2018 Architecture Biennial: Swiss Pavilion
Architectural theatre of the absurd
14. June 2018 | Words: Jasmin Jouhar
Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 45 seconds
The jury’s decision was controversial: the Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the 2018 Architecture Biennale was awarded for the exhibition at the Swiss Pavilion “Svizzera 240: House Tour”. Just an entertaining event and not much else, people were heard to say. The installation certainly is entertaining, but anyone so minded can also interpret the suite in the Giardini as a pointed criticism of contemporary Swiss architecture.
Does anyone really enjoy going out to look for a new flat? Prospective tenants are quickly herded through the empty rooms and expected to figure out in just a few moments whether this space is really the right one for them. Usually it feels all wrong. It is either too small or too big, too expensive, too dark, too noisy, located in the wrong part of town or there is just something not quite right about it. The next, please! The award-winning exhibition “Svizzera 240: House Tour” at the Swiss Pavilion manages to replicate this feeling of just-not-quite-rightness – but literally. The team of four curators sends visitors off on a tour of rooms that look just like those in any new building – replicas, but fully outfitted with built-in kitchens, baseboards and light switches. The walls are white, the floors parquet. But even so, nothing quite fits here because Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara of ETH Zurich apparently had a little trouble with the scale during the planning process. The doors are either as big as garage doors or so tiny that visitors have to bend down to go through them. Some of the light switches can only be reached on tiptoe. Dwarves would feel right at home in one built-in kitchen, while another was designed for giants. At the Swiss Pavilion, regular-sized people are the only ones who are absolutely out of place.
However, in spite of this, visitors leave the building in the Giardini with a smile on their lips. After all, oversized light switches and inaccessible worktops not only make good motifs for Instagram posts. The installation also turns visitors into players of a game of scale. This exhibition doesn’t inform or even instruct, but lets you join in a production of the architectural theatre of the absurd, which includes what seems to be an amusing experience of physical inadequacy. The “house tour” even creates a sense of community, because the full extent of the shift in scale only becomes truly apparent when you watch other visitors as they enjoy trying things out. Other visitors who, in turn, are also having fun watching you. This transforms visitors into both audience and actors. At this biennale, the Swiss pavilion is one of the crowd pleasers, and for that alone it deserved to win the Golden Lion.
However, entertainment is certainly not the only thing this exhibition has to offer. It poses – although perhaps only at second or third glance – a lot of questions. Because the wrong scale defamiliarizes the everyday and calls what is thought to be obvious into question: why are the walls of our flats always white? As are the doors, cabinet fronts, window profiles and baseboards. Why are the same standard formats and components used over and over again in every new building? Is it because the architects have simply run out of ideas or are their hands tied by the unending list of standards that must be complied with? Or should the blame be placed on the real estate market, which calls for a generic product that supposedly fits everyone? And in the end no one because this mass-market architecture is completely lacking the individual? After all, the exhibition interiors were not designed by the curators themselves, but developed based on photographs found on the websites of Swiss architectural firms. The conformity of the newly built flats is downright eerie, as a series of examples in the exhibition flyer shows. It is thus no wonder that many people prefer to live in crooked, draughty older buildings with paper-thin walls – but a whole lot of charm.