louis Vuitton, which occupies a room overlooking the French label’s retail store and where they “exhibit” installations. Presumably timed with the opening the 2017 Venice Architecture Biennale, the show up at the time was on the architecture of Frank Gehry. Joining a crowd of mostly older and impossibly tan Europeans, it was the nightmare of what I thought Venice would be like: repetitive studio models— Gehrian piles taped atop programmatic elements—sat mere feet away from thousand-dollar leather handbags. No wonder the crowd of architecture culture biddies seemed more preoccupied with the champagne flutes and the sound of their own voices than anything else.
Down the road, the fairgrounds of the Biennale was this year overseen by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. Also the recipient of last year’s Pritzker Prize, Aravena is perhaps best known for the Quinta Monroy low-income housing project, which is now frequently invoked in discussions around the kind of “informal” settlement that the architecture world loves to mention when it talks about South America, suggesting Aravena might be an anti-Gehry of sorts. His selection seems intended to send a pointed message: This Biennale would be different, reflecting the impulse towards social consciousness that has peppered architectural discourse these past few years. The main exhibition spaces of the Biennale on the theme “On the Front” are littered with occasionally innovative projects from around the globe which have some kind of “informal” aspect. (Low-cost houses in the American South produced by Rural Studio seems to have been the only project exhibited by a U.S. architectural outfit). Someone relayed to me that Patrik Schumacher, that vanguard of parametric design, gave remarks indicating his extreme annoyance at the state of an architectural scene that does not include his work in Biennale.
As a member of the Architecture Lobby, a group founded by YSoA professor Peggy Deamer, I was at the Biennale to participate in a series of events meant to highlight the precarity of architectural labor, and my comrades and I spent much of the weekend wondering: did Aravena’s selection really change anything? Within an institution like the Biennale, what would change look like? Is it even desirable? Amid suggestions that Aravena is vanguard of a more socially-oriented architecture practice, a colleague of mine at UC Berkeley and fellow Lobby member Marianella D’Aprile, who interned for him, reports that over 60% of his firm is composed of unpaid interns.
Much of the buzz in American architectural media has centered on the widespread critiques of the misguided U.S. pavilion, which envisioned Detroit as a canvas for quasi-modernist megastructual interventions presented in fantastical renderings. On the opposite end of the spectrum the Canadians and British, true to cultural stereotype, seemed to think that, following Aravena’s proposition, to exhibit any architecture at all might be rude. Instead the Canadians issued a nicely-designed zine about mining in their country and the Brits had a cute pavilion filled with inflatable balls you could sit in and a giant bed popularly referred to as “the orgy bed.” Would a focus on human-centered and socially-equitable design mean a turn away from buildings altogether, giving credence to Shumaker’s critique of a discipline that confuses itself with humanitarianism?
Many of the European pavilions tackled The Refugee Problem, including a German Pavilion which also exhibited almost no architecture at all, instead focusing on the social programs of German cities in absorbing huge sums of refugees fleeing the xx and other conflicts. But a more building-focused installation of among my favorites, coming in the form a small tent outside the main exhibition hall at the Giardini which might have easily been mistaken as a temporary event space or snack bar. The Pavilion of the Western Sahara is a collaboration between architect and professor Manuel Herz and The National Union of Sahrawi Women, a group of refugees among the 140,000 who live in what are essentially permanent refugee camps in Western Algeria, displaced some forty years ago by ongoing conflict in the region. The pavilion raises many provocative questions, including one about the representation of ethnic groups without nationhood at an event which so privileges the role of the nation state. Most importantly, however, the exhibit undertakes a notion of architectural ‘research’ not out to instrumentalize an existing condition into a pie-in- the-sky, render porn solution (see the U.S. pavilion). Instead the Western Sahara Pavilion is composed of dense maps and infographics of XX, the capital of the nation-in- exile, and many of these maps are adorned on handwoven rugs made by Sahrawi women.
Photographs of the developments reveal buildings which are themselves fairly unremarkable but disrupt the notion of camps as temporary affairs to be served through ad hoc novelties: in lieu of a more political solution, the ‘camps’ that have existed for nearly four decades are now cities in their own right. They point to the degree that settlements rely on the proper functioning of administrative and social services, which have been realized here. The pavilion is therefore not a springboard for launching a design career but instead for exploring the intersection of architecture and urbanism with the lived conditions of a population, however exceptional the Sahrawi’s condition is.
In examining a spatial practice that exceeds the nation-state boundary, the pavilion shows the camp to contain both permanence and temporal elements, and that the conditions of physical settlement—and the dense networks of social support which they can and must sustain—remain the key project of any kind of movement for city and also nation building. In a small corner of the Biennale fairgrounds, the exhibit perfectly demonstrated an acute understanding of the role architecture plays in the plight of those looking to escape political turmoil and imagine a different world.
Paprika secured a press pass for Eric Peterson (MED alum) for the 2016 Biennale.