of Caruso St John Architects, London/Zurich
Participants in Venice Architecture Biennale
Adam Caruso (b. February 8, 1962) worked for Florian Beigel and Arup Associates before establishing his own practice with Peter St John in London in 1990. He has been Visiting Professor at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, at the ETH Zurich, and on the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics, before being appointed in 2011 as Professor of Architecture and Construction at the ETH Zurich. Over the years of its practice, the office of Caruso St John Architects has actively engaged in the art world through exhibition, gallery, and museum design, as well as participating in several editions of the Venice Architecture Biennale and the Chicago Architecture Biennale.
1. What was your motivation for working on the Venice Architecture Biennale this year and before?
Generally, one is asked to be in the Biennale, and if the situation seems promising, or a friend has asked you, you participate. The situation is different in connection with our involvement in the British Pavilion this year, since one needs to apply. Most years, I check on who is on the jury and how the British Council has framed the call. I did that this year, and as usual decided to do nothing. Then Marcus Taylor asked me if I knew anything about the architecture biennale, because he had an idea. It was a good idea, so we applied together, and we were chosen.
2. How would you describe the model of the Venice Architecture Biennale compared to other biennials?
Architecture biennials are different and more recent than art biennials. I can sort of understand art biennials, although their character and purpose has dramatically changed since the rise of the art fair. The biennials are now a part of the art fair and auction travelling circus. Architecture biennials are more difficult to justify. They are not like a fair, since it is mostly other architects attending (MIPIM would be the equivalent of a fair). So the only reason to participate is that someone you like and respect is curating the event, so you are pleased to be amongst the company. You get to meet some of your friends at the opening. Venice is the best established and oldest of the biennials, and it still has a rather European bias, so at least some of the editions still focus on explicitly architectural themes.
3. What goals are connected with the biennials you worked on? Were they achieved?
The biennials we have been involved in, in Venice, and the recent one in Chicago, had very clear themes set by the directors, and we made proposals which were agreed upon with them, and then further developed. I guess I am not interested in illustrating someone else’s idea with our work, but I am interested in engaging in the idea in a critical way, one that is connected to the other contributions as well as saying its own thing. Like writing, or making one’s own exhibition, being in a biennial is an opportunity to participate and extend a discourse about contemporary architecture, a discourse that is rather underdeveloped and that has few opportunities to be aired. My primary goal is to talk to my peers and, if possible, to challenge or at least amuse them.
4. Biennials have proliferated as the art world has scaled in size and global reach in recent decades; however very little information exists about the exact number, geographical reach, and funding and governance structures of these arts organizations. Can we compare biennials at all?
As I said above, although architecture and art biennials have proliferated, they are very different with very different objectives. I cannot really say why architecture biennials have proliferated, except maybe because they are envious of the art world. In the art world, the biennial and the art fair is where the, predominantly, contemporary art world, galleries, artists, and collectors congregate, and where increasing volumes of art are sold. This explains the growth of Art Basel and Frieze. Venice, documenta, and Munster, are all somehow implicated in that; it is where the big collectors go to have big dinners.
5. Biennials provide a point of convergence for the art world, expose large audiences to art, and catalyze interest in cities and regions with global aspirations. Do biennials necessarily have a positive social and economic impact?
I think that biennials have a very limited impact on a more general consciousness; they are primarily for the architecture world, or the art world. They even have a negative effect on art currents, as they are distractions from serious exhibitions, which perhaps within a constructive institutional framework (say the Tate in London) can actually address broader social issues and try to engage and connect local and more international themes.
6. Can you talk about the funding processes and sources? How do you think this affects the biennial?
It seems that all architecture biennials are underfunded, so the participants are expected to pay for everything, or at least most things. I guess at a big art biennials, if you are an established artist with a gallery, the gallery would support your show. For the British Pavilion at Venice, the initial budget was about half of what we needed (and our project is pretty cheap), so the British Council had to raise the rest of the funding, mostly as support in kind. We were expected to support their fundraising efforts. As for Chicago, it seems to be a big deal in the city, so there were many corporate sponsors supporting the whole thing, and we got more money. We still had to spend quite a lot ourselves. I am not sure what this lack of funding means, other than maybe there should be fewer architecture biennials.
7. What sort of curatorial, institutional, or technological innovations can help ensure the vibrancy and relevance of biennials going forward?
I think the most important thing is who the director of the biennial is, and this is the case for both art and architecture. If they are smart and well connected, they will have a theme that both engages with contemporary issues in interesting ways, and has the potential to make a good exhibition. Making a good exhibition is the most important thing; otherwise, you can make a book.