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Biennale di Venezia

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in chief

We arrived in Venice 2 hours late, but the water taxi met us at the dock. In 30 minutes, we found ourselves deep in the heart of medieval Venice, beside a darkened canal, near the Ponte St. Antonin. Our apartment, leased for the week, stood nearby. After a night’s deep sleep, we awakened to a view of domes and towers, rooftops and chimneys and the odor of coffee wafting up from the streets. It was time to prepare for the Biennale.

As any museumgoer knows, any show or exposition is only as good as its content. This year, the Biennale di Venezia, which opened on September 8, hit all the right marks. First, the primary exhibition, entitled "Next" focused on real work by a large cross-section of the world’s most talented architects. The individual pavilions included 50 countries with a broad range of ideas and experiences. Public discussions engaged good minds; tours and parties balanced out the weekend—all in the limpid light of "la serenissima", the city wedded to the sea.

As Commissioner of the United States Pavilion, my role allowed me to be engaged, active, and involved. The pavilion this year, entitled "The World Trade Center: Past, Present, Future" comprised two primary components, balancing the photographs of New Yorker Joel Meyerowitz with designs for the World Trade Center site that had previously been shown at the Max Protetch gallery in New York early in 2002.

For the first time in the brief 8-year history of the architectural biennale, the United States Department of State, through its Department of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sponsored the pavilion, with the cooperation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Museum of the City of New York.

The city of Venice cooperated with glorious balmy September weather, characterized by cool mornings rising from the sea, the silent streets, and birdsong. The loudest noise came as the shutters banged open, announcing another day.

The Biennale takes place in the Giardini di Castello, a lovely garden at the extreme end of the promenade that extends along the Grand Canal past San Marco. Within the gardens, originally laid out by the French, small pavilions house exhibitions, typically, of contemporary art, and in this case works by contemporary architects. You would be surprised to find the work of prominent architects represented there, including Alvar Aalto and Carlo Scarpa, or the neo-classical U.S. pavilion, designed by Delano and Aldrich.

Delano and Aldrich constructed a lovely small museum, bi-laterally symmetrical, centered around a small rotunda, with two wings, each containing two rooms. Meyerowitz’s photographs ranged from a single image of the cleanup operations at Ground Zero, featured in an exterior window, that stretched 22 feet long, to a photograph of firemen peering together into a fiery pit reminiscent of Breughel or of Rembrandt’s "Night Watch." The shots inevitably drew crowds who stopped at the combined beauty and horrors they viewed.

In the rotunda, a large-scale model of the twin towers anchored the experience. While we had tried to obtain Yamasaki’s original model, it was undergoing restoration. Fortunately, a modelmaker named Sr. Galbiati from Milan had developed a love for New York City and had made a model of the city, including the towers. Around them, photographs by Meyerowitz and Balthasar Korab described the actual appearance of the real structures.

Max Protetch’s show, which had opened in February at his gallery in New York, deserves a second look. Perhaps it is the quality of the light, or the proportions of the rooms, but the work shows particularly well in Venice. While no specific plan or model or digital installation describes a totally workable solution for the site, contained in the Protetch show are innumerable provocative ideas worth our time. For example, Foreign Office Architects suggested a new form for the tall buildings—connected circular bundles that rise like sea creatures. Or Frei Otto, who made a simple sketch of a park to replace the original construction site. All are worth critical attention and may fuel additional debate until real, stringent programs are developed.

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Outside, the pavilion obtained its most immediately dramatic gesture—an actual steel beam from an upper floor at the World Trade Center, which rests on the brick forecourt--unannounced, undesignated, sculptural, and potent. This authentic shard, which fell and became buried in the soil, draws visitors like a magnet. One woman, on seeing the beam, reached down to touch it and voiced, to no one in particular, "There were people there…"

Meanwhile, at the Arsenale, the aggregated industrial structures that housed Venice’s shipbuilding might, director Deyan Sudjic has amassed another Venetian treasure. Contained in a long brick building punctuated by immense brick columns are the works of dozens of architects, including drawings and models at small and large scales. Unlike other trendy exhibits, the architects are showing real work, either planned or under construction. In several hours, you can gain an overview of the state of architecture from all over the world, from Tadao Ando to Jean Nouvel. It’s well worth the price of admission, and has resulted in a handsome, weighty catalog.

But a Biennale consists of more than the combined architectural shows. In addition, we debated the future of the World Trade Center site in a panel discussion consisting of director Sudjic, me, architect Billie Tsien, critic Herbert Muschamp with Fred Schwartz. Muschamp unveiled, one day prior to publication, the plans he had instigated with a group of familiar architects, including Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, and Alexander Gorlin, among others. Respondents to the schemes included Steven Holl, Charles Jencks, and Daniel Libeskind, who decried building on the site at all, citing the need to respect other, spiritual qualities. He was forceful and articulate.

And the parties, which provided chances for friends to gather and talk. Who can imagine a better setting to celebrate architecture than Peggy Guggenheim’s garden? We at the United States pavilion gathered with friends to mark the occasion of the Biennale on a Venetian evening among her sculptures and magnolias. The garden filled with a familiar crowd, including architects in the show, friends from the media, and new Venetian friends. Meanwhile, the vaporetti and the gondolas plied the canals as the new waters flushed the city for the day. We left exhausted and inspired as the tides rose in St. Mark’s square, filled with a city’s ghosts and new ideas intermingling.

The Biennale runs until November 8, 2002 (La Biennale di Venezia - www.labiennale.org).

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