The house that Muf built
Kieran Long, Evening Standard, 01.09.2010
When John Ruskin, the great critic and chronicler of the art and architecture of Venice, moved from his home in Denmark Hill in 1872, he delivered a scathing attack on the cod-Venetian, bourgeois architecture of London's suburbs. "I have had indirect influence on nearly every cheap villa-builder between this and Bromley; and there is scarcely a public-house near the Crystal Palace but sells its gin and bitters under pseudo-Venetian capitals copied from the Church of Madonna of Health or of Miracles."
He acknowledged that this proliferation of architectural gewgaws was "indirectly" his fault. His popular book, the Stones of Venice (published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853), had made the Gothic architectural details of that city popular and ubiquitous among speculative builders of the mid- to late 19th century, creating a generation of buildings that he called "Frankenstein's monsters". My home in Venice for the opening weekend of the Biennale was the gracious Hotel Danieli, the very hotel where Ruskin spent his honeymoon in 1849.
The observation of the traffic of ideas between London and Venice is the inspiration behind Britain's contribution to this year's Venice Architecture Biennale. The most important cultural event in the architectural calendar, the three-month festival brings together architects from across the world to occupy the national pavilions in the Giardini Publicci, each with a different exhibition. In addition to this is a much larger display of architectural installations in the Arsenale - the spectacular 15th-century military port of Venice.
The theme of this year's Biennale, conceived by the overall curator and Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima (designer of the Serpentine Pavilion in 2009), is "People meet in architecture", an attempt to put the onus on architecture's social role, rather than its formal or iconic qualities.
The British Council appointed London-based Muf Architecture/Art as artistic directors of the British pavilion, and they have created an exhibition that brings together people and ideas in a rich and complex exchange between London and Venice, and between architecture, science and education. Its title, Villa Frankenstein, riffs on Ruskin's verdict on suburban London and the strange things that happen when architectural styles travel. But the Frankenstein theme also describes an exhibition that is composed of many interrelated - normally separate - parts, and the result is an exhibition containing many exhibitions within it.
The star exhibits are Ruskin's notebooks (with drawings and texts from the period of his work on Stones of Venice), which only rarely leave their home at the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University and have not been in Venice since Ruskin brought them back to England in 1850.
These contain sketches and sometimes fragmentary notes on the buildings of Venice, with particularly meticulous drawings of architectural details and pieces of sculpture from the Gothic buildings that so captured Ruskin's imagination.
The notebooks are in vitrines, and facsimile pages from them adorn the walls of the pavilion. Alongside them is presented another obsessive archive, this time of photographs of Venice by city resident Alvio Gavagnin. Although not a professional photographer, he made a project of capturing the unsentimental and prosaic parts of the city, and amassed more than 10,000 images in 30 years.
Until recently they packed his apartment in the Castello district of Venice, until he sold the archive to German artist Wolfgang Scheppe. It was Scheppe's idea to combine them with the Ruskin drawings, and these two archives of close observation of Venice subtly bring together two men, from very different times, whose lives were dedicated to recording Venice as it really is.
You might well ask what all this has to do with contemporary London. But it is in the central room of the British pavilion that this begins to become clear. This is the biggest room in the pavilion, and Muf has filled it with a 1:10 scale model of part of the London Olympic stadium.
Unlike the steel behemoth that has risen in Stratford, this one was made by Venetian carpenters and has been rechristened a "Stadium of Close Looking". Recreating the steep auditorium at one 10th the size of the real thing, it is still big enough for classes of 30 Venetian schoolchildren to sit in and take drawing classes for the duration of the exhibition.
This generous act combines a Ruskinian sensibility (he believed that being able to draw was critical to the understanding of art and architecture) with Muf's own desire that the act of occupying the British pavilion should generate something real for the Venetian context. It is gently ironic, too, about the potential value of Stratford's Olympic Stadium as a social building for local people during the Games and afterwards. The Venetian version will be found a new home in the city at the end of the Biennale in November.
The last piece of this jigsaw puzzle of an exhibition is perhaps the most beautiful. On the terrace at the back of the pavilion is a steel tank with a piece of salt marsh in it, the first time this has been done.
The tank has pieces of marsh flora and fauna, including small crabs, and is set up with its own tides, fed by lagoon water. This will be the living background to a series of conferences in the pavilion about the science of the lagoon, hosted by Venice in Peril, an organisation that campaigns for the preservation of Venice in the face of threats from climate change, local environmental degradation and the impacts of mass tourism.
In all, the British pavilion is a triumph - complex, intellectually demanding but politically radical. The advocacy of close observation of places contrasts with previous British pavilions that have advocated the generic or simply promoted the work of British architects. This pavilion represents London as critical and reflective on questions of architecture and the city.
In the catalogue for the pavilion, Ruskin scholar Robert Hewison quotes the great man: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way?... To see clearly is poetry, philosophy and religion, all in one." You can't help but feel that he would have appreciated the British contribution to the Venice Biennale 2010 as a laboratory of seeing.
Villa Frankenstein is at the Venice Architecture Biennale until November 21.