Unintended Magic in the Giardini: The Hungarian Pavilion and its Rivals
The Giardini are a magical place. To pass through them is to experience both the brilliance and wretchedness of the modern age, taking a trip through time among architectures alien to one another. An active necropolis yields itself up, providing traces of a permanent metamorphosis that is at once paradoxical and vital. History - not just art history - is haunted here. This is very rare, in fact unparalleled. And beautiful.
The Giardini are really just the setting for the Venice Biennale, an irrepressible enterprise of exhibition that has miraculously existed for more than a hundred years, exhibiting contemporary art of international quality at fairly consistent two-year intervals, from 1895 to the present day; this encompasses the entire history of Modern Art, and one reflection of it in particular: the Biennale has always provided a kaleidoscopic array of snapshots. Away from the urban centers of art, and just as far from the radical avant-garde, the ever-contested Biennale has not served so much as the location for premieres or a laboratory for new art, but rather has turned into an ever-expanding forum in which widely divergent elements, filtrates of the contemporary scene, parade and compete. Maneuvering ambitiously between central control and national independence, the appointed curators and commissioners from all countries involved have always managed to present a bewildering and seemingly endless mixture, providing, for the augurs who travel here, a basis for determining the climate in the world of art. Trends, fashions, and changes in mentality: the tidings from Venice would always have their effect.
But this would be unthinkable without the Giardini. The daring success story of the Biennale is linked to that spot, hortus conclusus of the arts on the edge of town that has defined itself from the outset as a destination of pilgrimage. If its reform-minded beginnings corresponded to the liberal spirit of the Secessionist movement that was sweeping Europe when the clique surrounding Mayor Selvatico, an amateur of art, invited the elite among independent artists to Venice to represent their countries, it was after those pioneering years, rich in fame and scandal, that the decisive stroke for the future of the Biennale was to come: next to the central palazzo of the arts that was bursting at the seams, the idea was to create buildings housing distinct exhibition spaces. Unusual about this idea was that here, in contrast to World's Fairs that had served as models, and the international expositions that were the fashion at the turn of the century, Venice ensured that these mini-exhibition halls would endure, by granting ownership rights to the builders. From its beginnings as a modest temple precinct, the Giardini filled up with row after row of national pavilions over the course of a century that was sorely tried by two world wars, becoming, through its strident variety, an international enclave. The vital vegetation on the edge of the Lagoon graciously framed this mazy garden into a Surrealistic tableau. It conceals more than it reveals, preserving the walkable collage as a fascinating memento, as well as an archeological site that frames the Modern Age, the tangible inheritance of world culture.
True, the setting attracted attention only later on. As long as art enjoyed its boom, siezing friend and foe alike in its grip as it pursued the future, the special presence of architecture in the Giardini, being a "non-contemporary contemporary" element, exercised little influence.
But there has been no looking back. For the generation of the sixties, the architecture within the Giardini meant the shadowy, imaginary promenades created by open-air structures, whose tremendous vault formed a sort of intimate courtyard, the setting for passionate discussions during the opening, where artists like Pascali, Nono, and Vedova roused the public to political protest in 1968, the year of revolt. This brought on aftershocks in the further development of the soon-rejuvenated Biennale, which then expanded to accommodate the burgeoning art of the day, reaching throughout the city to open up historical spaces. Aperto was to provide an enduring playground for contemporary art in the former salt warehouses on the Zattere.
But there were signs of a paradigm change by the middle of the seventies, with a reformulation of the history of the Giardini. The Commander's Hill, on which the French, British, and German pavilions stood in a curious cloverleaf formation, was amassed from the rubble of the Campanile on the Piazza San Marco that collapsed shortly after the turn of the century; this became the talk of the day when Joseph Beuys had the floorplates of the German pavilion drilled through vertically down to the Lagoon. Beuys' primary intention was to deal with German history through reflective manipulation: in the case of the neoclassical Germania Temple, a reference to the Nazi architecture of the thirties that overwhelmed the originally "Bavarian" house.
This activated the collective unconscious for the use of the Giardini as a locus of European history, and turned out to be an additional program in its own right, a monumental work attacking the suppression of history, signaling a pause in the avant-garde. The fashion was now a creative dialogue with available historical material, and even architects went at the problem in an ad hoc manner. Jean Nouvelle sliced the French pavilion open, and Hausrucker & Co refashioned the exterior of Joseph Hoffman's famous Austrian pavilion. Of course these were no profound historical ruminations aiming to grapple with history, but primarily aesthetic statements from individual creators. A new kind of animal participated in the phenomenon of the Giardini: the architect as artist. Gradually, the structures of the Giardini, old and new alike, acquired their own prominence.
At one hundred, the Giardini had metamorphosed to the point of being unrecognizable. Maintained to horticultural perfection, ringed by copious flower-borders, the fully-restored buildings gleamed untinged by any blush of modesty. The beauty of the Biennale could no longer be ignored.
But this was not the convulsive beauty of a condition created by the cracks and wounds of intervening history. Instead it was an indifferent beauty, the glitter of the polish given to corpses of architectural history that had gotten a quick makeover and marched in the same parade, leaving their past behind.
What really came as a restorer of vitality in the Giardini in the summer of 1995 was a realization of postmodern currents, long overdue in this charismatic location. The Biennale's house architect for decades had been a great Venetian: Carlo Scarpa used his characteristic care in giving the Giardini direction, staging some tricky exhibitions and ensuring, in the postwar years, that the Giardini incorporated architectural impulses from the best of the Modern period. His Biglietteria, a ticket booth whose inconspicuousness was easy on its surroundings at the edge of the garden, has won the admiration of professionals from the time of its construction, took its place in the history of architecture, as did his intimate sculpture court, set in a side-eddy of the labyrinthine Central Pavilion. It was also Scarpa, clearly a forerunner of the historically conscious faction, who held the Mussolini-type façade of the Central Pavilion in check from time to time with metaphorical installations.
It is clearly typical, and a virtual symbolic act, that Carlo Scarpa's Padiglione del libro was replaced at the beginning of the 1990's by a space-hungry new construction of James Stirling. In place of the architectural gem from 1950, the ideology of the postmodern stepped in when Stirling, valedictorian of the new class, implemented a "speaking" construction that alluded far beyond itself and struck all "bridges of remembrance" to the past. The clumsily hyperextended Bookshop, inexplicably outfitted with an overgrown mast, tempts one to venture a maritime metaphor: a Venetian bark (if not an entire Viking ship) stranded in the Giardini.
In view of this precise and effective approach to the Giardini, we should remember that Venice was always ready to respond perceptively to currents around it, through all the time since the Biennale was established. In the mid-1970's, the traditional offerings of art, music, film, and theater were joined by an independent architecture section, complemented in time by a fermenting discourse as well. The postmodern was finally enthroned - and in Venice - soon thereafter, with the still-controversial "Europe-America" urban architecture exhibit in 1980.
Il presente del passato was the challenging title of those sensational installations. Testimony to the show's rejection of an exhausted modernism was the historic space with its great round pillars, which formed an apparently-infinite double row, a metamorphosis of the façade into a strada novissima. The Rope-works of the Arsenale, hitherto unknown to all but a few, locked up as it was in the military zone of Venice, was constructed in Palladio's century; the Roman architect and theoretician Paolo Portoghesi saw in it the place to display the work of twenty architects from eight countries - the postmodern elite - and use them to reclaim the right to "columns, pilasters, porticoes and ornaments" that had been renounced by orthodox modernism.
"A fabulous advertising gimmick," acknowledged Vittorio Gregotti reluctantly at the time. Words from a prominent opponent of the new currents, looking far past this one installation: it was not yet clear what (doubtless) criminal energy the postmodernists were investing in the new style still to be created, a fundamentally parasitic relationship to both previously created forms and the already-constructed environment, a relationship they would exploit to full advantage. Looking back on those preliminary manifestations in the Arsenal, another primary feature of the postmodern architects' movement comes through: their spotty relationship with design. One could be tempted to see their unstoppable mingling of categories as a kind of socio-organic cooperation, as it was indeed when the Biennale was founded when masterful spaces in the spirit of Art Nouveau were constructed that inclined towards the Gesamtkunstwerk.
Even Portoghesi pulled off a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in 1980, though it was not convincing as a constructed living environment, or even as one with an eye to construction at all. It was rather a monument of the art of design-optimized persuasion. The protruding façades of the strada novissima suggested a conquest of uniformity through their iconographic decorative elements, offering as a token of the new beauty a pop revue of architectural forms released from any systematic relationship. A team of movie set designers from Cinecittŕ ensured the staged perfection of that stretch of Potemkin village.
But that was a long time ago. The postmodern movement has permeated the appearance of the constructed environment in even the most outlying spots. Quantitatively speaking, this process is far from over.
There were good reasons for its triumph in Venice a quarter century ago. While in the plastic arts, the unbelievable toppling of the dogma of abstraction before the widest audience, most conspicuously through Pop Art, had already taken place at the beginning of the sixties, the virtual dominance of rationalist and functionalist architecture remained undisturbed.
This is perhaps not so commonly perceived even today, as the tracks have sanded up: Postmodern architecture's storehouse of ideas originated in that early avant-garde generational struggle between old and new. It was a long front that ran through the whole of society, involving the breaking up of encrusted structures. The role played by the "no longer fine" arts (soon a phrase of the day) in this process of opening up, of testing, can hardly be overstated. The "open artwork" (itself a phrase minted in the 1960's) was a watershed indicating both the dwindling of the authority of received aesthetic values and the utopian potential of experiments in opening up. Venturi's Learning from Las Vegas integrated itself seamlessly into the bravado revolution against the ivory tower, reminding us that the protagonists of the postmodern movement were contemporaries and colleagues of artists for whose work and environment the history of art now reserves a separate chapter. When architecture's hour finally came around, society had closed again, and architects had made themselves into artists - of construction - and representatives of the new age. Naturally Portoghesi once again blamed the nobler goals of this "basically" democratic architecture which "anyone could approach, understand, and develop affective ties to." But by 1980, that was just an empty shell, particularly the reference to the "anti-elitist" power of the postmodern building to give its inhabitants an identity. Even the fun was over (if it had ever been there at all), with no more detours to the "second-hand" offerings of Las Vegas. It was time to bring in Palladio, and the history of architecture generally.
Furthermore, the new team of stars was to specialize in individual constructions characterized by a significative recognizability, in an event-oriented architecture of an extreme strain, which soon had commissions to fill entire cities.
Architecture's rise to the position of art-substitute is just one side of the coin. One must certainly also weigh the counterproductive disharmony that we experience in postmodern museum constructions from Pei's East Building in Washington to Sterling's Stuttgart Staatsgalerie to Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao: a disharmony between the browbeaten art and a shell that overpowers all impressions. It is ironic that the "speaking" architecture of these contemporary art museums even frequently accommodates installations of radical art, which quickly became noisome: one need think only of Donald Judd's vehement protest against Pei's plundering and falsification of minimalist art. Judd would have had the courts ensure the protection of intellectual achievement.
The enduring mistrust expressed by artists has not put an end to the process. The sensational success of the exteriors, providing a public now trained in an event-culture with occasions that create community, and experiential spaces for public withdrawal. Architecture's "liftoff" can now be understood almost literally since the high-tech explosion and computer-assisted feasibility studies have almost done away with limitations. Gray rows of buildings can be covered with floating plastic, three-dimensional images that assert themselves with a cool bravado as the link between the dreams of cubistic and futuristic painters and the twenty-first century.
Another element of architecture's virtuoso wild forays into sculpture's territory is the rise of the exhibition industry. The "dialogue" (sic!) between sculpture and architecture is supposed to be one of the "most exciting phenomena in art history of the modern period," according to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, which will hold a comprehensive retrospective this fall entitled "ArchiSKULPTUR." To see what became of the "dialogue," take for example the never-ending story of the planning of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The sculptor Richard Serra, for whom nothing less than the credibility of his entire oeuvre was at stake, left the project. The architect even today is still puttering around with the commission, whose purpose has been oft-revised.
It may be that it is no longer so noteworthy when artists conscious of their public roles pull out of projects that spectacularly reshape the environment; this is only natural when a broad critical spirit is lacking. But we can still be surprised by the general acceptance of entirely disproportional projects whose thematic elements had long seemed obsolete since the general acceptance of the modern style. The return of the bombast of the 19th-century monument - an age fed on nationalism and imperialism - is now set to return on the site of the fallen towers in New York destined, for all its designerly slimness, to be no less melodramatic. The disturbing hollowness of this gesture is an artistic statement in itself (quite independently of the builder's own intention). It suggests the windy jargon of an anything-goes arrogance, an ambitiousness that has long abandoned responsibility for the contents since the day all forms were exhausted.
Is this architecture's great liftoff, as it were? As we have mentioned, architecture standing in place of art is one side of the coin. One thing is clear: never in the twentieth century, the age of Modernism, did architecture so resplendently present its tremendous enthusiasm for a dynamically rich world, freed from its rootedness in the ground, as it has since the beginning of the postmodern. It has done this selectively, to be sure, but all the more seductively for that. The dark lining here is the small-change wide distribution of the new architecture that can cover a country down to the corners of every village. This is the desired goal of a transformed everyday life in its architectural setting, one into which the ideology of the postmodern has infiltrated to the point of determining taste. This is a world that must make do without the sophisticated flair, without the expertise and budgets of the international showmasters. It is a dreadful environment.
The Hungarian contribution to the 2004 Biennale offers a laconic presentation of the way this now-common situation has consolidated itself into an aesthetic edict. A device created especially for this exhibition leafs through photographs of hundreds of new buildings. These are not necessarily all from Hungary; the general impression is one of a general interchangeability, a lingua franca that transcends all borders. But this is a de facto situation, given credibility by the fact that the intensive course on surrogates - otherwise known as the taste of the age - can only be gotten in the glossy pages of an insider journal. This trove has been preserved in its entirety, with no manipulation of the selection, no censorship, and no commentary. It is a single compendium of the state of things as they are, as they have developed in the country over the last twelve years: the fact of these 650 buildings, delivered in a not-entirely willful conspiracy with their media organ Beautiful Houses. Taken together, they make a strong enough case to outline the criteria for beauty - a type of beauty at any rate.
"Metamorphoses" is the overarching theme of the Architecture Biennale this year. As always, the theme is a fetching encapsulation of a currently active topic, general enough that it can be interpreted freely by the representatives of various countries. In the age-old spirit of competition at the Biennale, what would normally happen is this: you would send a team of hopefuls into the field and tune their antenna to "metamorphosis," and the rest would take care of itself.
The Hungarian offering, in addition to presenting the premieres of a few architects in the forum of the Giardini, takes on this theme like an extended hand that it shakes, then sets off on a trip through time on many levels of encounters with processes of change, metamorphoses that involve beauty.
At first, the handling of this topic seems overly venturesome; the modern movement was mistrustful of the concept, even sweeping it aside completely. Once that happened, it became almost impossible to contemplate the idea of beauty without imagining quotation marks around it. But of course the ominous standard of value crept in through the back door of historical reevaluation. The case studies in the Hungarian pavilion offer a loose operative relationship to this historically discredited concept: the idea of beauty appears as a leitmotif signaling the assets of a viably worked-out setting.
As a counterbalance to the kinetic, dynamic overview of "beautiful buildings" in the right-hand wing of the exhibit, the left side of the building, where an observer instinctively begins a tour of the show, presents a running frieze of about eighty black-and-white photographs whose architectural features are harder to date than those on the opposite side. A comparison is inevitable, and shows how irrelevant the entire question of dating really is. These buildings had time as a collaborator for various intervals, sometimes over entire eras. Modifications, extensions, and cuts and changes for practicality's sake have produced in every case a characteristic and irregular whole. Tying it all together is the eye of the architect István Janáky, who has assembled a collection of anonymous remainder-architecture from his road trips through rural Hungary. Of course Janáky is just the supplier, the discoverer and eloquent impresario who is presenting his treasure in Venice. Look, he says, there's this too. These are buildings that "grew," coming into existence without planning by any professional calculation. What ties them together is the aesthetic quality of their characteristic feeling - or let us just say it here with confidence: their beauty. Their greatness lies in the purity of their imperiled fragility, unprotected by any classification as historic buildings.
The idea that there is the kernel of a polemic in this Venetian confrontation may be inevitable, but is ultimately of little import, for in the details of its presentation and in its dramaturgy, the exhibition aims at something entirely different: it presents, in sharp delineation, the abyss that separates two coexistent worlds that obviously have nothing to say to one another and for whatever reason are not even able to perceive the other's existence.
A third case study of this unsettling diagnosis is an homage to the architect and engineer Béla Sámsondi (1898-1973). With hundreds of facsimile drawings in A3 notebooks, the public is dealt a fulminous collection of work in which, in a vibrant back-and-forth as if under alternating current, a practical feel for solving technical problems is paired with a tremendous gift for invention and freedom of expression in the illustrations. Sámsondi is not just an outsider, a curiosity rescued from the depths, but a full-grown researcher into architectural technique who engendered a school of followers; this is the first true and exhaustive recognition of him as an artist. This is all a fascinating windfall, but why did it take this long? The question hangs in the air, a coarsely-woven web of currents conforming to trends of the day, systematic ignorance made visible.
The appearance of Sámsondi, who died thirty years ago, as the central figure in the exhibition mix makes it clear that the Hungarian contribution, no blind slave to the present, argues for a prudent pause, and favors precise work on well-defined problems as the solution.
For curator Péter Janesch, the potential for metamorphosis resides in a complex involving the words "genuine," "ingenious," and "general;" in other words, in the primordial power of no-name architecture, which stands up strongly in the face of trends despite its ephemeral presence, as well as in the high creative achievements evident, in Sámsondi's case, not so much in the outwardly-directed individual imprint of the artist as in the future-oriented patience of an engineer building underneath the surface. With "general," there is an echo of the chaotic stream of beautiful houses as an unavoidable fact of life: for the moment, they still have the floor.
In addition, there is work being done on the site. Architect Janesch uses "emergency" to refer to the more-or-less outpatient treatment administered to the historical exhibition space, wounded in various ways throughout its history. The fifth keyword "emergence" refers to the transformation of the atrium of the pavilion into an exhibition space, through the collaboration of four young architects.
One step they are taking reaches beyond the building itself: a mobile ramp over the front stairway offers an alternative transition between the Giardini and the main gate. The walkway offers direction and corrects the cramped situation of the pavilion that arose when Alvar Aalto's Finnish pavilion had to be moved closer due to a wild overgrowth in construction in the 1950's, overrunning the parade of the old Hungarian monument's axis of symmetry.
Throughout the constant metamorphosis that has run through the history of the Giardini, the Hungarian pavilion has played a sustaining role. Securely rooted here, it was the bird of paradise of the first elite group in the immediate vicinity of the central Palazzo, which then (rather distressingly) still retained its historicizing main façade which had in the meantime become dated. Géza Maróti's sensationally decorated building, together with those of Belgium and Holland, represents the satiated days of peace before the First World War, tinged with Jugendstil in both its worldly and "sacral-aesthetic" manifestations. But its homogeneous context soon disappeared. While the other temples to art underwent mere cosmetic rejuvenating surgery (The Netherlands even ultimately put a Rietveld building in the Gardens), the Hungarian pavilion remained, an odd testimony to a vanished world.
A veritable object lesson in historical arbitrariness, the building has undergone alterations and metamorphoses for more than a half-century to the present. Accelerating deterioration in leaner days was followed by heavy-handed steps to modernize in the 1950's, the brutality of which was tempered in the 1960's whenever possible. We should mention that the destruction of the interior spatial arrangement that came with opening of an "Atrium" was no invention of the much-chided postwar period but originally a "Roman" conception in the spirit of the Italian-Hungarian connection of the Mussolini days. Wherever you look - or just scratch the surface a little - you see growth-rings of the Biennale laden with ideology.
The restoration for the centennial of the Biennale was a destructive "improvement": indeed the exposing of the exterior mosaics bestow a historical glow on the whole of the Giardini, but the deadly neo-tackiness of the garish, absurdly overgrown Majolica roof, a new misunderstanding took over the long-suffering building, bumping it into the category of "beautiful buildings" in contemporary production. Of course we could ask the sacrilegious question of whether Maróti's building was itself an only halfway-innocent progenitor of the beautiful buildings.
Whatever the case, Maróti's brand of success was what the Venetians wanted, an amalgam all'ungherese of sophisticated stylistic art and national-romantic motivic richness with which the worthy architectural and theatrical decorator from Budapest created a furore in Milano a few years earlier. Some of its aura and allure seemed to be lost by 1909 in Venice, when a still-benevolent assessment from Italy called it "astonishing but uninhabitable." The painter Róbert Bérény, with a sarcastic assessment the pages of the journal Nyugat in 1912, was explicit: the exterior of the Hungarian pavilion, he said, was just flypaper for the eye. It was, as things Hungarian then tended to be in his appraisal "glorious on the outside, and empty on the inside." Nowadays that assertion is harder to test. Perhaps this is for the better.
But it is really more than its controversial architectural value that is most significant in the environment of the Giardini. The chronically desolate condition of the pavilion, standing with all of its open wounds, makes the magical locus of the Giardini as a whole so rare: history's own construction site. This is the resonator for the Hungarian offering to the Biennale. It is good to know that, in 2004, the genius loci has taken up the challenge.