Standing in the Czech pavilion last week at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale for the first time in my life I felt old, realising that technology was defeating me.
Where other pavilions had opted for the more traditional forms of installations and exhibitions, by which I mean showing something physical and real, the Czechs dispensed with any models or sculptures, or even film or text. Instead they handed visitors an iPad at the entrance. The lady who handed it over thought I was mad when I asked how it worked. She dutifully pushed the “on” button, which brought up a list of exhibits and the camera function. She tapped one, held the iPad up to the empty pavilion space and there was a small avatar of a model on the screen, floating a few metres away. “Shake it to get it to move,” she said.
Many taps, swipes and shakes later, my iPad was cluttered with shapes and boxes of text, gently bobbing, suspended in a liquid-crystal world. Looking around, a little mortified that in less than three minutes I’d managed to get myself in a sticky techie mess, I was mildly comforted to notice that the only other visitor was equally flummoxed. I walked up to the desk and gave it to a different lady then ran for it, to the sanctity of the Danish pavilion next door, which had a thoroughly traditional exhibition about the future architectural development of Greenland.
I’m the first to admit that technology and I are not the best of friends. I can work the basic functions on my laptop, phone, radio and television but I start getting anxious thinking of the vast chasms of capabilities that lie untapped beyond my reach. I know I’m in a shrinking minority unable to zip around an iPad at speed. What the Czechs might have saved on materials, logistics, phone bills and trying to wrangle with the Italian customs to heave an exhibition from Prague to the pavilion, they lost in visitor numbers and “customer satisfaction.” Of the few opinions I canvassed that evening on whether anyone had managed to find their way around the virtual exhibition, I realised I was far from alone.
iPads were everywhere in Venice. They appear to be replacing brochures, guides, cameras (though let’s be honest they look ridiculous held aloft) and now exhibitions. I have nothing but admiration for the skilled minds that wrestle with software to create virtual buildings and masterplans. But I admire far more the hands that can turn them into reality. While so much of life is gradually being sucked into the backlit screens on our desks and in our pockets, I hope the Czech pavilion experience at the biennale proves that exhibitions are better left physical, tangible, walk-aroundable – perhaps with a bit more human interaction and less dependence on touchscreen technology.