National Pavilions

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“Common Ground”—the theme this year for Venice’s Biennale Architettura 2012—covers all exhibition spaces from Giardini to Arsenale, as well as the vast range of venues spread out all over town. Fitting into this larger concept while presenting their own respective themes were a number of national participants. Here are three standouts from Japan, Russia and the USA.

USA

For its unifying motif the US chose the idea of “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.” The installation marks a huge living catalogue of 124 spontaneous urban interventions, put in place by architects, designers, planners and artists, as well as common citizens willing to intervene in their neighborhoods and cities.

After an open call for projects, commissioner and curator Cathy Lang Ho worked with co-curators David van der Leer and Ned Cramer to narrow down the selection among more than 450 submissions. The result is a clever choice of local projects, urban gardens, community farms, websites and art activities which foster and enhance relationships, leisure, comfort, functionality, safety, sharing and sustainability in US cities. Every project—which ties back to the central notion of collaboration—is visible on a constantly updated dedicated website.

A system of movable banners conceived by the Brooklyn-based design studio Freecell lies at the core of the installation—each banner presents and describes a project, and which of the ideas it explores improve the public realm. The visitors can lower a banner while a counterweight is pulled up, revealing a keyword for the future of cities and graphics designed by communication design studio M-A-D. The Jury of the Biennale has assigned a Special Mention for the national participation in this project.

Russia

The same prize went to the Russian National Pavillion, but here it’s a totally different story. Where the US installation is totally mechanical, concrete and evident, the choice of curator’s Sergei Tchoban, Sergey Kuznetsov and Valeria Kashirina was to go digital, virtual and invisible, with “i-city” and “i-land.”

The i-city area is completely covered with QR codes from walls to floors to windows, with no exceptions. The visitors are provided with a special tablet with a camera that lights up the squares according to a specific rhythm. Then, the monitor unveils projects for Skolkovo, the so-called Russian Silicon Valley. The Skolkovo area is not far from Moscow and is one of the most ambitious architectural, financial and scientific projects in the country, anticipating buildings and development plans by David ChipperfieldOMAHerzog & De MeuronStefano Boeri Architetti and Bernaskoni Architecture Bureau, just to name a few.

On the lower level, the i-land project is a completely dark area, with mysterious tiny backlit holes that create a sort of underground constellation. Looking inside the holes, the visitor can directly spy into the Soviet past, discovering a series of formerly secret science cities. Those citadels represented the excellence of USSR’s scientific research and were kept hidden until the end of the Cold War.

Japan

The Golden Lion for the Best National Participation went to “Architecture. Possible here? Home-for-All,”Toyo Ito‘s project for the Japanese Pavillion, which starts with the consequences of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. With the help of architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, and photographer Naoya Hatakeyama, Ito documents the realization of community centers for victims.

Questions about the possibility of post-quake architecture find an answer in apparently primeval construction techniques, where wood and stilts make up the basic elements. The entire installation looks and feels like a work-in-progress, where the contribution from everyone is considered and accepted, in a spirit of authentic collaboration between architects and common people. This is the epitome of this year’s Biennale, an authentic “common ground” for the future of architecture.

Torre David / Gran Horizonte

My new article for Cool Hunting

Torre David is an abandoned 45-story skyscraper located in Caracas, Venezuela. After the death of the developer in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy a year later, the office tower was almost complete, but the construction was suddenly and inexorably interrupted. Today Torre David is a real vertical slum occupied by a community of more than 750 families. The residents of the tower have spontaneously created a sort of city within a city with areas for sports, leisure, worship and meetings—an extra-legal community whose organization has been studied by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, along with research and design teams at Urban-Think Tank and ETH Zürich.

The exhibit Torre David / Gran Horizonte is one of the most incredible surprises at this year’sArchitecture Biennale in Venice. It wasn’t by chance that this project was awarded with the Golden Lion for the Best Project of the Common Ground Exhibition, the true core of the Biennale curated by David Chipperfield.

In the Venetian exhibit and in their book Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities (due to release October 2012), Brillembourg and Klumpner analyze this reality and other similar informal settlements, coming up with concrete ideas for sustainable interventions aimed to transform and take these places back to the urban landscape.

The center of the exhibition is far from a didactic space. The fully functioning arepa restaurant, Gran Horizonte, acts as a traditional place to eat and create community, like those created by the inhabitants of Torre David. The exhibit also displays some breathtaking pictures by Iwan Baan that describe the thin line between everyday life and this one-of-a-kind situation, where despair and beauty coexist in every shot. The Common Ground Exhibition runs through 25 November 2012 at La Biennale.

Image courtesy of the U-TT Archives and Daniel Schwartz.