Asia at the Venice Biennale

It was a hot afternoon as a crowd gathered in the courtyard of Hong Kong’s pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and arguably most important architectural event. They were there to discuss Asia’s role in the exhibition – and it didn’t take long for someone to say what was on everyone’s mind. “I counted the number of countries from Asia participating in the biennale, and there are six countries out of sixty-five,” said Dongwoo Yim, one of the contributors to Korea’s pavilion. “It’s not a lot.”

Of course, the picture is more complicated than that. Asia might be underrepresented in some ways, but it has certainly not been ignored. Korea, under the curatorship of Minsuk Cho, won the Golden Lion for best national exhibition, with a thoughtful examination of modernism on both sides of the 38th parallel – and how North and South resemble each other more than one might think. That followed Japan’s award for best pavilion in the 2012 biennale, for an exhibition curated by Toyo Ito that documented reconstruction efforts after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Still, it is hard to deny that Asia’s presence at the biennale is felt much less strongly than its demographic and economic weight would suggest. “The pendulum has swung from West to East,” says architect Ivan Fu, who curated the Hong Kong exhibition along with Alvin Yip and Doreen Liu. “Asia is emerging. It’s the way forward. But the Asian participation [in the biennale] is quite scattered.”

This latest edition of the biennale, which opened in early July and runs until November 22, is the most anticipated in years. Iconoclastic architect Rem Koolhaas agreed to curate the show on the condition that he be given two years to prepare, instead of the usual six months, and he vowed to shift the focus away from individual “starchitects” to the fundamentals of architecture. 65 countries are participating and there are dozens of satellite exhibitions and other events, including film screenings and dance performances.

Koolhaas called for a return to basics—the biennale’s central exhibition looks at the significance of architectural elements like windows and balconies—but he also asked participants to consider architecture’s contentious relationship with modernity. It’s an approach that earned high praise from critics, in contrast to the mixed reviews that have greeted most recent editions of the biennale. “It doesn’t offer answers, but the questions it raises are pertinent,” wrote critic Rowan Moore in The Observer.

For the curators of the Hong Kong exhibition, one of those questions is the role of architecture in Asia – and the role of Asia in the field of architecture. “A lot of Europeans are architects turned artists, because there just aren’t enough opportunities for them,” says Yip. “By contrast, in Asia we’re building a lot, and we shouldn’t be continuing to emulate what was done in the West. We believe in convenience, pragmatism, compact living – it’s a very different spatial culture.”

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The Hong Kong pavilion

Yet there are relatively few venues at the biennale that look at how architecture is answering Asia’s evolving needs. Several countries notably absent: India has never participated in the biennale and Singapore withdrew after 2010. (The DesignSingapore Council, which organised the country’s last exhibition, declined to offer an explanation for its withdrawal.) Aric Chen, the design and architecture curator of Hong Kong’s M+ museum, says this is symptomatic of a lack of institutional support for architecture in Asia. “The official national pavilions are often mired in bureaucracy because in our part of the world there isn’t as much respect for curators and curatorial integrity as you might seen in other places,” he says.

Some of the most interesting takes on Asian architecture came from outside the framework of national pavilions, in satellite exhibitions like Across Chinese Cities – Beijing, which examined the city’s tumultuous urban evolution by looking closely at one district, Dashilar. Videos, photographs, magazines, models and found objects were used to represent the changes occurring in the ancient neighbourhood, which has been wracked by the kind of tabula rasa redevelopment for which Beijing is notorious, but which is also evolving in more organic ways. “Choosing Dashilar as a subject of study is about taking it out of this stiff image of a place that is lost or eroded by the passing of time, stuck in a remote temporal zone, and taking it into the present,” says curator Beatrice Leanza. “There is life happening there.”


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Across Chinese Cities – Beijing

In Taiwan’s exhibition, housed a 10-minute walk away from the biennale’s main venues (political considerations have kept it from being classified as a national pavilion), curator Jimenez Lai explored the influence of domestic life on the Taiwanese cityscape by creating nine distinct houses, each dedicated to a different aspect of the island’s culture and lifestyle. “The atom that makes up the city is the house, and we’re looking at the politics of the house,” says Lai. In The Space that Remains, another satellite exhibition, Taiwanese photographer Yao Jui-chung captures poignant images of ruined buildings.

In Hong Kong’s exhibition, curators commissioned four short films that reflect the city’s links to the adjacent Pearl River Delta, a fast-developing region of mainland China. Each film’s themes are represented by two models of real-world architectural projects. One of the films, Connections, a documentary about three generations of migrant women, is paired with models of the Lo Wu border crossing in Shenzhen and the Kowloon Station complex in Hong Kong, reflecting the shift of the frontier from the edge of the city to its centre.

“In a lot of architectural exhibitions, people focus on iconic stuff, but we’re all ordinary people, so we should think about how ordinary people live,” says Ivan Fu. “Architecture is very rational, but film is very emotional,” says Heiward Mak, who directed SAR², a film that touches on the alienation felt by residents of a new development zone in Shenzhen. “We are trying to use that emotional angle to express what citizens feel about living in the places they do.”

Shedding new light on overlooked architecture was the goal of New Zealand’s inaugural contribution to the biennale, Last, Loneliest, Loveliest, which examines the influence of traditional Maori and Pacific Island architecture on the country’s built environment. “The architectural world is Eurocentric – we’re departing quite deliberately from it,” says curator David Mitchell.

Along with documenting Maori post-and-beam construction techniques and what architect Rau Hoskins calls “a strong anthropomorphic element,” in Maori architecture—buildings were seen as the embodiment of ancestors—the show also reveals the deliberate attempts by modernist New Zealand architects to depart from European traditions by creating light, ethereal timber structures. It even makes an argument for including work such as Shigeru Ban’s Christchurch paper cathedral into the Pacific tradition.

While the New Zealand exhibition stresses the adaptability of modernism to local contexts, the Korea pavilion takes the opposite tack by highlighting the similarity between North and South. “It really made a very important point about how modernity has been instrumentalised by completely opposing political ideologies and yet somehow ends up always looking the same,” says Aric Chen. That seems to reflect a point made by Rem Koolhaas in his curatorial statement for the biennale: “Architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global,” he writes. “National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity.”

That notion weighed heavily over the discussion at the Hong Kong exhibition. “Asian countries share a lot of cultural background, so maybe there can be a joint venue that shows Asia a whole rather than as individual countries,” said Singaporean architect Edmund Ng, but Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra disagreed. “I think this talk of Asia is very problematic,” he said. “What happens in China and what happens in India are quite different, but on the other hand, with things like slums, there are global narratives that go across countries.” German curator Nikolaus Hirsch agreed: “Identity politics makes it incredibly difficult for us to operate and address all of these social issues.”

Chen is similarly wary about any deliberate effort to boost Asian participation at the biennale. “If we seen an under-representation of Asian countries at the biennale, it’s because architecture as a discipline is less developed in those countries,” he says. “I don’t think we want to have the tail wagging the dog. Once architecture becomes a more mature and sophisticated field in many of the countries around us, their pavilions will naturally get stronger.”

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Le Corbusier’s Villa Arpel

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The French pavilion

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At the Giardini della Biennale

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Outside the Arsenale

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Inside the Arsenale

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The Japanese pavilion


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Drawing lines in the sand in the Israeli pavilion

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Dance performance in Mondoitalia

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Inside the Arsenale

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday August 30 2014at 05:08 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Europe, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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