The first impression visitors get upon entering the Pavilion of Switzerland at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice is definitely not surprise, but alienation. The most striking features you spot while walking along one corridor are indeed a series of large window frames with milky glass panels projecting into the building a disturbing white light.
A sense of boring normality invests you, as you realise you are touring an empty and unfurnished house, an anonymous modern apartment. At the same time this could be a clinical and austere environment, a lab of some sort where a crazy doctor carries out secret experiments about the mind; or it could be a physical metaphor for a representation of the human brain, and we're now walking through our minds and consciences.
Yet, once you turn a corner the ominous feeling dispels and transforms into a smile: you've just arrived in an empty kitchen, like the ones you may find in a brand new apartment, surrounded by basic interior design features such as handles, skirting boards, power outlets, light switches, countertops and cupboards, but all these elements are bigger than you, which means that either you have shrunk or the pavilion has become gigantic.
You keep on smiling when you realise that you, or rather your visit, is the real protagonist of the pavilion: you resume your tour as things become more confusing and discover a tiny door to access a veranda that does not open, or further labyrinthine spaces.
The idea behind the pavilion conceived by architects Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara, is actually not that of provoking an architectural Alice in Wonderland feeling in the visitors, but in reproducing the concept of the house tour.
The pavilion is indeed entitled "Svizzera 240: House Tour" - the number refers to the usual size of a new flat that routinely consists of 240 cm in height, white walls, parquet or tile flooring, and off the shelf-fittings. The idea of the house tour was also inspired by an episode in the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" series in which Susie offers Larry a tour around the new house, which he turns down, offending her.
You can usually take real or virtual house tours, but the architects behind this project have noticed that in Switzerland it has become rather popular to publish images of empty houses, pictures that end up provoking not a sense of desire for a brand new space to turn into your own environment, but that trigger a sense of detachment. The project can also be read as a critique - it seems indeed that in our times architects have turned into agents of an inflated real estate market.
The team behind the projects decided to play with sizes and dimensions since generic images of empty apartments on sale or rent portray architectures designed for somebody who still hasn't occupied it, and, when you look at these images, you can't imagine the real proportions of the house.
"The House Tour" tries to suggest visitors a physical rendering of those images with completely wrong dimensions and scales going from 1:1 to 2:1 passing through 1:5, 1:2, 1:1.6, 1:1.3 (just to mention a few), suggesting visitors entirely new relations between imaginary and real architectural spaces.
The elements surrounding you in the pavilion are banal, but they lose their familiarity trapping you in an alien and neutral world, in a game of defamiliarisation and estrangement. The trick works so well that quite a few visitors get lost and struggle to find the exit, but, once they get out, they just want to take the tour again, to check if they imagined what they saw or if it is real.
This is not a building nor a house you can dream of inhabiting, the young architects behind it conceived it indeed as a reproduction of a house tour that you contemplate as you would contemplate the images projected in Plato's cave. This is what makes the project different from other ones presented at this year's architecture biennale: the pavilion of Switzerland is not about a model celebrating architecture for its own sake, but it is about the ability to build a representation and an idea of architecture.
There is actually a further layer to consider in this installation: as visitors become house tourists, they start reading the pavilion with their eyes and project on the spaces surrounding them their own interpretation of the themes tackled in the pavilion, at times completely misunderstanding them and drawing the wrong conclusions (most visitors feel elated and immediately start taking selfies to post on Instagram, without really getting to the core of the house tour concept...).
The idea behind the pavilion is simple and the space is minimal, but it is a winning idea for its power to confuse, disturb and amaze you at the same time.
Last Saturday the International jury at the Venice Biennale awarded to the pavilion the Golden Lion for Best National Participation (to be honest, while in other Biennale events you could have singled out at least 5 projects who may have got a Golden Lion, in this case it was almost too easy to spot Switzerland as the winner...) with the following motivation "for a compelling architectural installation that is at once enjoyable while tackling the critical issues of scale in domestic space."
The team of "Svizzera 240: House Tour" stated in a press release about the award: "We are extremely excited to receive this Golden Lion for our exhibition at the Swiss Pavilion after having won a public competition. Svizzera 240 is about looking at empty flats. We want to take the visitors on a house tour, which offers you an exaggerated architectural sensibility through which you see the peculiarities of your own home from the perspective of an outsider. We very much hope that this opens up new ways of reflecting on the role the apartments' interior shell plays in shaping our lives and our identities."
The Pavilion of Switzerland is accompanied by a collateral programme of events, talks and debates that will take place at Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi, in the Dorsoduro area, throughout September, October and November.
Image credits for this post
1 - 8 The Pavilion of Switzerland at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, May 2018, by Anna Battista
9. The project team for the Swiss Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May 2018. Left to right, Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara. Photo: Christian Beutler / KEYSTONE.