To speak of the book pavilion is first to evoke things past, namely the two rows of trees between which the architectural office of Stirling Wilford & Associates situated their building in 1991. With the exception of two or three, these trees have since disappeared, and the book pavilion now stands on a surface sparsely covered with grass. The park has undoubtedly been neglected. Even more than for other buildings in the Giardini, earlier visits to the pavilion need to be brought to mind to regain the meaning of this poetic design.
Even before the visitor takes the path to the biennial pavilion with its massive white pillars, a building appears on the right, set back behind bushes. This is somewhat unsettling given how its façade asserts a striking axis with the facing entrance to the Giardini. A short white “tower” with a grating above the door stands on a semicircular platform tiled with cement. However, the iron I-beam puncturing this grating and extending far outward disrupts my initial associations with a northern village church. Instead it brings other, industrial images to bear, or at least it is reminiscent of a goods lift. In effect, the beam serves to hoist the necessary machinery for the pavilion’s air-conditioning to the room above the door.
A further element on the tower comes into view between the trees and evokes a third association: The large yellow pipe brings to mind the chimney on one of the ships that ferried us to the Giardini. While initially painted white, it is now a color frequently found in Venice. The red “E” for “Electa” remains. The colored beam of a laser points to the night sky, or at least it used to. Even on its first appearance, the pavilion evokes contradictory and commingling images that resist coming together to a single meaning. From its symbolic façade the pavilion extends back beneath a steeply inclined roof topped with a lantern. Gaps in the surrounding wooden deck still indicate where the trees used to stand and how accurately the pavilion was located between them. The green copper roof overhangs the windows that wrap around the long, narrow room like a ribbon. Fine ribs structure the wide roof and secure the copper sheets. Its color conjures up the kind of Chinese pavilions sometimes found in an 18th-century park—however, there is no gold. The cement balustrade, painted grey along the bottom part and white along the top, makes the pavilion look like a Vaporetto.
This image is accentuated in the rounded ends of the room and the roof, which reaches far out across the wooden deck raised three stone steps above the sand and grass. Once again the Vaporetto is not the only image to come to mind. The building also recalls a kiosk with opened shutters, as can be found in urban parks, in Paris for example. Here there are no doors, however. The room, 30m long and 6m wide, is self-contained. A heavy, deep-set bookshelf, 1.10m tall, runs the length of the windows and along the rounded end, giving the visitors a sense of security. The shelf is made of lacquered wood and evokes the idea—this same image again—of being on an elegant wooden boat tied not to the posts lining the canals of Venice but to the trees.
The trees, visible only as trunks beneath the overhanging roof, follow the outer boundary of the glass-walled room and protect it. This is significant, as the book pavilion is the only building not to withdraw into itself for exhibitions. Quite the contrary. The books and catalogs on the shelves form the raison d’être of this small pavilion, referring beyond itself and to the exhibitions in the biennale’s national pavilions.
The two-storyed frames that bear the wide board-clad roof place this idea of being on a boat in question. They are more akin to a hall in which people are at work. The ventilation system that runs along the upper section underscores this technical image further. And we again think of the I-beam above the door. The frames leave no doubt as to how the pavilion was built. They draw the building’s section in the air and are, as it were, both the construction and, in a tectonic sense, the image of this construction. But this is only partly the case, as the construction of the roof, made of horizontal conduits, remains hidden from sight beneath the cladding. This underscores all the more the symbolic quality of the simple frames made from joined I-profile beams. Despite the serene atmosphere the boards produce, it is a pity that the roof construction is hidden from view, given its great—and also intellectual—beauty. At least the booklet documenting the pavilion’s erection with plans and photographs gives plenty of space to its technical aspects.
The idea of a boat guided the architects in their design, as the many drawings outlining the design process indicate. The lantern that provides daylight to the space below looks in many of these drawings like the bridge of a ship. The design for the pavilion’s entrance was especially problematic for the architects. The described tower appears only late in the designing process and disrupts the sought-after image by introducing other associations. It is not the only place where this happens. Thus, the color of the roof has also given rise to the image of huts, the kind found in the lagoons covered with reeds.
However, the invoked images are dependent on the individual observer and his biography by inscribing what he sees in his experiences. A decisive factor in the pavilion is the fact that these images don’t snap into a single meaning. For this they are too different. The forms that evoke these images are too greatly indebted to a postmodern architecture, which seeks to prevent any such meaning from emerging. This “difficult whole” is the mark of Stirling Wilford & Associates, and they achieve this in their best works, in which the forms do not need to be placed in inverted commas, like quotes one is supposed to recognize.
They are forms that belong to everyone’s experience. This allows the architect to manipulate them, to merge them into a unified whole but without the different meanings included in the design coinciding in a single meaning. As I say, it is a difficult whole. This is demonstrated in the Giardini’s book pavilion: It lives from the resistance the forms exert against their semantic unification. In this it is not unlike Wittgenstein’s ambiguous duck/rabbit figure, with first one and then the other aspect foregrounded.
One final point: The forms evoke not so much meaning as atmosphere. The pavilion does not resemble a Vaporetto but conjures a Venetian sensation; nor is it merely a kiosk but recalls the sensation of hours once spent in a park, to mention but two images. This is why the book pavilion is one of Stirling Wilford & Associates’ best works. Or at least one of the works that means the most to me.