by Roderick Conway Morris

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Gunnar Birkert
Gunnar Birkert's project for New National Library in Riga, Latvia

What next?

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 October 2002


Modern architecture - quintessentially represented by the glittering glass, steel and concrete skyscraper - its vulnerability, even its symbolic significance, was thrust into the center of public consciousness just over a year ago. And thanks to the endlessly replicated images of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, it is now difficult to look at any of these architectural giants without at the same time visualizing them collapsing like massive houses of cards.

The U.S. pavilion at the eighth International Architectural Biennale is devoted to a selection from Joel Meyerowitz's unique archive of more than 7,000 photographs recording the aftermath and clearing of Ground Zero, and some of the responses to Max Protech's morale-boosting invitation to 60 leading architects worldwide to come up with projects, however wild and fanciful, to replace them.

It is unlikely that any of these proposals will be taken up, though they stimulate the imagination in a positive way and may find distant echoes, if not on this site, perhaps elsewhere in the future.

In contrast, Deyan Sudjic, the British director of this year's event and curator of the central exhibit - entitled 'Next,' which fills the long and lofty 'Corderie' (Rope Walk), its adjoining spaces at the Arsenale and much of the Italia pavilion at the Castello Gardens - decided to concentrate on projects worldwide that are being realized or will be in the next decade or so. This wide-ranging, well-presented show, amply complimented by offerings from 29 national pavilions, makes this the most ambitious and comprehensive Venice Architectural Biennale to date. (The exhibition continues until Nov. 3.)

The 'Next' exhibition contains 140 plans and models by nearly 90 architects, arranged in sections such as Housing, Museums, Work, and Church and State, and cover projects as diverse as a small Japanese family home in a plum grove to a palatial mansion in Qatar, a cultural complex molded to fit the contours of the countryside outside Santiago di Compostella and in-your-face high-rise office developments. And, apart from the usual models, drawings and computer-generated views, there are full-scale chunks of buildings to illustrate their structures and external facets.

The City of Towers section, contiguous with the one devoted to skyscrapers already in progress by the likes of Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano, deviates from the general rule of confirmed projects, with a purely speculative array of possible buildings, specially commissioned for the show from eight architects, and reproduced by models on a scale of 1:100.

A sugar-loaf-shaped edifice by Foster claims to be London's 'first ecologically conceived tall building,' with design elements aimed at reducing the use of air-conditioning in summer and heating in winter. How effective these will be remains to be seen. Tall buildings are gas guzzlers by their very nature, and thrive on cheap energy supplies.

It is one of the ironies of the destruction of the Twin Towers that the planes that smashed into them were not only piloted by homicidal Arab fanatics, but probably fueled by Arab oil - the future price and supply of which will most likely have more influence on the long-term viability of very tall buildings than their potential as targets for terrorists. If not in the United States, in other parts of the world, power conservation considerations could severely reduce the demand for skyscrapers.

Many national pavilions, while reflecting the emphasis of the 'Next' show on projects that have been or will soon be built, deal with forms of architecture that will ultimately touch more day-to-day lives than some of the more high-profile, prestige schemes displayed in the flagship Arsenale exhibition.

The Brazilian pavilion unfolds a series of initiatives aimed at ameliorating conditions in shanty towns by introducing paved paths and streets within chaotic and haphazard existing layouts, and carving out and giving identity to public squares and parks for the use of all, to provide at least minimal recreational facilities.

Venezuela showcases a promising new system for building 'Community Cultural Spaces,' as meeting places for all kinds of activities in poorer neighborhoods. Designed by Juan Pedro Posani and his team, these prefabricated, flexible, economical but pleasing buildings could fit well into many other tropical environments.

In a profession still dominated by men, it is heartening to see at the Finnish pavilion what has been achieved by women architects in a series of ground-breaking joint projects in West Africa. These schemes are a glowing tribute to how Western expertise combined with local consultation and involvement can produce striking, colorful, useful and robust buildings from local materials at very low cost.

At a Womens' Center in Senegal, for example, old car wheel rims were set in the walls to make ventilators and the bottoms of green beer bottles to let light in - both these junk items bring recycled as practical and decorative features.

The Hungarian pavilion this year sets itself the challenge of proving 'that architecture which is mindful of tradition as well as original, is feasible,' and does so with resounding success, by focusing on the work of three outstanding contemporary practitioners: Istvan Ferencz, Tamas Nagy and Gabor Turanyi. All three favor traditional materials - stone, brick and wood - but in their houses, schools, churches and public buildings, they do remarkable things with them, making buildings that are at once unmistakably new, but look instantly at home in existing land- and townscapes.

A daring attempt to marry ancient and modern, even the forms of nature and the man-made, is unveiled in Latvia's presentation of Gunnar Birkerts's plans for the new National Library, which is about to take shape on the banks of the Daugava river in the center of Riga. Familiarly known as the 'Castle of Light' or 'Glass Mountain,' it is inspired by a complex brew of elements, from the local landscape and vernacular architecture, to a popular folktale of a mysterious mountain and a sleeping princess. Birkerts's aim in this building is that its form should express its content, and when this depository of the nation's history, storehouse of memories and monument to the magic of reading is completed, Latvia's capital will have a landmark like no other.

The Architectural Biennale of 2000 was almost overwhelmed by conceptualism, so the 'return to order' of the current edition is welcome, as are the signs here of the evident decline of the rigid modernist orthodoxies that dominated the second half of the 20th century.

We live in a paradoxical age, in which the giddy growth in the means of communication seems to go hand-in-hand with the increasing isolation of home- and motor-car-bound human beings from their communities and from each other. 'Progress' has gone so far that for most of us 'back to nature' is hardly an option. But you never know.

Among the projects at the Danish pavilion is an intriguing one, soon to be tried out in Copenhagen, to build housing on stilts on reclaimed, rewooded wasteland. In these angst-ridden times, a return to living among the tree-tops might yet seem an enticing alternative.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023