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What makes the Venice biennale so special to me is that part of the exhibition takes place in the Arsenale, a complex of shipyards and armories that used to be the largest industrial complex in Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution. The wikipedia entry reads like a novel: different areas of the historic naval yards each produced a particular prefabricated ship part or other maritime implement. The parts could then be assembled into a ship in as little as one day. The navy owned a nearby forest that provided the Arsenal's wood supply. In 1593, they even had Galileo work as an external consultant.

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The Arsenale on google maps

The biennale exhibition occupies only a part of the Arsenale called the Corderie. Built in 1303, restored in the 16th century, this 6400 sqm surface used to host the manufacture of hawsers, cables and thick ropes.

Unlike most critics and visitors, i can't say that the exhibition of 12th biennale of architecture is particularly exciting. Call me a masochist but i missed being slapped in the face with crucial issues such as the rise of the megapolis, unrestrainable traffic, sustainability, the necessity to provide shelter for populations fleeing conflicts and natural disasters, etc. I missed the overdose of information we were submitted to in 2006. I also missed the extravagance and the speculation of the 2008 edition. The 12th biennale of architecture is mostly about aesthetics and celebration of the discipline.

What i did enjoy more than any other year however was the way Kazuyo Sejima -who directed the event this year- played with the architecture of the Corderie. There was air, grace and gaiety:

Olafur Eliasson has visitors take a leap in the dark where water hoses hanging from the ceiling spray water around in spasms that appear to be frozen in time and shaped with each flash of the stroboscopic lightening (Domus has a video.)

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Olafur Eliasson, Your split second house, 2010. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

An enormous room was filled with tiny chairs for people to sit and watch video of architects being interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist.

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Anton García-Abril and Ensamble Studio disrupted the scale and harmony of the Corderie with two enormous concrete I-beams that appear to keep their balance thanks to the mere power of a rock and a coil spring.

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Anton Garcia-Abril - Ensamble Studio, Balancing Act, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

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Studio Mumbai, Work-Place. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

Studio Mumbai has piled up wooden building elements over models, tools, materials, samples and tiles in one of the big exhibition spaces of the Arsenale, creating a feeling of intimate, welcoming and controlled chaos. The space speaks of an architecture more akin to craftsmanship and physical labour than neat plan drawings and models.

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Studio Mumbai, Work-Place

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Studio Mumbai, Work-Place. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

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Studio Mumbai, Work-Place

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Studio Mumbai, Work-Place

Swiss architects Valerio Olgiati defends with a stunning tunning 1:33 model his view that architecture does not have to be primarily contextual. According to him, architecture can grow out of an idea or concept that are completely separate from any context.

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Valerio Olgiati, Perm Museum XXI, Perm, Russia, 2008

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architecten de vylder vinck taillieu, ordos 100

architecten de vylder vinck taillieu is showing the fascinating model of an un-built project, a large house in Ordos, Mongolia. The dwelling was part of Ordos 100, a project, conceived by Ai Weiwei and curated by Herzog and de Meuron, where 100 young architects were invited to design 100 villas in 100 days. Mirrors placed underneath the model allow for a look inside the house.

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architecten de vylder vinck taillieu, ordos 100

Kazuyo Sejima had invited artists to share with the public their perspective on space and architecture. Interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space, Janet Cardiff takes over one of the last rooms of the Corderie with The Forty Part Motet, an audio installation based on the Renaissance choral music Spem in alium nunquam habui by Thomas Tallis (1514-1585). Forty separately recorded voices are played through forty speakers strategically placed in an oval so that the listener can sit in the center of the choir and feel the sculptural construction of the musical piece.

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Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet , 2001

You can't conceive an architecture without R&Sie(n), right? The French studio is showing ' thebuildingwhichneverdies ', a research laboratory of light intended to analyze human beings' physiological adaptation to the dark. The structure also explores solar activity and the evolution of the ozone concentration in the stratosphere (more information and photos in designboom.)

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R&Sie(n), thebuildingwhichneverdies, 2010. Image R&Sie(n)

... and of course there was that Cloudscapes by Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo.

The 12th Intl. Architecture Exhibition, directed by Kazuyo Sejima and titled People meet in architecture, runs until 21st November 2010.

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Just back from Venice after a visit of what was my fourth and definitely not favourite Architecture Biennale. Mind you, I'm in a minority here, most of the reviews i read so far were very enthusiastic.

I still have to go through the hundreds of pictures i made, the catalogs, leaflets i grabbed and notes i scribbled. Before i come back to you with a fleshier report, here's a quick and easy post about Cloudscapes, one of the most talked about works presented inside the Corderie, a 319 metres long space once used to make ropes and cables for the Italian navy and now hosting a part of the main exhibition.

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Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

Architect Tetsuo Kondo has teamed up with German climate engineering firm Transsolar to fill a closed space inside the Corderie with clouds. Clouds, after all, are part of our architecture: they frame outdoor space and filter natural light.

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Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

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Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

Visitors can experience the cloud from below, within, and above as they climb up 4.3 meter high helical ramp erected in the center of the room. The cloud is based on the physical phenomenon of saturated air, condensation droplets floating in the space and condensation seeds. The atmospheres above and below the cloud have different qualities of light, temperature, and humidity, separating the spaces by a filter effect. The cloud can be touched, and it can be felt as different microclimatic conditions coincide.

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The cloud is created through climate engineering. Three layers of air are pumped into the room: cool dry air at the bottom that keeps the cloud floating, hot humid air in the middle to fashion a dense fog and hot dry air at the top.

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More information in this short interview of founder of Transsolar Matthias Schuler and silent Tetsuo Kondo by Hans Ulrich Obrist:


Matthias Schuler and Tetsuo Kondo interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010

And here's a video of the cloud experience with comments from Matthias Schuler in german:

See also Diller and Scofidio's Blur Building for the 2002 Swiss Expo.

The Venice Architecture Biennale continues until 21 November, 2010.

I found most of the exhibitions i saw at the Arsenale, Venice's sumptuous ex-dockyard, to be quite disappointing. Especially the Italian Pavilion. God! What happened there? What have we done to deserve such an embarrassingly pompous exhibition?

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There, i've said it.

The biggest sow at the Arsenale, however, is international and takes place at the spectacular building called the Corderie, a 319 metres long space once used to make ropes and cables for the Italian navy. The theme this year is a bit of a catch-all (as it is often the case in Venice). "Fare Mondi // Making Worlds is an exhibition driven by the aspiration to explore worlds around us as well as worlds ahead. It is about possible new beginnings--this is what I would like to share with the visitors of the Biennale," explained artistic director Daniel Birnbaum in his statement.

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One of the most striking artworks for me was Pascale Marthine Tayou's installation Human Being which fills in a gigantic room with a bric-a-brac of objects, furniture made of recycled material, colourful figures, videos and urban noises that re-creates the activity of that small village that we call our world.

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At first, the wooden huts on stilts evoke a shantytown or maybe an African village. As you come nearer, however, you realize that the windows of the dwellings act as screens that show activities taking place around the world, there are workshops, small manufactures, people walking down the street or sitting around a meal. It's both joyful and mysterious.

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The space is inhabited by strange little figures. Their hair are masterfully entangled with lovely hairpins or feathers, their round bodies are wearing strips of old cloth or Flemish lace. Sometimes they also have bright jewellery on. They gather in little clusters. Each group following a different fashion. Some of them seem to be conversing in tight, knit clan as if they were plotting. Others seem to welcome you inside their circle.

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Pascale Marthine Tayou was born in Cameroon, he now lives in Belgium but travels around the world with his artworks. He trained as a lawyer, not an artist. He's a nomad, his identity is split between locations and the paths he could have or did take. That's a condition that the installation tries to reflect.

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Finally! I made it to the Venice Biennale. My dislike for a city i associate mostly with plastic gondole and unreasonably-priced limp panini takes a short break in mid-October. The weather is pleasantly cool and sunny and that's usually the time for me to visit a fairly quieter Biennale (until you step inside the always sardined room showing Nathalie Djurberg's wonderful little videos and creepy flowers but more about this one really soon.)

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I'll kick off the Venice reports with the show MADDESTMAXIMVS at the Australian Pavilion. I wasn't expecting to like that one as much as i did. A 1:1 'sculptural' replica of the V8 'Interceptor' car driven by Mel Gibson in Mad Max and parked at the entrance of the show almost made me run in the opposite direction.

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Still from Interceptor Surf Sequence, 2009

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Still from Interceptor Surf Sequence, 2009

The vehicle started to make sense when i entered the pavilion. MADDESTMAXIMVS reflects Shaun Gladwell's addiction to extreme sports such as skateboarding, BMX bike riding and break-dancing. Instead of exploring the urban backdrop he has used his public to, the artist ventures into Australian hinterland and desert regions. All Gladwell knew about the location until then came from cinema and in particular the Mad Max movies.

The first video i saw in the pavilion was mesmerizing. A motorcyclist seemed to be surfing a running car as if he were on a wave. Although the car is following a seemingly endless road at very high speed, the images are shown in slow motion. "Slow motion gets away from the high-speed, high-impact imagery of MTV that was also part of the 'Mad Max' films. I'm more interested in distilling, slowing down," explained the artist.

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Still from Apology to Roadkill (1-6)

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Still from Apology to Roadkill (1-6)

A second video features the corpse of a kangaroo on the side of highways (one never thinks of kangaroos as roadkill, right?) The same motorcyclist appears again. He never removes his helmet, he takes the marsupial in his arms and carries it like a pieta to a more dignified place for burial.

The location to the Australian outback confers a haunting dimension to the videos. A political dimension too i suspect. It's hard not to think about the suffering of indigenous Aboriginal inhabitants, in particular the fate met by the Stolen Generations. Last year, the Australian government issued a formal apology for the mistreatment that the traditional owners of the land featured in the videos had been submitted to in the past.

Not only is the Mad Max-style car parked at the entrance of the pavilion (who would steal it anyway? The only vehicle you can drive in Venice is a boat), the motorcycle that stars in one of the videos has been implanted in the outer wall of the building. The videos were so good i think i should just ignore the vehicle antics.

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Centred Pataphysical Suite, 2009

Downstairs, a tower made of monitors - Centred Pataphysical Suite (2009) - shows performers spinning on the spot either skateboarding, break-dancing, dancing on hig sticks or BMX riding.

The Arts Newspaper tv has a video interview with the artist, Australia Council for the Arts has another one featuring a journalist with a super quirky accent and Vernissage.tv had a long look inside the show.

The Venice Art Biennale runs until the 22nd of November 2009.

Global Cities at the Tate Modern in London. It's a pocket version of an exhibition that was running last year at the Arsenale during Venice Architecture Biennale. Cities, architecture and society, curated by Richard Burdett, focused on the key factors facing large scale metropolitan areas around the world. Last year, some critics were unhappy with the show, saying that there were too many facts and figures and not enough architecture. I guess some might find that the Tate version of it lacks to much of a fine art aura. Whatever... i found the show engrossing.

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The starting point is the fact that today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. "The 21st century will be the first truly urban era, in which more than 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, much of it in mega-cities with more than 20 million inhabitants concentrated in the countries undergoing rapid development in Asia, Africa and South America. In the meantime, many Western and European cities are shrinking, or have been forced to re-invent themselves in order to adapt to a post-industrial condition."

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Saõ Paulo: an apartment building for the wealthy overlooks a favela, ironically called Paraisópolis (Paradise city). Photo: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (bigger caption)

The Turbine Hall which hosts the Global Cities exhibition is big but not quite as much as Venice's 300-metre long Corderie dell’Arsenale. That's probably one of the reasons why the London version is tinier, there's more focus on London obviously, less photographs by artists who portray urban sprawl, the London team also skipped a few cities --namely Barcelona, Berlin, Bogota, Caracas, Milan-Torino and New York-- which in some cases made perfect sense (who'd say that Milan and Turin provide the most exciting examples of urban life?) But if the London gig is not enough for you, there's still plenty of paper fun in the catalogues of the Venice Architecture Biennale (Amazon USA and UK)

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View from the balcony apartment on the island Gezira over Zamalek, Cairo, by Heiner H. Schmitt Jr.

So we're left with Cairo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, São Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo. Information and data are painted on the walls to demonstrate on these cities are being transformed in social, economic and cultural terms. Besides, each city is studied through five thematic lenses – speed, size, density, diversity and form.

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Venice has polystyrene 3D graphic presentations to represent the density of the cities, London had wooden ones. The models compare the number of people living within the administrative boundaries of the cities, the highest the peak, the higher the density.

The Tate website is very informative and clear. I'm not going to repeat what's already there. Instead i'll just present and link to some of the photographers whose work is on show at the Tate for the way they engage in a sometimes spectacular way (for its beauty or creepiness) with urban phenomena.

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Scott Peterman's Mexico City Ecataepec, 2006 (bigger)

There's quite a few images so the show proceeds over here!

The Nordic Pavilion hosts the work of artists from Finland, Norway and Sweden. This year, the focus is on the performative character of the exhibits. Starting right at the entrance with It would be nice to do something political by Toril Goksøyr and Camilla Martens, where a black man is cleaning non-stop the glass window of the pavilion throughout the biennial. An "ironic commentary on the correctness in acting politically as an artist."

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Inside, the visitor becomes the performer. With his interactive dart board installation --I, the world, things, life, Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren invites the audience to grab plastic arrows and throw them at the black and yellow dartboard. By doing so, the public is constantly modifying the artist's work.

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Helsinki-based artist Adel Abidin has set up a little travel agency ABIDIN TRAVELS that caters for those who'd fancy vacation trips to Baghdad.

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You are greeted by a sarcastic animated commercial, advertising a special offer for a holiday in Baghdad. The video gives you all the information you need to make the most of your hols: the cars you can rent tend to be of the military types; museums are closed, but that doesn't really matter as most of their content was looted anyway; you're advised to carry around candles or a torch with extra batteries, for the times when electricity is unavailable; you are advised to stay at a hotel of the lowest possible quality (the posh ones are targeted by Fundamentalist Muslims, or the National Forces), etc.

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If the adventure tempts you, a computer is at hand to book your fly (you can also do it online.)

In a darker tiny room, another video monitor shows real images of the life that Iraqis are living in Iraq. The sound is covered by the voice of an American woman welcoming visitors, and American soldiers singing and playing instruments in one of Saddam’s palaces during Fourth of July. There are also brochures and posters to take away with you.

Just outside the pavilion, Liberté, by Lars Ramberg, functions both as a piece of art and public toilets. 3 unisex and self-cleaning toilets coming from the streets of Paris were painted in red, white and blue with the inscriptions «Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité».

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They didn't work when i was there but here's what is supposed to happen: Inside the toilets, three different radio programs broadcast historical speeches; Charles De Gaulle, King Haakon VII, Franklin Roosevelt, etc accompanied by national hymns from Norway, France and USA.

My images of the pavilion.

More Baghdad: Cherry Blossoms, Shadows From Another Place - Baghdad <> San Francisco, Baghdad in Brooklyn, What I Did Last Summer, Vantage, a game about war causalities.

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