It’s the most exclusive event during the opening days of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Over three consecutive nights, the Dark Side Club convenes at the stroke of midnight to bring together 20 prominent industry experts. For the fifth time running Norman Kietzmann was there to follow the discussions that lasted well into the small hours.
An architecture biennale is like a medallion: it has two sides. During the day, people chat, look and pay mutual respect. Yet as night falls, so does the veil of courtesy and countenance. The Dark Side Club is more than your average industry event. It is a scene of candour. Debates are held at a majestic palazzo or in the back rooms of an exclusive restaurant, organised by London-based architectural consultant Robert White. The rules of the game are well defined: the wee hours allow things to be uttered that cannot be expressed during official daytime occasions. Instead of polished PR banter, it calls for controversy and honest opinions – assuming that those who dish it out can also take it with good grace.
On the second night, the debate took place in an intimate setting: the back room of Do Forni restaurant, not far from Piazza San Marco. Against a backdrop that could double for the film set of Murder on the Orient Express, the salon was hosted this time around by MVRDV frontman Winy Maas. “At this Biennale we again see predictable architectural elements: doors, floors and ceilings. But what are the elements of the future? What will succeed the generic set that we use today? Could we imagine an immaterial architecture? Could foundations be replaced by software and nanotech? Let’s embark on an excursion into the world of science fiction”, said the Dutch architect, setting the agenda for the evening.
“I think we should be idiotic sometimes. Like the Russian Pavilion. We have to rediscover the missing of talking. At this Biennale we are confronted by an extreme obscenity, a new fetishism of materialism and the past. But it is not a surreal fetishism like in Buñuel's movie That Obscure Object of Desire, where fetishism is perverse and shows the degree of alienation. It is a very literal and political fetishism, without creation”, said François Roche, founder of French architecture firm R&Sie(n). Peter Noever, former director of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, took up the thread: “There are two ironies: the one of Rem and the one of the Russians. The Russians are not western. But they understand western. Also with Rem: I don‘t think he made a serious work here. It was very ironic. This Biennale is much less than it used to be and that is a problem. Showing items like the roof and the floor reminds us of an industrial fair. You can do that but you have to put it in the context. And Rem lost the context.”
“It was the first post-humanist Biennale,” said Aaron Betsky, curator of the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, and went on: “If you follow the definition of modernism it is the production of completely rationalised states. Rem shows the elevator, the staircases, everything that moves you around. It creates completely reproducible and optimised space that is the same all over the world. What are eliminated, as Rem said, are not only the architects but also people. If that is where we are, and if that is what we have to build on, it is for me rather frightening but also revealing. How do we build then? And how do we go from there?” “The first thing to think about for the future is to kill the baby boomers. It is to kill David Lynch and his generation of permanent plagiarism to produce their own shamanism value. We just have to stop. Baby Boomers, it‘s time for you to die. You are useless now”, suggested François Roche.
“I think it is a powerful intellectual project”, countered Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects. “If you look at the past 100 years it is exactly like this. The elevator transformed the building environment in a massive way. The car transformed urbanism and a few years later air conditioning came in. I think it is a powerful starting point. Then you are posing the question: what are the next equivalent fundamentals? And to some extent it is very hard to predict these things, because in 1880 nobody could predict the car and how it transformed the world. That is the difficulty with the puzzle”, he continued. Winy Maas then steered the discussion back on track: “I want to talk about the end of postmodernism and the killing of the baby boom generation. So what is next?”
To which Schumacher replied: “In my opinion it is less in the physical infrastructure and more in the permanent shift of information society. We have to translate this into a new self-understanding of architecture as a medium of communication. To distinguish social function from technical functionality we should use new design technologies to enhance a project that I call the ‘parametric age’. The interesting point is, that it is not in the arena of infrastructure so much but in the re-evaluation of the core competence of architecture. At a point where all technical aspects are handed over to engineering experts: What is our expertise as architects? Communication means visuality, that is what we are working on. It is also a counterpoint to those who think that the internet and communication media are replacing architecture and urbanism and are making them obsolete. I don‘t believe that.”
“That point is very centred on your ego. Look at the world. You are a red fish and you are looking at the world from a red fish aquarium saying ‘Wow Wow Wow’”, countered François Roche. “Go outside the aquarium and see the world! It is so childish. You are an artist of romantism with the arrogance of a genius! You are thinking you are the prophet of the world. But you are just a red fish in the bowl. Technology is a tool. We don‘t need to mystify technology. We have to struggle and to manipulate technology. And most importantl: is it possible to take a critical position with technology?” added Roche, gesturing wildly and gave the evening a refreshing polemical direction. A touch that certainly belongs to the darkest (and most honest) of all architecture salons.
– Norman Kietzmann