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10.26.2012
Americans in Venice
Architects and designers from the US had a larger footprint at the Venice Biennale than ever before.
Peter Eisenman's investigations of Piranesi.
Francesco Galli / Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The Venice biennale is the most exciting event in the architectural calendar. It's nothing like the AIA convention with its commercial trade show and rooms and rooms of continuing education courses and LEED regulations. Venice is a combination gallery exhibition, presentation of international design and urban tendencies, and party that is the best gossip fest in the world for architects.

Given its location and tradition, it is not a surprise that the event  is more important for European architects, but it is increasingly becoming a place where Asian and African countries exhibit their work and ideas. The Unites States has always had a complicated relationship with this international exhibition. In its first years, the U.S. pavilion was curated and paid for by Philip Johnson. Fortunately the U. S. pavilion is now supported with a pittance by the U.S. State Department. Biennale director David Chipperfield chose numerous American architects to exhibit in the international exhibition, including Toshiko Mori, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. But while participation in the biennale by American architects has always been limited to a select group with international aspirations, this year Americans were more ubiquitous than any time in memory. Not only did Peter Eisenman present a detailed analysis of Piranesi’s Campo Marzio in the Arsenale, Moshen Mostafavi, Dean of Harvard's GSD, curated the Venetian pavilion, Washington University professor Peter MacKeith helmed the Nordic pavilion, New York architect Louise Braverman presented ”Kigutu in Formation,” a display of her work and thinking about design in Burundi East Africa.

 
Installation by the Detroit team, with projects by MILLIGRAM-office and *Alibi Studio (Left) and SCHAUM/SHIEH (Right).
 

In the 2010 Biennale, curator Kazuko Seijama developed her theme and exhibitors around the experience of architecture and asked architects to create experiential installations. Her idea was that because of the internet everyone is famous through their website and thus the function of the biennale could no longer be to introduce young, little-known designers to the world. But this was not true in this biennale where the American pavilion presented over 120 young mostly unknown practices working in tactical urbanism. In the Arsenale, under Mr. Chipperfield's guidance, a young collective of ten architects, artists, and writers from Detroit and the University of Michigan created an installation called 13178 Moran Street. The address comes from a Detroit house purchased at a public auction by five of the architects in the group for $500, and which they essentially "brought" to Venice through the means of an installation.

Contributions by various architects organized by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
 

The house became a site for the young professionals to experiment with their ideas on a real site and building. In Venice, they recreated the house. As they say in their architect’s statement, "essentially entering the new civic realm transported from a Detroit neighborhood." The five architectural practices (Ellie Abrons with Adam Fure, Meredith Miller and James Graham, Thom Moran, Catie Newell of *Alibi Studio, Schaum/Shieh) inserted new designs and uses into the decrepit space that each suggest new ways of thinking about living that are more communal, experimental, and open. A plan of the house printed on the ground was a template for these new insertions, and establishes a plan for how Detroit might develop in the future.

From Eisenman’s investigations of Piranesi’s plan, to the U.S. Pavilion’s interactive display of urban interventions, to the Detroit collective, investigations of the city are clearly dominant concerns for American architects working today.

William Menking