Wednesday. 19/5/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design


Elementary solutions

The architects and journalists currently in Venice (including yours truly) are hoping that the weather stays kind for the Architecture Biennale’s preview days, which run until the grand opening this Saturday. But the city will be hoping that the long-term forecast is favourable too.

After all, buildings and urban centres must be continually adapted to prevailing site conditions. And there are few places in the world where this relationship is as pronounced as it is in Venice. Built on sandbanks in the middle of a coastal lagoon, the city symbolises, according to Unesco, “the people’s victorious struggle against the elements”, with its built environment constantly battling rising tides, stifling air pollution and slowly sinking ground.

It’s only appropriate then that this year’s biennale will have exhibitions addressing architecture’s relationship with immediate surroundings. Denmark, for instance, will look to foster a feeling of connectedness with water, encouraging architects to build with it, rather than against. Catalonia will develop this idea by showing how air-pollution mapping in Barcelona could shape the city to give it cleaner air. And the United Arab Emirates will unveil a new kind of cement inspired by the geology of the country’s salt flats.

But in the lead up to the festival’s public opening on Saturday, what lessons do each of these offer Venice? Perhaps simply that the city’s battle with water levels, air pollution and sinking soils shouldn’t be viewed as a struggle in which humans need to triumph over the elements. Rather, it’s a situation best tackled by embracing them and unpacking their inherent potential. As for tonight, well, maybe I just need to embrace the prospect of rain and carry an umbrella.


Home sweet home

One of the most visually spectacular exhibitions at the Venice Biennale is also one of its most down-to-earth. Oslo architects Helen & Hard, alongside curator Martin Braathen, have taken over the lofty Nordic pavilion inside Venice’s Giardini (the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians alternate use of the space across various biennales) and turned it into a timber-laden installation that points to a more social future for housing.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

Rather than intimidating visitors with a grand architectural statement or complex approach, the pavilion welcomes them into a homelike setting. It’s inspired by a co-housing project that Helen & Hard completed in Stavanger, Norway, with ideas injected into it from the people in the community that the project helped to nurture. Cosy, communal and meticulously well-crafted, the work is a very Nordic take on the biennale’s theme, “How will we live together?” It’s also Monocle’s pick for the Golden Lion prize given to the event’s best proposal.


First class

Venice is profoundly linked to the sea yet many forget the city has a storied history of aviation, one that a group of enterprising Italians is now hoping to turn into a promising future. On the northern tip of the Lido di Venezia, a long, thin island bordering Venice, Nicelli Airport sits on an expansive swathe of grass. It is where the country’s first civilian flights to Vienna and other European cities took off from in the late 1920s.

In 1935 the first travellers entered a new terminal, a fine work of rationalist architecture that has aged gracefully and which evokes, with its clean lines, the golden age of travel. The opening of nearby Marco Polo Airport on the mainland in 1961 made Nicelli redundant but, since 2019, Lido businessman Maurizio Luigi Garbisa has had plans to return the terminal to its former glory to entice a high-end leisure crowd and the odd business traveler to Venice.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

A fetching new logo festuring a sparrow with a vintage-inspired font greets new arrivals on the welcome sign to the terminal. Inside, an extensive renovation has preserved many elements, including striped terrazzo flooring and the original Murano glass light fixtures. “We want to recapture the spirit of an age when moving about was a pleasure and something you looked forward to,” says Giacomo Zamprogno, Nicelli Airport’s commercial director.


Working together

Having worked in Hong Kong and London, Haewon Shin brings years of international experience to Seoul-based architecture firm Lokaldesign as its principal architect. Her practice has a reputation for sculpting urban spaces that last and its long list of public projects include a river-regeneration project and a major cycle tunnel in Seoul. In 2019, Shin was selected to become the first female curator of the South Korea pavilion with her proposal to convert the structure into Future School, an educational space to discuss the climate crisis, diaspora and innovation.

When the biennale announced its decision to postpone the event for a year, Shin initiated the National Pavilion Curators Collective, a coalition of architects from 49 countries who are curating the biennale’s pavilions. This is the first time in the event’s history that the curators have worked together to create a more cohesive experience for attendants.

Can you paint us a picture of what Future School looks like as a physical space?
It’s not big, fewer than 250 sq m. Once you go in, we have a round space – a carpet called “Black Meadow” by Ah-Yeon Kim that’s a place for discussions. We also have what we call a process wall with a board of more than 50 programmes that are running. We created a kitchen where, initially, people were going to have school lunch and there’s a break room: a house and a garden with no displays or exhibits of any kind – just a place where people can rest. We also opened the roof, and set up a bird bath and several wooden pieces for bees to nest in. It’s a place for all lifeforms, not only humans.

Could you tell us how the Curators Collective came about?
When we were preparing for the 2020 biennale, it was clear that Europe’s coronavirus situation was worsening, especially in Italy. In South Korea, we could still mostly carry on our daily lives and, in a way, it started with me wondering what I could do as someone who was part of the biennale. I knew that every pavilion was isolated in its own way and I thought it would be good to connect and see whether there was anything that we could do to help each other.

It’s rumoured that you went out of your way to find out each curator’s email address individually.
I had to find out all the curators’ contacts via Google because the biennale is such a long-established institution and there is normally a procedure to sharing these contacts. My initial letter proposed a meeting on 23 May 2020 and the key aim was to show solidarity between all the architects. Of course, the reaction was very enthusiastic. Previously, the curators were very busy preparing their own pavilions and had little chance to have a dialogue with one another. But we’ve been meeting at least once a month to develop common themes. We’re now good friends.


What came before

Mid-century architecture’s association with Hungary’s failed communist regime means that many of its modernist buildings face the wrecking ball – a situation that Dániel Kovács, curator of the country’s national pavilion, is keen to reverse.

“We have an incredible heritage of socialist modernism that was built before the regime change in 1989,” says Kovács. “We want to make people understand that there is value in saving these buildings from 50 years ago.”

To make his case, Kovács worked with 12 designers to create installations celebrating existing modernist buildings in Budapest, which will be on display at the biennale. This includes a brick installation by design studio Konntra (pictured), that champions the city’s often-maligned Ernö Lestyán Transformer Station.

The aim, according to Kovács, is to “show why we need revolutionaries” – architects who, with support from politicians and the public, will work to save these buildings. Here’s hoping that this time, the regime change is successful, and some of the city’s socialist modernism is retained.


Meditative space

As visitors to previous editions of the Venice Architecture Biennale might have discovered, sometimes you must escape the main exhibition spaces to find the most inspiring installations. In 2018, for example, that involved hopping on a boat to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where the Vatican had erected an impressively designed selection of temporary chapels that stole the show. Our pick for a top spot to escape to in 2021 sits on this same island.

Within the gardens of the San Giorgio Monastery is a structure, crafted by Colombian bamboo-design masters Simón Vélez and Stefana Simić in collaboration with Ahmed Chmiti and his Boujad Tribe cooperative, which takes inspiration from nomadic architecture. Entitled The Majlis, the hut-like building has been handmade using bamboo and wool, two abundant renewable materials. With its name taken from an Arab term for “council”, The Majlis will prompt conversation and exchange as visitors ponder the question posed by the biennale’s curator Hashim Sarkis: “How will we live together?”


Hyper link

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Architecture Biennale is only of interest to design enthusiasts. But it’s also a popular destination for bibliophiles because many curators put together books to accompany their exhibitions.

Take Marianne Krogh, the designer behind the Danish Pavilion, whose new book Connectedness shares a title with the country’s exhibition. Working closely with the graphic designers at Rasmus Koch Studio, the book includes photographs, illustrations, poems, and essays that respond to the interconnection of all things living. It’s a link the designers were keen to highlight in the cover art, with the book’s title wrapping around the front and back covers – a visual play on words that underlines the focus on connection.


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