Inside Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, up a narrow stone stair in a grand salon with silk walls, dim frescoes, and blue-ish gold brocade curtains, the computer monitors talk about the lives of ordinary rooms with a quiet precision that feels like a salve after days of can-you-top-this architecture installations. Ireland does not have a pavilion at the Biennale and has developed a rep for impressive off-site exhibitions and “The Lives of Spaces” is one of a handful of especially effective shows determined to treat buildings as buildings in spite of the “beyond” biennale theme.
The simple premise treats literally of the lives of buildings—birth/construction; inhabitation; aging; demolition—independent of, or at least seriously questioning, the staying power of any architectural intention. There’s a lyric video meandering through a 1971 country villa by the Irish Miesian Robin Walker with a Seamus Heaney voiceover reading from his poems about “poetic fossils”. Walker’s enviable flush lines and clean framing devises are generous enough to create spaces where steam condensing on a window seems as purposeful a part of the whole experience as the sleek steel faucet. Then there’s a brand new library in Waterford by McCullough Mulvin Architects shown on side-by-side monitors. In one, just upon completion—that favorite time of architects for photography sessions—the view is all about architecture and its precision volumes painstakingly related. In the other, it’s a room loaded for use, right down to the Harry Potter book carousels. The message that daily life obliterates many a fine architectural gesture is a healthy cautionary.
The Arsenale is scant on buildings you’d like to know more about but this tiny show offers up a few, including the Bocconi University in Milan by Grafton Architects. It’s Brutalist, but at the same time as layered as a casbah and obviously beloved by its day-to-day occupants. Look it up. And then on to the endgame of them all: ruins. Silent stills record the demolition of Maze/Long Kesh Prison, a detention center for members of the IRA and potent symbol of the Troubles, as it awaits its next life—probably not without ghosts—as a new national stadium. Seamus Heaney’s “poetic fossils,” indeed.