by Roderick Conway Morris

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Shigeru Ban/IHT
Shigeru Ban's Paper Log Houses, Kobe, 1995

Architecture and Ideologies

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 22 July 2000


'City: Less Aesthetics, More Ethics' is the slogan-like title of the Seventh International Architecture Exhibition staged by the Venice Biennale. The implication that architects worldwide have been spending too much time of late pursuing beauty for its own sake, or that our builders have been tickling our visual fancy at the expense of the sterner moral aspects of their calling, may come as news to many people.

However, Massimiliano Fuksas, 56, the Rome-born architect and curator of this year's event (which continues at the Castello Gardens and the Arsenale until Oct. 29) does not explain with much clarity what his title means, and his catalogue introduction is characterized by gnomic utterances.

At a practical level, Fuksas has encouraged exhibitors to construct installations presenting ideas, or what in certain circles pass for ideas, which has rendered large tracts of the show indistinguishable from the Visual Arts Biennale. This has also provided the opportunity for not a few contributors to parade their right-on, politically correct attitudes, suitably couched in modish psycho- and socio-babble.

Consequently, this is a less comprehensive survey of what is going on in contemporary architecture than the last version, curated by Hans Hollein four years ago, and many prominent practitioners are absent altogether.

Nonetheless, a handful of contributors have taken Fuksas's rubric as an invitation to address the issue of modern architecture's failures and the lessons that can be learned from them for the future.

At the German pavilion there is a sober and salutary display, 'Berlin: 1940-1953-1989-2000-2001: Physiognomy of a Metropolis.' This provides a wealth of evidence that the city has been 'more severely damaged by architects than bombs.' The principal reason for this was the ruthless postwar application of the Athens Charter of 1933, the manifesto of CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) in which Le Corbusier was the dominant force.

This was a classic case of destruction brought about by the imposition of an 'ethic' now widely regarded as discredited, and demonstrates that had aesthetics been the priority, much that made Berlin distinctive, habitable and attractive would have been saved, despite the extensive bombing. The positive side of this admirably honest exercise in soul-searching is that architectural policy in Berlin is at last committed to ameliorating the damage done by the town planners who 'quite deliberately declared war on the traditional texture of the city.'

No less interesting is the Russian pavilion, which features the work of two young architects, Mikhail Filippov and Ilya Utkin, both deeply imbued with the ideas of classical architecture while interpreting them with panache and originality.

The Russian pavilion's commissioner, Gregory Revzin, confesses to finding Fuksas's thinking uncannily like something out of 'a leading article from a Soviet architectural journal.' He adds: 'You appeal for a new Utopia, but we lived with Utopia for seventy years.'

Both Filippov and Utkin delight in producing in artful, complex and often atmospheric architectural drawings, and the haunting images captured by Utkin's camera of ruined and decaying buildings richly deserved the Special Prize he received for architectural photography.

Makoto Sei Watanabe of Japan goes further than most of his wired-up contemporaries with a project that he claims 'will be the first example in the world to 'generate' architecture by a computer program.' The results on display here look rather inconclusive, and until computers can program themselves, we may be forgiven for being skeptical as to what extent a computer can be said to 'generate' anything from scratch.

Shigeru Ban, his fellow countryman, has been engaged in solving more pressing human problems. His Paper Loghouse is a triumph of ingenuity and imagination. He came up with these surprisingly attractive structures as temporary housing for Kobe earthquake survivors. They look like rural bamboo cabins, but their stout walls are made of rolls of waterproofed paper, and 'they were easy to recycle after use, easy to transport, easy to store and the paper tubes could be made on site.'

Of all the projects in the exhibition, this one showed that it was feasible for an architect to confront an ethical imperative while taking account of aesthetic considerations, and Ban was unlucky not to receive any recognition from the Biennale's prize committee.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023