Venice Architecture Biennale has L.A. flavor


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It would be understating the case to say that Los Angeles is well represented at this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, which opened Thursday to the press and participating architects and will open to the public on Sunday. Hitoshi Abe, chair of the architecture department at UCLA, seems to be competing with Thom Mayne to see who can appear in the program more times as a member of this or that panel discussion. (Abe, at least for the moment, appears to be winning.) The American Pavilion includes contributions this year from cityLAB, a think tank on architecture and urbanism based at UCLA, and the L.A. firm Daly Genik.

Still, when it comes to the sheer number of architects from Los Angeles taking part, none of the national pavilions at this edition of the Biennale can come close to matching Austria’s. That’s because the Austrian government made the surprising choice of asking Eric Owen Moss, the L.A. architect and director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc for short, to oversee its pavilion this year.


Moss is not Austrian, but he has close ties to Vienna and to a number of Viennese architects, including Wolf Prix. He has filled the Austrian pavilion with designs by Austrian architects who have worked in L.A. and vice versa. The result is an exhibition that some around Venice have begun jokingly calling ‘the SCI-Arc Pavilion,’ since it highlights designs by L.A.-based Hernan Diaz Alonso, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, Greg Lynn, Marcelo Spina and many others.

When you consider on top of that all the Japanese architects who are showing work in Venice and, because of the Abe-UCLA link, also have been teaching recently in L.A. -- including Sou Fujimoto and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto -- the result is a Biennale thick with Southern California connections.

Finally, because so many L.A. architects live and work on the far Westside, you might also say that Venice is making quite a showing in Venice.

The Biennale as a whole is organized this year by Kazuyo Sejima, partner in the acclaimed and increasingly prolific Tokyo firm SANAA. She is the first woman and the first Asian architect in the show’s history to take on the top job. Curating an architecture Biennale is a notoriously difficult task -- the expectations are high, and there is usually very little time to prepare and even less money. (Only Paolo Portoghesi’s 1980 show is remembered with anything close to universal affection.) Still, Sejima has improved drastically on the most recent version, directed in 2008 by Aaron Betsky, and produced one of the most satisfying Biennales in years.

Her exhibition, which includes a number of artists and filmmakers along with a diverse array of young and established architects, is impeccably, subtly paced and focuses on work that manages the difficult trick of being optimistic, beautiful and clear-eyed about ecological and economic problems at the same time. Its implicit thesis -- highly appropriate in a world largely drained of financing for new construction -- is that architects should be concentrating on ways to reinvent, rebuild or see with fresh eyes the buildings and the cities we already have rather than generating oversized new icons or design fantasies on the computer. But it’s all presented in a delicate, even elegiac manner, without noticeable cynicism or even a touch of despair.

--Christopher Hawthorne, reporting from Venice