September 12, 2002
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 nights 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 worlds 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 weekendall
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. Meyerowitzs 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 Rembrandts "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 Yamasakis
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 Protetchs 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 buildingsconnected 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.
Outside, the pavilion obtained its most immediately dramatic
gesturean 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
Meanwhile, at the Arsenale, the aggregated industrial structures
that housed Venices 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. Its 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 Guggenheims 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. Marks square,
filled with a citys ghosts and new ideas intermingling.
The Biennale runs until November 8, 2002 (La Biennale di
Venezia - www.labiennale.org).