'Can you feel it?'
20 july 2016'Thinking back on my visit to the Venice Biennale 2016, there is not a particular project that comes to mind, but more a general feeling, an energy of action, of change, of inventiveness. It's the same feeling the over four hundred year old Italian Renaissance gardens gave me a week earlier. Why do these two experiences, far apart in time and purpose, feel the same to me? Is the work presented at the Biennale heralding a new Renaissance?'
Column by Joost Emmerik on Venice Architecture Biennale
The Grand Tour
'I visited the Biennale as collateral damage on my Grand Tour of great Italian Renaissance gardens. In the 17th and 18th century young men from the European upper class used to take a long tour through France and Italy. Supposedly an educational trip, to learn about art, culture and looking for the roots of Western civilisation, of course this Grand Tour was also some sort of historic equivalent of a long holiday with more earthly pleasures. Part of this trip were visits to gardens like Villa Lante, Villa d'Este and Sacro Bosco, all made in the dawn of a new era; the Renaissance.'
The Garden as Storyteller
'The Renaissance - as you will know - was a period of great transformation, with discoveries like the bookpress, perspective and an admiration of rediscovered classical history. Nature was considered the great teacher of the arts with man as its masterpiece. In garden architecture, nature was no longer feared but welcomed into the confined space of the garden. The natural landscape was represented in different states of wilderness, from the rugged to the clipped, translated into garden features like the bosco or the grotto. The landscape outside the garden became part of the garden panorama. Statues and symbols spread across the garden referred to classical mythology, turning the garden into a storytelling book.'
Villa Reale Castello
Energy of Change
'Wandering these gardens on my personal Grand Tour, I marvel at how well they are designed; the spaces are pleasant with clear transitions from one space to another, the villa and the garden have a strong relation without becoming stuck in symmetry and the gardens are filled with allegories and meaning. What sticks to me the most however: I still feel this spirit of the Renaissance, the enthusiasm of new possibilities, the joy of discovering your ancestors knowledge. The gardens exhume the energy of change.'
Villa Poiega Theatre
'Walking through the 2016 Architecture Biennale Reporting from the front, looking at the work presented, I feel this same energy, I see projects trying to cope with the changing times, treading unknown paths, finding new ways. And not just in architecture. It's the same energy as for example the Lomboxnet initiative in Utrecht, turning solar powered cars into miniature power plants for the residents of the neighbourhood. Or blockchain, democratising information via distributed databases like a contemporary book press. Or as an individual like Daan Roosegaarde, morphing landscape, nature, art and technology into new spatial experiences.'
Age of discovery
'Recently I read an article about the book Age of Discovery, Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. The authors state we are experiencing a transition similar to that of the Renaissance and are living in "an ideal habitat for ideas and genius to flourish".'
'I'd like to look at the Biennale from this perspective, trying to read the signs of a new Renaissance in the avalanche of material from all over the world. Four signs I've found:'
1. Delving into history
'Like the rediscovery of classical history in the Renaissance, today to we are delving into cultural history. Using modern day techniques as well as the good old plaster cast, we try to learn from our predecessors. At the lower level of the Russian pavilion for example, the destruction of detail and the whole craft industry along with it in communist architecture is shown, suggesting we can revive this art through thorough research of the remaining artefacts. The exhibition A world of Fragile Parts discusses the value of the 'original' when you can just 3D scan it, store it and print a new one.'
2. Studying culture
'There are lots of big models throughout the Biennale, scale 1: 10, 1:5, 1:1 even. These models are very precise and incorporate furniture, plants, books, pets. Some models you can almost enter, other ones are so huge you have to stand on a ladder just to be able to oversee them. Photos of the owners on the wall tells us who lives where in the model, to whom they are married and what their profession is. Because of their sheer size these models don't tell us a lot about the architecture, but more about how the people live within these buildings, how they choose to organise their life, about their culture, and how the building reacts to this.'
3. New aesthetics
'New energy calls for new images. Already present for a few years in design and graphical design, a few pavilions have a new form of aesthetic which is very hard to my modernist trained eye. A sort of well chosen roughness or abundance, not relating to any architecture I know, more similar to inverted caves. It's is difficult to appreciate for me, but at the same time gives me a great sense of freedom. In the Swiss pavilion this is done in a Swiss way: clean and precise and without color. In the USA pavilion they go all out in shapes and colours.'
4. Just do it
'There are lots of new names and smaller offices present at the Biennale. A lot of the work shown proves that you don't need to be a big office or or a government to make a difference, just start and do it. Aravena draws a parallel with mosquitoes. A lot of tiny mosquitoes can kill a rhinoceros.'
Turning over Maslow's pyramid
'In the Nordic pavilion - the shared pavilion of Norway, Sweden and Finland - I visit the exhibition 'In Therapy'. In the beautiful building by Sverre Fehn a huge wooden pyramid, built using traditional construction techniques. The pyramid organisation is based on Abraham Maslow's 1954 Hierarchy of Needs; a model consisting of five layers, representing the progress of an individual based on their needs. Each layer builds on top of the other; basic human needs like food, water and shelter form the base, on top to that come safety and security, the third layer is love, the fourth self-esteem and at the top of the pyramid self actualisation. This model relies strongly on thinking in advancing, in fulfilling your potential, in making progress with self actualisation as the ultimate goal. In Western world architecture all layers are accounted for and therefore we are trapped in the top of the pyramid, always aiming for new, further, better, bigger.'
'But this change, this Renaissance, just like the former, is turning over the table, transforming the pyramid into a grid, or a Rubix cube if you want, opening up whole new fields for architects. Architecture not only as a spatial practice at the top op the pyramid, but also as a social and a cultural practice. Architecture that wants to make a difference. Not just through our buildings, but through our specific way of thinking, architecture as an instrument.'
Left: Giardini Nordics. Right: Giardini Germany
Shutting down the Biennale
'According to Patrick Schumacher, the director of Zaha Hadid Architects, the Biennale should be shut down, because it is too confusing and is not about the tasks of contemporary architecture. For me personally the work presented at the Biennale is very much about these tasks. The work presented captures the energy of this modern day Renaissance we are living: studying the lives of our designs inhabitants, taking action even without an assignment, rediscovering history, inventing new ways of building and working. it makes me want to be a part of it, be a Renaissance man.'
'To conclude, writing this column, pondering about the Biennale, I found myself mumbling the words to a song. I'm not going to sing this, but I'd like to quote The Jacksons.'
Can you feel it? Can you feel it? Can you feel it?
If you look around,
The whole world is coming together now.
Feel it in the air,
The wind is taking it everywhere.
Now tell me,
Can you feel it? Can you feel it? Can you feel it?
'Thank you for your attention.'
Joost Emmerik is an architect and an urbanist, working in landscape architecture design and research for the past ten years. He is focussing on the cultural meaning of the garden to society and the representation of larger landscapes within the confined space of the garden.
Images by Joost Emmerik