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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.102 Santiago ago. 2019 


The Triennale is dead, Long live the Biennale? Exhibition, mirrors, and speculation

Viola Guarano1 

Maite Raschillá2 

Javier Ruiz3 

María de la Paz Faúndez4 

1Arquitecta, Politecnico di Milano, Milano, Italia.

2Arquitecta, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.

3Profesor, Escuela de Arquitectura, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.

4Profesora, Escuela de Arquitectura, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.


The controversy surrounding the Milan Triennale of 1968 - curated by Giancarlo de Carlo - and the subsequent emergence of the Venice Biennale are analyzed following the idea of a mirror: that which reflects architecture in a precise moment. But if the Latin for mirror is speculo, what is the relationship between such mirror and the rules of speculation in architecture? The answer to that question is what structures the following text.

Keywords: speculation; idea; history; essay; triennale

Source: Archivio fotografico della Triennale di Milano. N/

Figure 1 Exhibition montage La protesta dei giovani, by Giancarlo De Carlo, Marco Bellocchio and Bruno Caruso for the XIV Triennale di Milano, 1968. 

On March 1, 2019, the XXII International Exhibition of La Triennale di Milano opened. The resurrection of such institution with Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, curated by Paola Antonelli (senior curator at the MoMA’s department of architecture and design) is not fortuitous, once examined within the international background of architectural exhibitions. As the president of the institution Stefano Boeri warns, it expresses the will of the triennial to build a new continuity with the positions, themes and international resonance concerning the tradition of the Triennale institution:

When governments and political systems are no longer a reference point for progress, we look for other places, such as creative institutions, to facilitate that dialogue. Our aim is to change the definition of what it is to be a cultural center; the Triennale will be a place of reflection and debate (…). (Boeri, 2019)

The voluntary renewal of the Triennale institution could be considered an echo of the events that took place on March 30, 1968 at the Palazzo dell’Arte - headquarters of the 14th edition of the Milan Triennale, curated by Giancarlo de Carlo and devoted to ‘The Large Number.’ On the opening day, a ‘large number’ of people broke into the building and destroyed the exhibition’s setting, shutting the Palazzo down under the motto “The Triennale is dead.”

“Far presto poiché siamo nel momento giusto e tutto cambia rápidamente” (Be quick as we are at the right moment and everything changes so fast) (De Carlo, 1968a), alerted De Carlo during the last weeks of March 1968. With this phrase, addressed to his editor, he sought to publish as soon as possible La piramide rovesciata, a text in which he tackled the crisis that the Italian cultural institutions experienced during the sixties, in particular the Polytechnic of Milan. Two months later, on May 30, 1968, and in order to “open an interdisciplinary dialogue meant to find a new scientific basis to help in dealing correctly with the issues of large numbers” (De Carlo, 1968:94-95), the opening date of the 14th edition of the Milan Triennale was set. The purpose of the Large Number was to address the topics of major environmental transformations, originality within mass culture, and the nascent consumer society from the point of view of art, architecture, and design. However, De Carlo’s intention to expand the framework of the Triennale to issues that exceeded architecture’s traditional field was truncated on the day of the opening.

Source: Archivio fotografico della Triennale di Milano. © Publifoto

Figure 2 Broken mirrors belonging to the exhibition La piccola scala per le grandi dimensioni by Aldo van Eyck for the XIV Triennale di Milano, 1968. 

Understanding the temporal distance that separates these two editions of the Triennale, raises the question, why does the xiV Triennale - aimed at providing space and representation to the growing conflicts of the society it was part of - seemingly fails? What were the effects of such an episode for contemporary architecture exhibitions? Going through the events and identifying the different voices that contributed to the debate on the alleged failure of the XIV Triennale as an exhibition - dealt with by different Italian press media - allows understanding it from the standpoint of the implications and possibilities contained in the act of speculating, beyond the value that speculation could give to the object in question. If the debate then rested on the binomial success/failure, the following article will focus on its nature and the consequences it had for the Milan Triennale as well as architecture exhibitions in general. Making sense of the meaning of Boeri’s words means exhuming the corpse of the xiV Triennale to position it as a determining factor for the future of periodic architectural exhibitions. Read as a paradox, the event of the occupation would be the trigger for a series of repercussions that did not only put the discipline itself in question, but also forced it to reformulate its future methods of production, reproduction, and exhibition.

Source: Archivio fotografico della Triennale di Milano. © Publifoto

Figure 3 Protest demonstrations before the opening of the XIV Triennale di Milano in front of the Palazzo dell’Arte. The banner reads “The city is a machine, the speculator uses it, the architect designs it, and the worker builds it to be crushed”, 1968. 

Architecture in front of the mirror

From the Latin specularis, “everything pertaining to or related to a mirror,”9 architectural exhibitions can be understood as a moment in which the discipline faces a mirror in order to contemplate itself. At the same time, periodic exhibitions in architecture have had the role - or at least the will - of making the discipline conscious of its processes and changes, questioning its limits and frameworks for action in an increasingly complex reality. Within this panorama, the XIV Triennale is a paradigmatic case: a mirror that modifies its own framework in order to reflect a world beyond the discipline, introducing architecture into an extended field of relationships. The Italian press speculated about the new scope of this edition of the Triennale, thus expanding the margins of the mirror:

There has not been a Triennale in this postwar period that has not aroused the most heated controversies - and certainly the 14th edition that opens today, May 30, in Milan will not be the exception. However, what I wondered while circulating around the Palazzo dell’Arte a few days ago, while listening and observing different architects and artists who described what they wanted to show with their images, was whether this time the debates would exceed the restricted circle of architects’ cultural elite and would include the public, that public that the Triennale itself wants this year as the main character within its exhibition. (Sansoni, 1968)

To achieve this goal, both the theme and the exhibition methods were a matter of search and experimentation. Rethinking what and how the content was communicated also meant redefining the audience for the exhibition, making it more open and participatory. On the one hand, the open call with a single theme,10 The Large Number, sought to address the “great transformation phenomena currently occurring within contemporary society”11 and to provide an approach to mass culture and major social, political, and cultural issues not only in Italy but, for the first, at the international level,12 exceeding thus the exhibition’s historical features. On the other hand, the collaboration between diverse arts was sought for, in order to reformulate the exhibition media by eliminating the distance between the audience and each piece. As stated by the architect Jacopo Gardella:

By changing the exhibition from quality objects to the study of subjects of collective interest, the Triennale, instead of surveying every three years - as it did a while ago - everything that was produced outside, it began paying attention to everything that was produced inside of it. (Gardella, 1968)

These words predict the role that the audience would play in the 14th edition: from observer to main character in the exhibition. The focus did not rest on the exhibits but on the link aroused by the exhibition and its public reception. The exhibition was thus conceived as an open process where varied experiences were randomly and subjectively articulated along a free detour inside the Palazzo.

The reflection that breaks the framework

From “architecture exhibition” to “media phenomenon,” the occupation incident quickly began to appear in the Italian press since the opening day. The media not only reported what happened but also began speculating about its possible causes and consequences. Therefore, this Triennale can be interpreted as “an opportunity for the research and analysis of unexplored territories, literally ‘discovered’ by the press; an open sequence made of a series of chapters that can grow or diminish depending on the place and audience (…)” (Nicolin, 2011:23). From this point of view, the XIV Triennale di Milano is constituted as an ‘event,’ a construction within the collective imaginary product of the various narratives existing in the media, creating an image different of what actually happened.

In the days that followed the occupation, the press put together an endless debate about its possible causes. According to an official statement by the demonstrators, rather than criticizing the content of the exhibition itself, the occupation was a radical critique of Italian cultural structures and institutions. On the other hand, the words by the architect Carlo Guenzi pointed to a flaw within the Triennale’s communication methods:

The Triennale was occupied. The occupation has political perspectives that are born out of a global response to the system; but given the historical impossibility of calling those same agitators to a hypothetical revolution that often shows that they want to enjoy the privileges of bourgeois culture, what path to take? (...) Was there a constructive cultural discourse? The Triennale sought to exhibit itself rather than its content (...). (Guenzi, 1968)

Within the same line of criticism, the Archizoom group wrote in Casabella:

The current function of the Triennale is to introduce the audience in the Great Peripheries of the Empire to the latest technological developments, and to misleadingly inform it about the existence of certain subjects matters, as if in a great show in which, however, rather than the expansion of its own social conscience, it receives an image without counterpoints and dramas that are the same ones a regular newspaper could provide. (Archizoom, 1969:45)

Source: Archivio Cesare Colombo

Figure 4 Giancarlo De Carlo debate con Gianemilio Simonetti mientras la 14.a Trienal de Milán es ocupada por artistas y estudiantes a fines de mayo de 1968. 

Against this background, it is the architect Bruno Zevi who elaborates on a new assessment of the events, understanding the occupation within a larger exhibition context. In “The architect has committed hara-kiri,” he frames the incident among Situationists’ happenings:

When a large number of painters, sculptors, and students invade the Palazzo dell’Arte by shouting and cackling, nobody from the audience was shocked, not only because within the broader cultural context a protest was easy to foresee, but because it was in particular harmony with the motives of the Triennale and the new kind of artistic ‘events’ in fashion during the sixties, since everything here is an event. (Zevi, 1968)

Speculations on the exhibition lead us to the forms of the new performance art as one of the possible alternatives within this Triennale. The chosen theme, as well as the installation itself and the selection of artists and architects invited, could be assumed as conscious decisions and triggers for the occupation.

Considering this hypothesis, the major provocation of the Triennale was inside the room La protesta dei giovani, which had not been originally planned by the curators: it was instead a last minute decision given the abstention of the USSR to participate in the call. Dino Buzzati, a journalist with the Corriere della Sera, describes the pavilion as “nothing but a city’s street through which a procession of students advances, full of violent signs. In the middle, there is a barricade made out of rubble, car bodies, bathtubs, and household items. Cobblestones have already been ripped off, and they form a nice pile, ready to be tossed” (Buzzati, 1968). Literally, it represented a Parisian street blocked by a barricade. Here, the breaking point becomes paradoxical, since the greatest virtue of the Triennale - one could say - is also its greatest error. The inclusion of this room can be seen as a reflection of De Carlo’s personal impetus to show what was happening outside the walls of the Palazzo dell’Arte and the global conflicts affecting society, but it also revealed the fragility of the Triennale as an institution without the necessary means to manage social conflict nor having its communicational strategies under control (Nicolin, 2011:87). On the other hand, at the moment when the executive board decides to reopen the exhibition - after having evicted the students - the moment of crisis is invisibilized. By cleaning up the damage without bearing the consequences, the participation and discontent of a part of society, as well as the imprint they had left inside the Triennale institution, are literally and figuratively erased. After May 1968, the conflict seems to have never existed at all.

Source: Archivio fotografico della Triennale di Milano. © Publifoto

Figure 5 Panel with press articles on the occupation of the XIV Triennale di Milano at the entrance of the Palazzo dell’Arte, 1968. 

But what is actually exhibited in the XIV Triennale of ‘The Large Number’? What happens when the institution’s own fragility is transgressed by reality, changing the scenario that architecture has taken as its own? In the words of the art historian Germano Celant, we are “used to producing objects which translate ideas and stimulations into matter, we continue to produce objects which fail to reflect the world in which we live in,” but as was demonstrated in this edition, “only with the experience of a political shock far beyond our predictions, and when the artist, the critic, and the architect realize that they have no firm hold on reality,” is when we arrive at a real awareness of the political role of these institutions (Celant, 1968).

Despite his attempts, Giancarlo De Carlo’s search had caused the entirely opposite effects. At the moment when the Triennale institution and its executive board decided to expand the mirror’s framework, they forgot about what had questioned its fragile constitution and had triggered in the beginning the need for its limits. Thus, the object becomes a representation that has surpassed the filters of an institution by questioning it. The mirror, by reflecting, distorts.

From the Triennale to the Biennale

Taking into account the multi-scalar nature of the conflict, the position taken by De Carlo in the face of events that followed seems legitimate: the eviction of the occupants by the police caused the immediate resignation of the executive board and De Carlo himself in an act of protest. After the 1968 edition, the Triennale faced a crisis and began thus its slow decline. One of the reasons for its alleged failure is rooted in its subsequent edition. The Triennale of the ‘The Large Number,’ of interdisciplinary focus, had its counterpart with the subsequent xV Triennale. On September 20, 1973, opened to the public the exhibition curated by Aldo Rossi and devoted to the ‘Architettura Razionale,’ which was assumed as the “restoration” Triennale - as opposed to the “contested” Triennale. Here, the focus was once again a purely disciplinary one, a return to tradition, necessary to re-set the course that according to Rossi the architectural debate should follow onwards (Rossi, 1975). Rossi’s first decision was to break with the idea of grouping the exhibition under a single theme, so that each participant could decide what to exhibit and how. This followed the debate related to the Triennale held by Rossi himself and Giancarlo de Carlo since the mid-sixties. Aspects such as the disappearance of the study center’s call and the executive board led to the idea that the xiV Triennale jeopardized the administrative system that governed the institution, opening the possibility for a complete reformulation. This radical turn, articulated as a promise of change, failed. As Anty Pansera argues:

Although the XIV Triennale had closed a cycle and 1968 had marked a turning point, the concern about the possibility of creating an edition following past modalities did not discuss the theme, neither the council nor the designated administration to make the exhibitions or the sections. However, if the XV edition was not questioned on the day it opened, it did caused a profound discontent, unanimous among both experts and politicians, as well as among the general audience (Pansera, 1978:578)

The voluntary return to tradition reveals the game of the mirror. The contradiction between the intentions of the “restoration” Triennale and the unintended revolution that generated media speculation around the 14th edition produced, in the context of architectural exhibitions, the fossilization of the Triennale. The impossibility of reaching a larger audience, of responding to the newly created margins, caused an institutional collapse revealed by the progressive distancing of the following editions.13 That collapse is not a sudden death, but rather a slow agony in which the Triennale - the first periodic architecture exhibition - tried to remain relevant in an increasingly expanded range of architecture exhibitions, both in Italy and around the world.

The decline of the Triennale is, in fact, what drives the consolidation of the Venice Biennale as the new international event. Ten years after directing the XIII Triennale di Milano in 1964, the Art Biennale invited Vittorio Gregotti as curator for the 1974 edition. The decision to appoint an architect as curator of the exhibition was something unprecedented. In fact, it was Gregotti who promoted the opening of a section devoted exclusively to architecture within the Art Biennale, questioning the boundaries and distance between both disciplines. Thanks to that, a debate sparked off within the Biennale positioning it as a platform for speculation and cultural production. The Triennale was definitely relegated to the background:

(…) after 1968, the Milan Triennale was unable to produce anything. It took many years to get out of this crisis. During those years, from 1970 onward, the Venice Biennale occupied a space that it did not fulfill before. (…) But today I don’t think that the Venice Biennale has a cultural impact. Maybe it is more of a fashion effect. And now the Milan Triennale is organizing exhibitions again, but it is not as important as it used to be. (Szacka, 2010:43)

In 1980, this fact becomes even more radical when architecture as a discipline achieves its autonomy over the Art Biennale and the exhibition curated by Paolo Portoghesi opens: the Strada Novissima, the first International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. This new institution is capable of adopting speculation as a new method for disseminating the critical architecture debate and promoting the architecture exhibition as the most coveted event in the contemporary architectural scene. The institution of the Biennale manages the concept of crisis and makes of ‘the marginal’ its favorite topic. This is seen in recent editions, where their titles - Common Ground,14Reporting from the front,15Freespace16 - reveal how speculative methods turns trivial topics within the discipline into the most popular ones. Against this background, it can be assumed that by making what’s ‘marginal’ the subject of an exhibition, the speculative system regenerates itself and further expands its framework. As a way of absorbing events in the margins of the discipline, speculation is transformed into a new method for the production, reproduction, and exhibition of contemporary architecture.

Archivio fotografico della Triennale di Milano. © Publifoto

Figure 6 Palazzo dell’Arte entrance after the occupation of the XIV Triennale di Milano. Among the graffitis says: “La Triennale è morta”, 1968. 

Long live the Biennial

In light of the events that led the Triennale di Milano to its failure and, at the same time, the Venice Biennale to a coveted international fame, speculation appears as a new system for the production of disciplinary debate. The speculative exercises developed throughout the occupation of the 1968 Triennale represent an unprecedented production method within the discipline. The crisis that the occupation provoked within the architectural debate, the resonance that it had in the cultural scene, and its qualities as a catalyst for the political, economic and cultural tensions of its context, allow interpreting that failure as a turning point in the history of architectural exhibitions.

Nowadays, speculation has become the new framework of this mirror, managing the multiple realities that are shaped through it. When we question the reasons that led institutions and, consequently, their periodic exhibitions, to include what is outside their boundaries - both in terms of themes and formats - speculation is seen as a new method for discourse production. By broadening its scope of action, it is not questioned whether projects such as magazines, research, films, manifestos, conferences, and exhibitions could be part of the discipline’s field of interests, since speculation has been transformed in a form of making architecture. And, while the mirror of architecture already reflects all the conflicts of the real, we are left conjecturing - speculating about it.


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Viola Guarano Architect, Laurea Magistrale en Arquitectura, Politecnico di Milano 2017. Master in Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile 2018. Among her subjects of interest are the critical understanding of contemporary architecture and experimental projects based on urban and landscape studies. Currently works at Openfabric (office based in Rotterdam) and is part of the Laboratorio di Costruzioni dell’Architettura team at the Politecnico di Milano.


Maite Raschillá Architect, Master in Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile 2019. Currently serves as part of the Training and Representation I Studio team and the Contemporary Architecture Debates team, both within the branch of History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of Architecture of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.


Javier Ruiz Architect, Master of Architecture, Pontificia Universidad de Chile 2018. Author of the essay “From Utopia to the Island on the Laja” (Anales de Arquitectura 2017-2018, Ediciones ARQ , 2018). He currently works as teaching assistant with Cristóbal Amunátegui and Rodrigo Pérez de Arce at MARQ UC.


María-de-la-Paz Faúndez Architect, Master of Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile 2017. Among her topics of interest are the development of modern architecture in Chile and the relationship between gender studies and architecture. Has worked as a teaching assistant for different courses in the area of theory, history and criticism. Currently serves as instructor professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and research assistant in the Fondecyt project 1181290.

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