Irish architecture roars into Venice


The 13th Venice International Architecture Biennale showed that anything is possible, as far as Irish architecture is concerned, with Grafton Architects picking up a Silver Lion award

THERE ISN’T a single under-employed architect in Ireland whose spirits weren’t lifted by the news last week that Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara had carried off a Silver Lion from the 13th Venice International Architecture Biennale. It showed that anything is possible, even in these tough times for the profession.

La Biennale di Venezia has long been a fixture on the art calendar, with Ireland represented most recently by Corban Walker – himself the son of an architect, the late Robin Walker. The architecture biennale, held in alternate years, didn’t start until 1980 but quickly became the premier international showcase for architects and their ideas.

Every biennale has its own director, and each of them chooses a theme. This year’s exhibition, which runs until November 25th, is directed by leading British architect Sir David Chipperfield, whose creative renovation of Berlin’s Neues Museum won critical and popular acclaim. The fairly loose theme he set was Common Ground.

“I want this biennale to celebrate a vital, interconnected architectural culture, and pose questions about the intellectual and physical territories that it shares,” Chipperfield says. Common Ground would serve as a metaphor for the collaboration and dialogue that he believed was, or should be at the heart of architecture.

“This theme is a deliberate act of resistance towards the image of architecture propagated in much of today’s media of projects springing fully formed from the minds of individual talents. I wish to promote the fact that architecture is internally connected, intellectually and practically, sharing common concerns, influences and intentions.” At the opening press conference, Chipperfield said the Venice show “isn’t an X Factor of who’s hot right now”. He also urged architects to turn away from “iconic one-off projects” such as museums, opera houses and theatres and address the real needs of 99.9 per cent of humanity – or risk being relegated to mere “urban decorators.”

German architect Wolf Prix launched a scathing attack on the biennale, describing it as little more than a networking opportunity, “an expensive danse macabre in a city of plunder . . . playing on a sinking gondola like the erstwhile orchestra on the Titanic”. It was “no longer about lively discussion and criticism [and] cannot get any worse”.

Ironically, his broadside led to a lively debate on Twitter, with Chipperfield’s deputy, Kieran Long – a former editor of the Architects’ Journal – saying: “I think if Wolf Prix hates you, you are doing something right.” London architect Charles Holland suggested that this was another case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Last week’s vernissage attracted the usual crop of starchitects. The larger-than-life Iraqi-born diva Zaha Hadid reportedly “went ballistic” when she was not admitted to the Arsenale di Venezia (one of the two biennale exhibition areas) because she had the wrong pass. Once inside, she started demanding changes in the layout of her show.

But Zaha’s outsized stainless steel flower was eclipsed by O’Donnell + Tuomey’s soaring timber lattice structure, made from Irish Sitka spruce, that dominates one of the large rooms in the Arsenale’s Corderie. Its narrow entry opens out towards a glass-topped “table of affinities”, including a poem dedicated to the architects by Seamus Heaney.

Norman Foster, now a resident of Switzerland for tax reasons, could be seen giving TV interviews at the entrance to his “gateway” show at the Arsenale, which features rapidly changing images of cities and projections of the names of architects, designers and planners; it was voted “Most Obnoxious” by the biennale’s unofficial daily journal.

French punk architect Odile Decq became quite attached to the elaborate “oscillating bench” that forms the centrepiece of Ireland’s pavilion at the tail end of the Arsenale’s Artigliere range. “It’s so joyful,” she said. “I have a bad back and don’t even have to move – the whole thing moves for me because of all the others sitting on it.”

Shifting Ground, designed by Heneghan Peng Architects, has deeper meanings than a mere see-saw. Its level was set at the aqua alta (high water) mark in Venice, though this would be lost on many visitors – including members of the biennale jury. “I wish there was some way to explain it all in 30 seconds,” Róisín Heneghan sighed.

Other national pavilions feature exhibitions so banal that you’d wonder why they bothered. Brazil has lots of hammocks, Canada has so much timber it’s like Chadwicks, Egypt ignores the Arab Spring to offer medieval-style brick arches, while the Netherlands installed a full-height curtain that changes its configuration every few minutes.

Japan won the Golden Lion not only for its stunning presentation under the steady hand of Toyo Ito, but also for its relevance, which is all about picking up the pieces after last year’s tsunami. “Where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is,” Ito said.

One of the prerogatives of a Venice Biennale director is that he (and it’s always been a man so far, oddly enough) can invite architects he admires to take part in the exhibition – and that’s how both O’Donnell + Tuomey and Grafton Architects got the unrivalled opportunity to present their work on what is effectively the world stage.

Grafton had gone global in 2008 by winning the first World Building of the Year award for its ground-breaking Bocconi University project in Milan. It is also doing a major building for the University of Toulouse and earlier this year it won an international competition for an even bigger project at Utech, the technological university in Lima, Peru.

Septuagenarian kingmaker Bob Stern, dean of architecture at Yale University, was on the biennale jury that gave Grafton the Silver Lion; he also chaired the jury that awarded the 2008 accolade for Bocconi. “Lightning has struck twice, as it did for Ray Houghton in Stuttgart in 1988 and New York in 1994,” said architect and critic Shane O’Toole.

We should have deduced from its premier position in the central pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale that Grafton’s show was in line to win an award. The content is really impressive, and not just for the juxtaposition of two large-scale photographs revealing remarkable similarities between Machu Picchu in Peru and our own Skellig Michael.

The Grafton team focused on the work of Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha and his muscular Estádio Serra Dourada in Goiânia, Brazil (1975) with models of its concrete structure made from aeroboard covered in layers of papier-mâché and smaller, exquisitely beautiful stone pieces by Sligo-born sculptor Eileen MacDonagh.

During a talk on their theme of “architecture as the new geography”, Grafton principals Farrell and McNamara spoke about how little they knew of Peru before they got involved in the Lima competition, and the vital importance of coming to something new with a series of questions rather than answers; only later do the answers emerge.

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was among the large group that turned up to hear them and marvel at their work. So did Peter Cachola Schmal, director of the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt; he offered to host an event there involving Grafton and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. The Brazilian architect has never met Grafton’s principals, and yet they still managed to find common ground.

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