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The Untouchables

At the Venice Biennale, a new wave in architecture -- digital, abstract, evanescent as a dream -- all but displaced the Renaissance forms of old.

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Visitors to the sprawling central Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which opened two weeks ago, stepped into a darkened hall as if into outer space, just paces away from a scale replica of the new space station to be launched by a European consortium in 2004. Projected images of astronauts in silver suits, drifting to the strains of a Viennese waltz, rolled around the room in the penumbra. In this most scenic of cities, the biennale's Italian coordinators established the exhibition's principal themes by setting an extraterrestrial scene. The roaming station represented the metaphysics of finding a new basis for architecture in a globalized world with an indeterminate address. Cellular phones spontaneously sounded off everywhere, confirming that everyday space is no longer hardwired and fixed but beamed and mobile.

In Venice, there have been only seven architecture biennales since their inception in 1980, and most have self-consciously shouldered the responsibility of defining the field at its leading edge. Conceived and organized by Roman architect Massimiliano Fuksas, with Doriana Mandrelli, this millennial showcase, more than previous biennales, pursued a credible thesis (it's titled "Less Aesthetics, More Ethics") sustained by dozens of high-tech exhibits. Architecture is being displaced from its traditional foundations by unstoppable forces, and its character -- internationalized, globalized, digitized -- is now up for grabs. Architects can't build without knowing where they and their buildings are, and location now is uncertain as absolutes dissolve. The issue is how to find a place for architecture in the placelessness.

"The design of a new sky has been under way now for some years, and the construction of this artificial firmament is displacing the old geographic system of measuring the world," writes Franco Purini in his exhibit several galleries away from the space station. The Italian architect was maintaining that earthly coordinates based on meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude are being displaced by a new, uneven, and open field of beams linking the continents in a skein of relativity. "There emerges a new overall pattern to the world, a different approach that discredits the equator in favor of an intrinsically destabilizing stance," writes Purini. "Orbiting satellites still have no form."

Even the human body, that mainstay of the Renaissance humanist tradition so eloquently displayed in Palladio's classicized porticos up the lagoon in St. Mark's Square, is being morphed into uncertainty. In its exhibit, the architecture firm R & Sie.D/B:L notes that the body is being hybridized with silicon, collagen, and other biotechnologies; skin itself is no longer a protective covering subject to long-term evolution but a reactive surface responding to voluntary processes of mutation. The body, in short, is negotiable. "The integrities of modernity have imploded," the architects declare.

About six years ago, the Palazzo Grassi staged an illuminating show of stately architecture models straight from the Renaissance: Some models hinged open, like a body being dissected for anatomical study in one of the period's new surgical amphitheaters. Sumptuous drawings by Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo documented the cunning beginnings of the age of perspective.

It's been a neat 500 years since the High Renaissance, and the architectural corollary of the new cosmogony and anatomy could be seen in exhibits where traditional drawings and models have given way to powerful computers dancing to beguiling programs. The locus of architectural invention is onscreen. Marcos Novak, an American of Greek parentage exhibiting in the Greek pavilion, offered a screen of revolving computer-generated images that served as progenitors of solid physical models that looked like frozen plasma. In a discussion with Pantelis Nicolacopoulos, a Greek showing elegantly Modernist designs (the conservative position in this biennale was Modernist), Novak maintained that the digital thrust in the field was irreversible. Nicolacopoulos did not contest the claim. Even the profession's stars, most of them digitally challenged and at least a generation older than the young Turks, took a back seat here to young (computer-) keyboard virtuosos. "The significant work is moving into a younger and younger generation," said Greg Lynn, a Los Angeles architect and already a grandfather in computer-design terms.

The American Pavilion was devoted entirely to computer research, and the two wings of the quaintly Jeffersonian structure were overseen by students from the architecture schools at Columbia and UCLA. The two sides of the pavilion represented very different digital realms. Hani Rashid, a professor at Columbia, presided over students who tried to bring computer-generated visions out of the screen into real space. In one exhibit, a web of luminescent wires projected from a continuously morphing screen image. "The installation addresses our desire to be inside these digital environments," says Rashid.

In the opposite wing, Lynn's UCLA students directed their research toward the industrial fabrication of digitally invented forms. Students at banks of powerful computers, the envy of the biennale, generated complex curvilinear figures that, at the press of a button, were milled by a machine sawing slabs of wood. With these intelligent instruments, the notion of machine production was shifting from the serial assembly of identical parts to individually variable components. The industrial paradigm was changing from uniformity to differentiation, from simplicity to complexity. Similar computer-generated objects, with highly involuted forms, could be found throughout the vast exhibition, suggesting a new international style produced by the flows of computer programs.

The likenesses open the computer up to charges of a new homogeneity. One architect criticized the computer for treating the world "as surfaces failing to connect with the deep histories of place," and another said that space itself, and not the computer, should be interactive. Mark Goulthorpe, of dECOi, designed such a building, with a metal-shingled façade whose surface was continuously deformed into ripples by electronic stimuli. This was perhaps the only project in which the building changed form physically in real time rather than being freeze-framed simply as an image of change. The façade had a nervous system.

In a biennale that confirmed the potentially apocalyptic advent of the computer (see for yourself at www.labiennale.org), architects were already planting seeds of a resistance to what may become its globalizing hegemony -- as though the computer, a potentially powerful agent of world-design monoculture, should be programmed for greater biodiversity. Nowhere was there any mention of designing the computer programs themselves: Architects seldom create the programs that in many ways now surreptitiously regulate their creations.


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