Sara Jane Boyers: North from the 1300 East Lafayette (Gunnar Birkerts 1964) to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park (1954), Detroit.

Features / Architecture

Reporting architecture in sharp focus: photography at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale


Tim Abrahams

When Alejandro Aravena, the artistic director of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, gave his event the title Reporting from the Frontline he called upon architects to show how alert they are to events. In doing so he created a few problems, as a glimpse across both the 88 participants from 37 different countries in the main exhibition and the 62 national pavilions shows. For a start, architecture in its existing mode takes time. Secondly, if it is to be quick it needs to rapidly adapt existing technology and social infrastructure to do so (and the contributors seemed hesitant to explain how this might happen). Lastly as it turns out, architects aren’t very good reporters.

Of course, an architect observes the status of the site he or she wishes to alter, but this act of recording, generally gives way to creation: sketching becomes designing. Reporting is different. The director encouraged architects to make immediate responses, without any sense of a political or social system in which they might be delivered or maintained. Mixed into this is the desire for participants in the international pavilions to do what the Aravena had asked of them: report.

Fortunately, the national pavilions particularly have worked with those who are good at reporting, such as photographers. The German Pavilion was an excellent analysis of the circumstances surrounding one of the largest waves of immigration in its history. According to statistics the pavilion published, Germany received 1.5 million asylum applications last year, just under the number that arrived in 1989. The exhibition, entitled Making Heimat, was true to Aravena’s instruction and reported on the way immigrants to Germany repositioned and adapted the existing infrastructure. The actual structure of the pavilion, originally designed by Daniele Donghi in 1909, has been dramatically remodeled as a kind of symbolic statement in support of Germany’s open doors policy to immigration.


Kiên Hong Lê: Dong Xuan Center (Vietnamese Market), Berlin


Kiên Hong Lê: Dong Xuan Center (Vietnamese Market), Berlin

Given that the curators have deliberately not signposted the way in which they have altered the structure, it is the work of the photographers, particularly Kiên Hong Le, that bring the ideas in the project alive. The photographer, who was born in Hanoi but grew up in East Germany, has captured the Dong Xuan Vietnamese Centre in Berlin, in a manner both unflinching and sympathetic. For the curators, he’s done a superb job of marrying human details of this wholesale warehouse and retail market with the odd way the Centre has been divided up to reflect conflict between immigrants group needs and German planning law.

Frustratingly though the curators caption one image by wondering aloud: how could a purpose built structure bring together these disparate needs? If only there were some architects around who could imagine a few up. Indeed, even in the cases where the architects are proposing work, it is often unbearably slight.

The Austrian pavilion was in itself a woefully underwhelming experience. It featured little other than stacks of newspapers and magazines containing the work of two Viennese architects Caramel Architekten and “the next ENTERprise” as well as well known young design practice EOOS. The publications though describe frantic activity which has taken place elsewhere. These three practices were invited by the curators to turn different buildings into hostels for migrant workers, or in the case of Carmen markedly improve an existing one.


Paul Kranzler: Homemade by Caramel Architekten


Paul Kranzler: Homemade by Caramel Architekten


Paul Kranzler: Homemade by Caramel Architekten

The gap between aspiration to help and the expertise possessed is huge. And yet with a good photographer documenting it, one can at least capture the conditions they are working in. The work by Caramel Architekten in improving the Pfeiffergasse emergency shelter using temporary partitions adorned with billowing fabric gives Kranzler a particularly good opportunity to capture the clash between the utterly heterogenous landscape formed by bureaucratic diktat and the frightfully exposed personal world of the economic migrant. And yet the actual form-making, is so insignificant as to be invisible. There is little here that shows off the expertise of the architect, and it could have been performed by anyone.

Photography of course is an important part of the culture of architecture – its dissemination and discussion – but here it actually serves as a magnifying glass, making something rather slender appear much grander. It is a means of capturing the transient moment when the sliver of design actually informs peoples lives. This sounds harsh, and of course, there is an intention to provide haven for those in need, but, one wonders, wouldn’t it be better to argue for, nay even provide large well-planned housing and improved infrastructure for those that needed it. It is after all how the reconstruction after WW2 worked.


Geoff George: House Fire, 2013

Corine Vermeulen: Ray Shawn and his uncle’s van, 2011

In this light, Europe looks like a beleaguered continent and in the USA despite forebodings about its political direction there is a far more positive attitude. At least that’s what the national pavilion focusing on the thorny subject of Detroit allows us to believe. The curators are wise enough to use an established front line in American culture, the seeming failure of the narrative of technological progress in Detroit, rather than a hot topic. This strategy though has a potential downside in that the story has already created its own vocabulary of visual clichés of abandoned buildings which have sprouted weeds. And clichés, we know, are bad.

Using crowd-sourced images provides a means of escaping the hackneyed visual tropes of the city. Strange unexplained moments of drama, entirely unexpected views and brand new juxtapositions create an impression of a city that lives within its dilapidated grandeur comically and tragically by turns. What makes the USA pavilion special though is that this feature of epic scale undercut by comic detail informs the architecture that has been proposed for the city by a number of the country’s half-forgotten pioneers Greg Lynn and Stan Lee. The designs; part cheerful biomorphic blobs or adaptive kit and part hard infrastructure is actually informed by the city and presents architecture as something new, in a new way.

Indeed if the point of the Biennale was to prompt architects to acting quicker, it may have had the opposite effect. Compared to the speed with which photography can capture and communicate, perhaps architecture’s virtues are actually its slowness.


Greg Lynn Form: Packard Plant, Detroit