France’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale is by no means one of the most outstanding edifices in that collection of buildings designed in the first place to be demonstrative, regardless of the date of their construction. Unlike those pavilions that set out to propose a more-or-less-up-to-date interpretation of what might be termed the national “tradition,” or those that purport to manifest the value of newness that is one of the forms of monumentality listed by Aloïs Riegl in his Der moderne Denkmalkultus in 1903, this edifice stands out in negative from its neighbours by its comparative effacement. Inscribed in a triangular conversation with the pavilions of Great Britain and of Bavaria (which became that of Germany), it sits modestly on the ground, accessible by a simple flight of steps, and has neither pediment nor grand stairway. Modesty as noticeable as this calls forth contradictory interpretations.
The first hypothesis is to consider that the building was the result of what I would term a strategy of disdain. In 1912 France had no lack of brilliant architects, of whatever artistic persuasion, and cared little about making an original statement in Venice. Only a year before, for example, attentive to her profile at major world fairs, France had retained Albert-Désiré Guilbert, a renowned specialist of hotel and religious architecture, to erect on the banks of the Po River a gigantic pavilion for the Universal Exposition of Turin. Was France of the opinion that the still-young biennale was only a minor venue? One that did not demand the hand of a leading Parisian figure but might be adequately handled by a commission conferred on the local engineer Fausto Finzi, the designer of various projects for the municipality of Venice? Indeed, Finzi had been hired in a similar capacity by other states, notably Russia, for whom he carried out the project developed in Moscow by Alexei Shchusev.
Taking a contrary line, another interpretation might be to see in Finzi’s design an expression of a strategy of arrogance. France, being so confident of dominating the architecture of the world because of both the influence of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the prestige of Haussmann’s new Paris, saw in the pavilion’s understatement an elegant way of showing that the nation was above the scramble for attention and, unlike her neighbours, had no need to gesticulate to claim the place that was hers by right: the first, of course.
Clearly, the building built in the Giardini resembled projects by students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the years preceding World War I. Its composition was symmetrical, and the loggia that distributed its galleries, elliptic in plan, was confined by an Ionic colonnade, simple and clear, in the image of those projects suggested to apprentices by Julien-Azaïs Guadet, the leading Beaux-Arts theorist of the day. Placed on a transversal and secondary axis in relation to the general composition of the gardens and partly hidden by the Scandinavian Pavilion from the entranceway sight-line, like the German Pavilion facing it, the French Pavilion was approached by visitors on a tangent, not frontally as academic conventions demanded. Because of this, the loggia stood out as an element to catch the eye, drawing the distant regard toward an edifice whose otherwise opaque walls were crowned simply by the delicate railing made by master ironworker Umberto Bellotto.
This artifice did not prohibit Finzi’s pavilion from displaying the dual indifference that typified the dominant Beaux-Arts approach: indifference with regard to programme, evidenced by recourse to compositions that might serve for a wide range of different uses, which led to a certain flexibility to the finished work; and indifference too as regards the sites and landscapes where projects were inscribed. The imaginary architecture that resulted from this attitude was not boring; on the contrary, it might be stunning. But as Frantz Jourdain wrote so fiercely in his 1893 novel L’atelier Chantorel (which transposed Émile Zola’s L’oeuvre to the world of architecture), it was remote from contemporary concerns. In the book, the designer of the Samaritaine and founder of the Salon d’Automne in Paris described how “students were expected to compose seaside casinos, with ports for gondolas; villas surrounded by terraces and trellises; porticoes on public places; museums in parks; orange groves with grottoes surmounted by loggias; campos-santos; prow-studded columns immortalizing naval victories over the Turks; edifices with no specific function, designed solely to deck out islands. An enormous and stupefying foolishness characterized other subjects too, indefinable and nonsexual, which might have been imagined indifferently on the moon or on earth, at uncertain periods, amidst a civilization of phenomena and a population of phantoms.”
To a large extent, Finzi’s pavilion, a miniature version of those “museums in parks” described by Jourdain, reflects just such an approach, where references to an imaginary and rather stereotyped Venice were not lacking, not—in any case—in those projects conceived of in Paris. Because of this it figures as a conservative alternative to the projects designed by the most radical former Beaux-Arts students, concocted during the same period at the Villa Medicis, in which urban design and landscape appeared as the central concern for the generation of Tony Garnier, Henri Prost, and Léon Jaussely, who sojourned there one after another early in the 20th century, and all of whom were mindful of topography and climate.
In its concrete function for biennials of art and architecture, the pavilion’s neutrality—the first indifference so characteristic of Beaux-Arts style—enabled it to serve the ends of French curators and set designers. It has thus been able to act as a support for the most diverse installations, like the one by Patrick Bouchain, whose inhabitable scaffolding—the Metavilla—invaded it for the Biennale in 2006, or the one by Dominique Perrault four years later, which turned it into a dark room, wrapping its loggia in a transparent red curtain. In between, in 2007, Daniel Buren used its spaces in a somewhat ironic fashion to lay out the 107 testimonies by women for the Prenez soin de vous exhibition imagined by Sophie Calle. Not to mention installations by Claude Lévèque—the ultra black Grand Soir (2009), and Christian Boltanski—Chance (les jeux sont faits?) (2011), to name only the most recent contributions that show the potential of its volumes. This capacity that the pavilion’s rooms have to accommodate the most varied strategies justifies its being likened to a sort of ante literam “white cube.” Long before contemporary art claimed this type of gallery space as its own, the founding modesty of the interiors designed by Fausto Finzi, far from being a handicap, has enabled it to serve the ends of successive users. Once one moves past its discreet Ionic colonnade, the surprising worlds born in the imagination of its ephemeral occupants have turned it into the most unexpected box of miracles.