Betsky’s Venice Biennale

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Architecture is … more than just pretty buildings. – Aaron Betsky

If you follow Aaron Betsky, the chief critic for Architect, the mouthpiece of the American Institute of Architects, to the Venice Biennale, you get to experience the absence of pretty buildings – right smack in the kisser. And there you are in Venice! Betsky waxes poetic in “Postscript from the 2016 Venice Biennale” about buildings that do not even seem to be buildings – but rather scaffoldings inside or outside of buildings, or exclusive of buildings altogether. Buildings as buildings are secondary, to say the least, and you can be sure you won’t be confronted by any pretty ones, at least not inside architecture’s ritziest event, which happens in the city every two years.

Most intriguing to me … was the Polish Pavilion. Curators Dominika Janicka, Martyna Janicka, and Michał Gdak filled their space not with either buildings or representations of buildings, but with the stuff out of which you make buildings—and which Colin Rowe once thought should be the model for future architecture: Scaffolding. … Within this space, haunting in itself, they showed videos and photographs of Polish construction workers on site, highlighting the often dangerous and onerous conditions in which they work. The installation was effective both because it once again proved the old saw that a building under construction is much more beautiful than when it is finished, and because it raised an issue some critics have pointed out in far-away places like the Emirates and China, but that is just as germane in the Western world: Oppression and worker abuse are part of the building materials of many of our most beautiful structures.

You don’t say! A whole lotta subterfuge going on here.

Scaffolding provides not only a way to avoid discussing the look of a building but disguising it altogether. That has enabled the biennale, its exhibitors and its visitors to focus more intensely on the part of Betsky’s quote that I elided at the outset of this post: “Architecture is more than buildings, and more than just pretty buildings.” Just as at the inaugural Chicago Biennial earlier this year, the Venice one sought to browbeat itself for how little it was doing to cure the ills of the world while revealing how much it really is doing.

Upon reflection, my “take-away” from the usual sea of projects and people was this: The importance of the idea that architects have the power to use their knowledge and skills to do something good.

Color me impressed. What a powerful rebuttal to the late Zaha Hadid’s chief factotum Patrik Schumacher, who dished the Chicago affair for focusing on how architecture can help fix society. Personally, I agreed with him. I think making buildings beautiful, or at least contributing factors to a city’s beauty, is a great goal. Beautiful parts of town are among the few really great things that the poor can enjoy for free. And frankly, why shouldn’t the poor parts of town be beautiful? They used to be. Of course, architects these days don’t like thinking or talking about beauty, since it naturally focuses too much attention on how incapable they’ve become at creating it.

Fortunately, the biennale offers plenty of opportunity to drown sorrows in the usual bottles of liquid refreshment. Lo and behold, immediately after issuing his “take-away,” Betsky pops the cork on this biennale finale:

I was especially frustrated when, at some of the discussions that swirl around the Biennale in both informal and formal ways, architects fell back on blaming others for their failings. At the Dark Side for instance, Patrik Schumacher used this wine-fueled debate, organized at each Biennale by Robert White, to blame clients and outdated technologies for hindering designers’ abilities. I tried (in my somewhat inebriated state) to make it clear during this debate that I think architects need to stop blaming clients, budgets, sites, codes, or anything or anyone else for what they themselves do not achieve. They should come to this Biennale and learn from the many techniques and hopeful examples on display to figure out what they can do, and then go do it with the beauty that has the power to move our hearts and minds.

Go do it with beauty? Right. Did you read your article before you hit the send button? Might there be something you wanted to say at this “wine-fueled” debate about what have you not achieved, Mr. Betsky? Hmm?

Say what you will about the critic, he not only has fun channeling his inner masochist at the biennale every two years, but he also entertains his readers – though perhaps not in the manner he intends. Bless him for that. He may be architecture’s most consummate bloviator.

Here is my piece “Diss the Chicago Biennial!,” on Schumacher’s diatribe.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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