FreespaceAt the Venice Architecture Biennale with Rolex
“If we asked people to describe their ideal city, there’s a strong consensus about what that would look like. You would have nice streets, the buildings wouldn’t be too high, you’d have lots of trees, it would be a typical idea of urban density.”
This ancient floating city, all snaking canals, narrow alleyways and marble palaces, seems to engulf the senses. A mix of history, beauty and art, Venice is a grand postcard from the past, yet this tiny city has always had one eye on the future.
It is thus the ideal location for the Architecture Biennale, and in 2018, this anticipated celebration of architectural ideas focuses on the question of space, curated by Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Titled FREESPACE, the exhibition is a showcase of more than 70 modern exhibits in the historic pavilions at the Giardini, the Arsenale, and in the heart of Venice.
One interpretation of this can be found on San Giorgio Maggiore Island, where the pavilion entitled Vatican Chapels, commissioned by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, offers a peaceful reprieve from the Giardini throngs, with 10 small chapels erected amongst quiet woodland. Here, you feel miles away from the steady hum of the city, but the architecture is no less inspiring: Ravasi handpicked 10 architects from around the world to create the chapels. The brief stressed ‘modesty and simplicity’ and the results, from humble stone chapels to timber pavilions swirled in climbing Jasmine, makes a visit to the island essential.
With the focus on the exploration of space, some architecture veterans have honed in on the interaction between the old and the new, and how to build cities for the future. The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which launched in 2002 and pairs established arts leaders with up-and-coming talent, announced Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye and his protégé Mariam Kamara from Niger as the 2018-2019 mentoring pair in architecture. Following on from the successful pairing of British architect Sir David Chipperfield with Swiss architect Simon Kretz, Adjaye and Kamara unveiled their plans to create a public space in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Adjaye, one of the leading architects of his generation, says the pair is passionate about creating spaces that help shape the future of new African cities.
“My thinking is, what is the nature of the city and how does it work? Is there a universality in the notion of a city?” says Adjaye, when we meet in the Rolex Lounge to discuss his mentorship with Kamara.
“There’s a fundamental conceit in cities in that they deny place – they scrape the ground, put tarmac down and remove the context. Cities are, of course, all about technology, but they’re also dwelling places for people. A city is more than just habitation and protection and solace; it’s also the provider of a sense of fulfilment. The city is the mechanism that creates a framework for you to live your life. If it’s just a machine, it’s soulless. What we want to do is help people to feel like citizens of their city.”
Cities have also been a focal point for Sir David Chipperfield and Simon Kretz. Wrapping up their mentorship with a substantial case study, published as a book titled On Planning – A Thought Experiment, the pair spoke at the Rolex Pavilion about the challenges faced in developing today’s cities, and the planning processes that impact on urban landscapes.
“The reason we love cities so much is because they reflect our evolution,” says Chipperfield. “If we asked people to describe their ideal city, there’s a strong consensus about what that would look like. You would have nice streets, the buildings wouldn’t be too high, you’d have lots of trees, it would be a typical idea of urban density.”
It wouldn’t, he says, look like the built up, high rise city of London.
“So we carry in our minds places like Venice, or Vienna, or Paris, because we enjoy what the city looks like. But even though this is in our minds, we can’t build it anymore. In London especially, we are not building this, because we don’t know how to restrict investment in the right direction.”
The book is essentially a proposal for how to do things better, says Chipperfield. “We just wanted to illuminate. If we’re not careful, architects become the decorators of decisions that have already been made. And that’s a planning issue.”
And with that, on another perfect evening in Venice, we head out to explore a city we’re all holding in our minds.