The Nordic Pavilion (1)

I was asked by the publishers, Lars Mueller, to review a new book by Mari Lending and Erik Langdalen about the Nordic Pavilion in Venice. I explained that there was nowhere I could review it except on my blog, but they have sent it anyway – a beautiful and thoughtful documentary description of the circumstances which led to the construction of a single pavilion for the Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland (but not Denmark or Iceland) – in the Giardini Napoleonico in Venice and the incredibly complicated Nordic politics that entailed (it makes the politics of the EU seem simple by comparison).

What I like about the book is that it conveys the extreme messiness of building projects, in contrast to the idea that they spring fully formed from the mind and pencil of a famous architect: the piles of boring committee minutes; the fact that so many decisions about buildings are concealed in discussions and debates between architects, clients (in this case, multiple clients), engineers, cost consultants and contractors and so are often very hard to recover from the piles of surviving documentation. So the drawings for the project by Sverre Fehn are published in double-page spreads, but then you are thrown into the minutes of the first meeting with all their indecision and circumspection about the location of gas pipes and whether or not they should hold a meeting in Helsinki. Then there is a mass of information about the detailed discussions which led to the construction of the building, which was sandwiched on a very narrow site between the neoclassical Danish pavilion – the Danes never did agree to collaborate on the project – and the French (the Swedes had had their own pavilion, but sold it to the Dutch in 1932). The problem of the site was that it had lots of trees, nearly all of which the Venetian authorities insisted on being preserved, so the finished pavilion consisted of a concrete structure with a slate floor, which caused never-ending problems, an open roof, which caused equally never-ending problems, and large number of trees growing in the middle of the building, distracting from the experience of whichever country had been chosen to exhibit. It would be good if every building project was subject to the same deep description because it would cumulatively give a very different sense of how architecture, even great architecture, comes into being.

Indeed, one of the things I have found in writing about museums is how poorly many of them are documented. Few people want to record the problems that building projects often cause, so it is a pleasure to find one described with such remarkable, beautiful fidelity.

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