The Irish Pavilion in the Artiglierie in 2012 charted a position for Irish architecture in a global culture where the modes of production of architecture are radically altered. Ireland is one of the most globalised countries in the world, yet it has developed a national culture of architecture derived from local place as a material construct. The questions posed by this exhibition was how to evolve our understanding of architecture in the light of the globalised nature of economic processes and architectural production which is largely dependent on internationally networked flows of products, data, and knowledge. How should a global architecture be grounded culturally and philosophically? How does it position itself outside of shared national reference points?
heneghan peng architects were selected as participants because they worked across three continents on a range of competition-winning projects. Several of these were in sensitive and/or symbolic sites that include three UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Giants Causeway Visitor Centre in Antrim, and the new Rhine Bridge near Lorelei.
The exhibition explored how the universal languages of projective geometry and number are shared by architects and related professionals. In the work of heneghan peng, the specific embodiment of these geometries is carefully calibrated by the choice of materials and the detailed design of their physical performance on site. The stone facade of the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre takes precise measure of the properties of the volcanic basalt seams from which it is hewn.
The exhibition also identified water as an element which was shared across the different sites. Venice is a perfect place to take measure of this element which suggests links to another site – the Nile Valley which was enriched by the annual flooding of the River Nile. An ancient Egyptian rod for measuring the water level of the Nile inspired the design of the Nilometre – a responsive oscillating installation that invited visitors to balance their respective weights. This action embodied the ways of thinking that are evolving to operate in the globalised world, where the autonomous architectural object is dissolving into an expanded field of conceptual rules and systems. It constituted a shifting ground located in the unstable field of Venice. It was about measurement and calibration of the weight of the body in relation to other bodies; in relation to the site of the installation; and in relation to water. The exhibit was located in the Artiglierie section of the Arsenale and its level was calibrated against the mark of the acqua alta in the adjacent brickwork of the building which embodied a liminal moment in the fluctuating level of the lagoon.
The weights of bodies, the level of water, changing over time, are constant aspects of design across cultures and collectively, they constitute a common ground for architecture – a ground shared with other design professionals. The movement of the piece required complex engineering design and active collaboration between the architects, engineers and fabricators. It was a kind of prototype – a physical object produced from digital data that explores the mathematics at play – the motion invited the observer to become a participant, to give it a test drive. It showed how a simple principle can generate complex effects that are difficult to predict and invited visitors to experiment and play with them.