Architecture is about confidence. But much of the work at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale is about apologising. This does not seem to be the season for barnstorming. The British Pavilion – called 'Island' is a giant “Sorry”. That's not surprising – Britons even say sorry when they have sex. Downstairs, it is empty. Tea is served on the temporary roof terrace every day at 4pm like it would be if a Briton invited you over to express condolences about the death of a relative.
Robin Hood Gardens
The Victoria & Albert Museum's exhibit about Robin Hood Gardens, a London council estate currently being destroyed, could be taken as an expression of collective guilt. Britain had a welfare state with social housing for all – then Thatcherism came along and the whole thing was very literally dismantled. The section of the flats, designed by Alison & Peter Smithson, displayed on the Arsenale dockside, is eerie. The optimism of the era in which it was built, expressed here in collage and film and family photos, harks back to a more positive age. But here too is love.
Our greatest forgotten poet and film director BS Johnson was in love with Alison Smithson when he made The Smithsons On Housing, a film which shows on a loop. Alison scoured the docks for ceramics and made them into a collage which hung on the residents' lounge wall. A lot of love went in to buildings like this. And a lot of love was given in them: between couples and families. And now those memories have been turned to dust – apart from the piece of building here which seems so poignant and lonely. You wonder which family lived here.
The Value of What's Not Built
Chilean studio Elemental goes further with its exploration into why we have messed up: their exhibit talks about The Value of What's Not Built. Maybe architects should stop? The hilarious Swiss Pavilion pokes fun at the profession. It's like being in Alice In Wonderland. Some rooms have oversized doors and units, some are child sized. All of the pieces are the same identikit white and silver interiors you get in every new build apartment across Europe from Aarhus to Zurich.
The Spanish pavilion also takes aim: are architects even the people to listen to? The image-rich room is composed of crowd-sourced thoughts, data and blinding neon ephemera. The Germans meanwhile exhibit a long and beautiful mea culpa for severing their country (and capital) in half with a wall. The photos of deserted villages along the former Iron Curtain are stark. The lesson we need to learn is clear enough. But no-one listens.
This why the videos they show here of people who live by famous border fences in Ceuta and San Diego and Jerusalem and Belfast are worth listening to. Separating us does nothing. Schengen is Europe's greatest and least trumpeted achievement – a continent without borders is a work of true beauty.
Surreal sculptures and bucolic trees
The work here at Venice in 2018 is mostly very, very good. For many years it was Expos and World Fairs that signalled the future. Now, every other year, it is Venice's Architecture Biennale that does it. And often in some style. There is a great variety of often beautiful and surreal sculptures, space, rooms, models, photos, videos... plus those giant blobs in the Nordic pavilion which contain the elemental essences of life: air and water.
The Giardini is a joy: its bucolic trees sway in a sea breeze that blows fresh air in from Lido and the braying crowds of cruise ship tourists are not to be seen. The peace is only broken by the mosquitoes that eat your legs for lunch. Here are a variety of national pavilions, each a stunning work of architecture in their own right. And over in the Arsenale – Venice's former naval stronghold – the former shipyards and ropeworks are dotted with yet more installations by young and go-getting architecture studios, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects in Dublin.
The subtitle this year is 'Freespace', but how that is interpreted is left wide open. It's not just about buildings – the Biennale is about ideas. It's like a branch of Rewe or Carrefour or Sainsbury's where the product is philosophy and the store has been designed by someone who cares about the way things look and feel. And ideas, of course, are something we should never apologise for having.
Biennale Architettura 2018, until 25 November. More information on labiennale.org
Header picture: Dorte Mandrup, Frants Nielsen. Photo: Andrea Avezzu. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.
Writer: Christopher Beanland