Biennale Architettura 2018

Learning from 'Architectural Ethnography'

John Hill
31. May 2018
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects

The Japan Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale displays 42 drawing projects under the theme Architectural Ethnography, with the intention "to develop and deepen the discussion about life and architecture, the role of architecture [and] our society in the future."

Commissioned by the Japan Foundation, Architectural Ethnography is curated by Momoyo Kaijima, co-founder of Atelier Bow-Wow and a professor at ETH Zurich; Laurent Stalder, ETH professor and editor of Atelier Bow-Wow: A Primer; and Yu Iseki, curator at Art Tower Mito. The exhibition's roots are found in Kaijima's Made in Tokyo, a popular architecture guidebook from 2001 that documents mixed-use buildings endemic to Tokyo through photos and text but also distinctive axonometric drawings. The way drawings can grasp the qualities of a place as well as the way people use buildings — to function like the architectural equivalent of fieldwork, or ethnography — makes them the ideal media for the exhibition organized into four categories.

The Japanese Pavilion is broken down into four areas corresponding to the four parts of the exhibition.

The first category, Drawings of Architecture, collects drawings that depict buildings. This sounds simple, but in the curators' choice of drawings that's hardly the case. For instance, one of the first drawings seen when entering the Japan Pavilion is a fairly traditional residential structure whose myriad details, down to the individual leaves on the trees, have been drawn methodically in pencil, accompanied by bursts of color here and there that depict time as well as place. Yukiko Suto's drawings take on a deeper meaning when we realize, as Kaijima pointed out during a press tour of Architectural Ethnography ​last week, that the artist was hired by the residents to draw the house before its demolition.

Curators Momoyo Kaijima and Laurent Stalder gave a press tour during the Biennale preview. Here Kaijima talks about Yukiko Suto's highly detailed pencil drawings of W House in Tokyo.

The exhibition then moves on to the other categories in a counterclockwise loop around the gallery: Drawings for Architecture, Drawings Among Architecture, and Drawings Around​ Architecture, moving in progressively larger scales from a focus on buildings to the way people use buildings to the ecologies in which buildings and cities reside. Of course, without any wall text provided, visitors can focus on the drawings as aesthetic objects free from the categories imposed by the curators. But they can also use the helpful large discs that both orient visitors within the gallery and enable them to look at details of the often small and almost always highly detailed drawings through a magnifier. It's a presentation that rewards long gazes — fitting, given how long it took to craft the drawings.

The center of the gallery houses the various devices for aiding in looking at the drawings: discs with magnifiers, ladder for looking at high drawings, and binoculars for looking at some of the panoramic drawings.

Many of the drawings on display have been culled from books so many of them are small and out of reach. To accommodate, in addition to the disc-magnifiers the curators provided some movable furniture: a small seat for looking at low drawings, a ladder for getting close to the tall drawings, and binoculars on a rolling platform for taking in details of some of the more expansive drawings in, for instance, the Drawings Around Architecture section, where panoramic images are found. Though playful, the addition of these objects puts the focus squarely on use and engagement, allowing visitors to shape at least a few small parts of the gallery to their liking.

In lieu of wall texts, visitors carry large discs that label the drawings (if requiring some effort to find) and have magnifiers for examining details of drawings.

Architectural Ethnography isn't limited to the gallery. An exit at the rear of the gallery leads to new steps that bring people down to the covered, open-air level of the Japan Pavilion, which was designed by Takamasa Yoshizaka and completed in 1956. Here are small carts specially made for the exhibition, carts that, last week at least, were used for selling copies of the Architectural Ethnography book and dispensing drinks for the opening party. There are also drawing palettes that invite visitors to make their own drawings — turning them into architectural ethnographers after the "education" upstairs.

Downstairs, the curators set up drawing palettes for visitors to make their own drawings. Here, Kaijima demonstrates after the press tour, with fellow curator Laurent Stadler looking on.

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