Common ground amid the canals

Rice School of Architecture to be well-represented at prestigious Venice Biennale 

Troy Schaum is about to spend a month in Venice and wonders if he’ll get to enjoy the delights of the city at all.


A translucent staircase called "About-Face" was part of the Detroit installation and has been recreated for the Venice Biennale by its designers, Rice assistant professor Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh. Photo courtesy Troy Schaum

The assistant professor at the Rice School of Architecture (RSA) will help lead a contingent both exhibiting and curating on behalf of Rice University and his own architecture firm at this year’s Venice Biennale, the long-running and world-famous exhibition of art and architecture amid the canals.

“It’s like a Cannes Film Festival for architecture,” he said of the biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition. Schaum expects as many as 200,000 visitors will take in the exhibition at the biennale, which was founded in 1895.

Schaum will do triple duty in preparation for the prestigious invitation-only showcase, which runs from Aug. 29 to Nov. 25. First, he and Rosalyne Shieh, his partner in the architecture firm Schaum/Shieh, will show a large-scale installation titled “About-Face 2,” based on their previous work for a unique installation in Detroit in which five architecture fellows at the University of Michigan bought a derelict house for $500 and transformed it into a piece of interactive art.

Second, he will oversee Rice’s participation in an exhibit of models by students from the world’s great architecture schools. Rice is one of 30 institutions — one of only two from the United States — invited to show their work by biennale curator David Chipperfield, a British architect who designed a master plan for the ongoing expansion of Houston’s Menil Collection. The catch is that none of the biennale models will be tagged with either the names of their creators or their schools; this is done to present a homogenous face to visitors on the state of academic architectural thought.

Troy Schaum

Troy Schaum

Third, he’ll organize an event on behalf of Rice for the American pavilion, the details of which are in the works but may take the form of a roundtable discussion about the 120 projects it plans to host this year. “Rice has never been about thinking small,” Schaum said, “so the discussion may run counter to what they’re doing and focus on how these small projects translate into larger questions for the built environment.”

“About-Face 2” is one component of a larger project, “13178 Moran Street, Grounds for Detroit,” an ambitious installation that reimagines what is possible in a new Detroit. The installation builds on an earlier project by Schaum/Shieh that was part of a site-specific installation, “Five Fellows: Full Scale.” The five, including Shieh, were fellows at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning when they ponied up $100 each to buy an abandoned wreck of a house. After gutting it, they transformed it with five works of art that included Schaum/Shieh’s translucent staircase, which cuts diagonally through the house and terminates at a glorious bubble skylight. The building also housed “Weathering,” in which Rice alumna Cathlyn Newell ’06 transformed a garage with nearly 1,000 glass tubes that transmitted light from outside to inside.

Detroit house

The house at 13178 Moran St., Detroit, was turned into an interactive architecture installation by fellows at the University of Michigan and the architecture firm of Schaum/Shieh. The installation will be recreated for this year's International Architecture Exhibition in Vienna. Photo courtesy Troy Schaum

All five components will be represented at nearly full scale in Venice. Schaum and Shieh spent the first two months of their summer in Michigan as part of the crew building what Schaum described as a “ghost house,” an aluminum frame with fabric walls and a literal floor plan writ in vinyl that replicates the Detroit home room by room. The ghost house holds working versions of each architectural installation.

Much of the cost, to which Rice and Michigan contributed, went toward packing and shipping the ambitious installation to Venice, where it arrived this week. Schaum and a crew including RSA student Giorgio Angelini will reassemble the structure inside the biennale’s main hall, the Arsenale, Venice’s circa 1104 former naval armory.

“Architecture’s in a moment where the discipline is incredibly fractured,” Schaum said. “Nobody really agrees on what architecture should be doing, perhaps in part because of the way media has become more decentralized. There used to be two or three journals that controlled what you would see, but things are much more open now.

“This year’s biennale theme, ‘Common Ground,’ investigates just that. For Chipperfield, the interesting thing about our project might be that it bypasses the usual suspects in New York/Los Angeles. It’s something that emerges from the middle, through five architects who are clearly not aligned in an aesthetic or architectural agenda but found a way to share the same space and realize a project together.”

Schaum is thrilled, too, for those Rice students who were able to come up with the anonymous models – among perhaps 900 – that will populate a gargantuan shelf in the Arsenale. “The idea is to show a blind cross section of what the world’s architecture schools are teaching and doing and thinking about,” he said, though he’s a bit anxious about having to hand-lug the fragile models across the ocean in his luggage. “We’re going to keep them small.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.