Landscape Architects Nowhere in Sight at the Venice Architecture Biennale

We wish the Venice Architecture Biennale was the Venice Landscape Architecture Biennale. Almost all the pavilions by countries, starchitects, and up-and-coming architects were once again indoors, and even then, with a few exceptions, they all seemed to lack any plant life. While we agree that an architecture show shouldn’t be a garden festival, it would be great to see architects getting out among the people of the city and creating inviting public spaces, you know, more like landscape architects do.

The reviews of this year’s big architecture to-do in the city of canals seemed mixed. Some of the world’s few remaining full-time architecture critics called the exhibits lifeless, limited, stiff, exclusive, hollow, exhausting, arduous, bleak, and boring. We guess everybody’s a critic. On the positive side, the UK critics from The Financial Times, The Guardian (and here), and The Telegraph, were largely positive, perhaps to support the British architect David Chipperfield, who organized and curated this year’s event, creating the theme “Common Ground.” Other critics like Michael Kimmelman, the brand-new architecture critic of The New York Times, who seems much more interested in landscape architecture and urban design these days, basically said the most interesting projects, like the ones in the U.S.’s Spontaneous Interventions pavilion, weren’t done by architects at all.

The architecture biennale’s jury just announced the winners, with Japan taking the best pavilion and the U.S. getting a special mention for its Spontaneous Interventions exhibit. The American pavilion was curated by Cathy Lang Ho, the founding editor of The Architect’s Newspaper; David Van Der Leer, co-curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab; and Ned Cramer, Editor-in-Chief of AIA’s Architect Magazine. A number of other architecture and design critics also participated as contributors.

All of the co-curators are communications experts so they brought those skills to creating a rich, dense exhibit that featured many unique, bottom-up (and maybe even illegal) designed urban happenings that have occurred across the U.S. However, there seemed to be very few works of landscape architecture, even though many landscape architects have been doing exciting urban interventions for the past few decades. Or if there are landscape architects featured, it doesn’t look like they got much credit.

In Architect, which dedicated its entire last issue to the exhibition, we hear about many architects who have helped enable the spontaneous growth of these urban spaces, but the few landscape architects whose work is included aren’t listed that way. For example, the Better Block project, which won a ASLA honor award in 2011, was actually designed by a team of street activists and landscape architecture firm SWA Group. In another case, the brilliant work of San Francisco-based Rebar and its landscape architect founder, John Bela, ASLA, isn’t mentioned in the same context as the Park(ing) day or Parklet movements they started, which have now gone global. To be fair, a number of public artists and planners are also included, but not described as such. Still, this doesn’t really create “common ground” among the other design professionals like landscape architects, urban designers, interior designers, and planners.

While we didn’t attend the Venice Architecture Biennale, a few countries’ pavilions intrigued us, or at least their photos did. The projects all seem very architecture-centric, with lots of hard surfaces, sharp lines, and severe forms, but a few were aesthetically compelling nonetheless. Here are a few worth perusing:

Architecture: Possible Here?: Organized and curated by Toyo Ito, Japan’s exhibit created a wooden landscape as a platform to showcase the work of three Japanese architects who propose designing new homes for those who were devastated in the 2011 Tsunami. Like Japan’s pavilion, Canada’s Migrating Landscapes also creates a visually-appealing mini-wood city that acts a foundation for all the projects and models.

I-City by Russia: This pavilion by SPEECH Techoban / Kuznetsov is a showcase for the Strolkovo Innovation Center, a new development that aims to build Russian intellectual capital in five areas of new technology. Visitors interact with the QR-code-covered walls through tablets given at the beginning of the exhibit. Clicking on a QR code brings up information about Stolkovo. ArchDaily writes: “What we liked about this pavilion is the fact that technology is used as a medium, and what prevails is light and space, a particular atmosphere that wraps you in information, in an intangible way.”

Originaire by China: Organized by five artists and architects, the Chinese pavilion features a set of LED-powered light art works. Arranged to be experienced sequentially, the pavilion ends with an outdoor exhibit of square boxes meant to symbolize the “spatial relationships” of Chinese villages and people, writes DesignBoom.

A project by Zaha Hadid and a team of architects that pays homage to German architect Frei Otto is also worth checking out. In keeping with the theme of “common ground,” the exhibit is meant to find how contemporary design trends have come out of the the rich currents of architectural history.  

Lastly, architecture, in general, may also be sending the wrong message about its relationship with nature if spray-painting Venice’s poor pigeons is taken as an example. A few Berlin-based artists created a sort of paint and conveyor-belt like device that foisted upon the birds some pretty loud hues.

Apparently, the paints are safe to use on living things, but who knows how pigeons, which are among the smartest birds on earth, felt about being transformed into day-glo shades. 

While some kooky pet owners like to dye their poodles, wild creatures, even pesty urban ones, are best left alone. Or for their next piece, perhaps these artists should let the pigeons decide what color they should be dyed? Pigeons, it seems, can also make artistic choices.

See more images from the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Image credits: (1-2) U.S. pavilion. Nico Saieh / ArchDaily, (3) Japan’s pavilion. Patricia Parinejad / ArchDaily, (4) Russia’s pavilion. Patricia Parinejad / ArchDaily, (5) China’s pavilion. copyright DesignBoom, (6) Pigeons / copyright Designboom.

3 thoughts on “Landscape Architects Nowhere in Sight at the Venice Architecture Biennale

  1. Kevin Conger 09/11/2012 / 5:20 pm

    I was just in Venice for the Biennale, and was pleased to see that so much of the conversation is about landscape based issues. It’s great that architects and planners are concerned about public realm and ecology. There is plenty of room for landscape architects to lead the discussion, and many were present in the Biennale. Our Parkmobile project was included in the US Pavillion Spontaneous Interventions exhibition, and our firm was credited, with the words “landscape architecture” included. Dorothee Imbert and I, along with a few other folks, participated in a panel discussion about Productive Landscapes, after which I was interviewed by LAM. If you want landscape architects to get more recognition in Venice…you should of been there too.

    Kevin Conger, CMG Landscape Architecture

  2. gary scott 09/15/2012 / 9:13 am

    How is it possible to write a review of something you haven’t been able to see in person?

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