This is written during the last week of the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture, at which I could have once played a (very) minor part, but that is another story. The two curators, Irish architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, in explaining their theme of Freespace, talk of architecture in terms of ‘gifts’ and ‘generosity’, of ‘new ways of thinking’, and of solutions in which architecture provides for ‘the well-being and dignity of each citizen of this fragile planet’. Those of us who have to deal with architecture everyday might well wonder: where have these people been living? As well as physical space, Freespace also…“encompasses freedom to imagine the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.” Nothing left out; anything can shelter under the Freespace umbrella.
And so it does. These are just a few examples. In the Egyptian pavilion, ‘freespace’ is public space that is occupied and utilised by the unauthorised: street traders, the homeless, the marginalised. Rare in the metropolis, where space is increasingly privatised or controlled, ‘freespace’ is an unpredictable space, sometimes anarchic, sometimes lawless, and in need of an ‘adaptive infrastructure’ to develop its maximum potential. The Russian Pavillon talks marvellously about the railways and railway stations as a vital unifying element in this country of enormous space; while in the legacy of the Serbian architect, Bogdan Bogdanovic, ‘freespace’ is a philosophical space for the development of architectural ideas, particularly those that underpinned the traditional concept of the city. Somewhat less inspired, the architects of certain Swiss apartment blocks saw ‘freespace’ as simply the percentage of balcony area to the floor area of an apartment.
The Australian pavilion (you have to go there) offered an installation, inside and out, of ten thousand plants, different species of native grasses that were common before European colonisation, but are now increasingly rare. At the last Architecture Biennale a swimming pool had been installed here. It’s a pity they didn’t keep the water; lots of these plants are either dead or dying.
The Biennale curators’ contribution relies on the work of those architectural practices with which they are familiar, giving it something of a quality of a stall: a ‘who’s-who’ or a ‘who’s-doing-what-where’. I really don’t want to see this at the Architecture Biennale, I don’t want to see architects talking about their individual practices, I want to see them (or whoever) talking about architecture in a much broader sense. So it is a delight to come across the contribution of the Spanish architect, Rafael Moneo, who offers us a quite profound definition of ‘freespace’:
The perception of free space appears at the moment when a building’s condition as an artefact gives way, and space is felt as a sensorial expression of freedom, letting us briefly forget the built world and the discipline of architecture. Paradoxically, it is the best architecture that allows one to be oblivious to built environment. Architecture is no longer the spectacle, but is suffused in the free space. Therefore, free space should not be confused with the idea of making spaces meant to manifest the creative freedom of the architect, where their fantasy is produced without constraint. Freedom for an architect often results in the absence of freedom for the users, captive in the architecture. Free space appears when architecture recedes, in spite of its physical presence.
Moneo references the annex to the Town Hall in Murcia as his own (rare) achievement of freespace, but I am sure he would defer to those who live there for the final say.
L’altro Spazio, Viaggio nelle aree interne dell’Italia,authored by Mario Cucinella
I never watch videos at the Biennale, so it says something about L’altro Spazio, Viaggio nelle aree interne dell’Italia, a video documentary authored by Mario Cucinella, the curator of the Italian pavilion, that I not only watched this hour-long video all the way through, sitting on a bum-breaking wooden stool, but I came back a few days later and watched the whole thing again, seated on the same bum-breaking stool. (A trailer for L’altro Spazio is on YouTube. Just find yourself something comfortable to sit on.)
Cucinella journeys through the inland Italian countryside, visiting places that have become depopulated or abandoned, looking to rediscover traditions, knowledge and practices, the possibilities for care and community, the customs that ‘constitute our real DNA.’ Each village or town has its particular story, and its problems — depopulation, failed industrialisation, earthquake damage, for example — but also this long history of success. We have had fifty years of suburbs, comments Cucinella, but a thousand-year tradition of knowing how to build space.
More than anything, though, it is the concept of ‘the urban’ as discussed in L’altro Spazio that demands my attention, because this is not the ‘urban’ of the metropolis as we understand it in Australia, but the ‘urban’ that traditionally resides in towns as the basis for community, urban centres that are conventionally traversed on foot, that are places of communal belonging, and are still unquestionably urban.
Free school is free space
Traditional urban culture is also at the heart of the Serbian pavilion’s homage to Bogdan Bogdanović, (Free School in Free Space, curated by Branko Stanojević), architect, architectural philosopher and writer on urbanism, one-time Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Belgrade, one-time Mayor of Belgrade and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, until his expulsion for his anti-nationalist activism and his vigorous critique of the politics and political rhetoric of one Slobodan Milošević.
The exhibit takes as its starting point the Village School for the Philosophy of Architecture that Bogdanović established in 1976 in an abandoned village school near Belgrade, and which ran until his self-imposed exile in 1990. All that is left in this again abandoned building is his mural depicting his vision of the world, now installed in the pavilion. Numerous philosophical selections from Bogdanović’ Citissary, are available as printed sheets, and I quote from them below. (What would an architect today do with these?)
Cites made of stone were beautiful, they were wise; they were mortal thanks to the airy aura of ideas-images that stones emanate. And in order to reach the offered ideas-images, and to transform them into solid construction forms, one had to grasp the technology of the stone, a technology that is square-like, like any other is.
The biggest progress today is made by an extremely wise invention called concrete, which is petrified ash. It is ash whose thirst is quenched only halfway. Concrete is a substance without flavour, odour and colour. No-one likes to touch concrete, and when they do, they unintentionally shiver…
What would happen, say, if the Interpol arrested all of the urban planners in the world at once? Trust me, nothing would happen. Cities would still grow monstrously as they do, the spaghetti junctions would be even more tangled, the erosion of the traditional urban culture could be continued at the same pace, neither faster nor slower…
…if we appreciate our present-day suburban man after the senseless cacophony of architectural forms with which he surrounded, captured, and abolished himself, we would realise that he not only does not feel the whole world, but that he does not see himself in the mirror, nor does he see the beauty of the mirror. Let’s call this mirror as you want to: the environment, the surroundings, the tradition…
There is always something ironic about the Architecture Biennale: the absence of any architecture. Drawings, photographs, videos, scale models and machines, examples of the materials used in architecture perhaps, but no actual buildings. Until now. We discover the Vatican Chapels almost my accident, I have to confess, but discover at the same time, the wonderful Isola di San Giorgio, which reinforces certain ideas we hold about Venice.
The ten chapels, courtesy of the Holy See, are designed by various architects (including Sean Godsell from Australia) and set in the wooded gardens of San Giorgio, with the intention that they will later be transported to other places in other countries.
Having discovered them we return on four more occasions. Once we see Godsell’s chapel opening and closing for the camera. Late afternoon is the best time to go; as six o’clock approaches, the Biennale staff wander through the gardens telling everyone they are about to close for the day, and the geometric garden lights come on as we walk back to the vaporetto.
There are some favourites, of course:
Sean Godsell, Australia; suggestive of a folding metal box… or a giant bespoke barbeque in the Gold Coast hinterland…
Norman Foster, UK; in the woods, a meditative progression from the entrance to the ‘altar’ overlooking the water…
Smiljan Radic, Chile; with the door closed, you can only look up to the heavens…
Eva Prats & Ricardo Flores, Spain; inspired by a Russian constructivist drawing, beautiful from every angle…