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The Banal

Prix takes issue with the state of the Venice Architecture Biennale, saying "architects are playing on a sinking gondola while, outside in the real world, our leaky trade is sinking into powerlessness and irrelevance."

August 30, 2012

Editor’s note: This arrived in our – and many others’ – inboxes. It’s sure to start at least a bit of a stir...


Praise be to Nero’s Neptune.
The Titanic sails at dawn.
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
(Bob Dylan: “Desolation Row,” 1966)


If one did not know that the media constantly exaggerates, one could almost conclude – as the Süddeutsche Zeitung has – that the Venice Biennale of Architecture really is the world’s most important architecture exhibition.


However, I believe that the word “exhibition” is not intended to describe an exhibition in this case, but rather that the notion only designates the event per se. In other words, an industry meeting, like a product fair. Other critics fail to even question the purpose of the exhibition; instead they immediately conclude that the coming together, the meeting, the networking is the key aspect. That’s that!


I would like to maintain at this juncture that the meaning of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, for theoretical arguments, has been increasingly losing significance since its beginnings with the “Strada Novissima” by Paolo Portoghesi in 1980. Even the personal significance for the participants is very low when compared to the Art Biennale. So let us not deny the truth. This event is an expensive danse macabre. In a city of plunder (an exhibition of plunder) hordes of tourists (architects) roll along broken infrastructure in order to satisfy their petit bourgeois desire for education (in the case of the architects: vanity, envy, schadenfreude, suspicions). Even the glamour that the visitors are supposed to feel is staid and faked by the media for whom a star architect is like a film star.


In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak, and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative, and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning. What a great Architecture Biennale it would have been had they established forums and put out themes which would have provided a chance to look behind the scenes at the decision-making, instead of boring exhibitions. Take, for example, the dispute about the train station in Stuttgart. Or the reasons for the cost explosion for prominent buildings such as the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. Or the political arguments about mosques and minarets – in other words, the disputes about the localization of an idea. Why the market for single-family homes in the U.S. has collapsed and how power politics is conducted through settlement architecture. These topics would be worthy of discussion – not who is and who is not a star architect.


However, instead of that we face: “People Meet in Architecture,” and now “Common Ground.” In other words: compromise. It cannot get any worse!

This situation conjures an image of the Venetian carnival – one can imagine all the architects in Pierrot costumes surrounded by masked critics and dancing the Dance Banale. Or, even better, the architects are playing on a sinking gondola like the erstwhile orchestra on the Titanic playing their last song, while outside in the real world our leaky trade is sinking into powerlessness and irrelevance. This is because politicians and project managers, investors and bureaucrats have been deciding our built environment for a long time now. Not the architects.


While in Russia artists are stubbornly resisting the authoritarian regime, the current director of the Architecture Biennale considers these characteristics to be obstacles for our profession, and he explains in an interview that space must be taken from the genius. One would have to show him Pussy Riots in order for him to finally understand our society.


Furthermore, I consider that the Venice Biennale of Architecture needs to be reorganized.


Wolf D. Prix / COOP HIMMELB(L)AU  24.08.2012


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards

Piazza San Marco, Venezia