Centennial Reflection at the Biennale
Thursday, September 25th, 2014
Text by J. Michael Welton
Three American-based women, co-curators of the US Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, are currently engaged in an intense cross-examination of the past 100 years of architectural practice in America. When I meet them in June, they’re pulling no punches.
“I am an agitator,” announces Eva Franch i Gilabert, the director and chief curator at Storefront for Art and Architecture, the commissioner of this year’s pavilion.
“Our ambition is to look at a vast number of projects, familiar and foreign, through the lens of the practice,” says Ashley Schafer, editor of Praxis and associate professor of architecture at Ohio State University.
“The focus of the project is on the office itself—the space of the office and its organizational intelligence,” adds Ana Miljacki, associate professor at MIT.
In the five-room, neoclassical pavilion, they’ve created a library that surveys prominent American architects who exported design around the world from 1914 until now. Documenting the work of 120 firms, the three women have assembled hundreds of booklets and models and made them available on walls throughout the pavilion, which was collectively designed by Leong Leong, graphic designer Natasha Jen / Pentagram, and technology consultants at CASE.
“The idea is that we produce a space for research and architec- ture and making,” Franch says.
“We were interested in looking at what has changed over the past 100 years,” Schafer says. “Many of the images that the firms used to represent themselves mostly showed men looking at models.”
Their research identifies practice-related issues, with displays in four rooms sur- rounding a central space dedicated to the future. That room contains a circular bed, ref lecting the curators’ belief that the practice has evolved to an era when work and play merge. (“A large percentage of work is now done in bed with a laptop,” Franch says.)
While collaborating with eight partner firms to document what happens at the pavilion for the next six months, the three also are looking at issues such as labor, gender, economics, and governments—to examine how the architecture practice contributes to the world as a whole. Like Palladio before them, they’ll produce four books based on their findings, and a core idea is to ask that architects gather around ideas rather than profit. “It’s an attempt to produce a descriptive field, to think historically—and suggest that thinking of architecture as profit is history,” Miljacki says.
Did I mention that they’re pulling no punches?