It’s not unusual for house hunters to start their search with a list of must-haves—four bedrooms, two baths and a good school district, for instance. But two years ago, when his appointment as director of the Cincinnati Art Museum forced him to relocate to the Midwest, Aaron Betsky presented his real-estate broker with a decidedly more difficult request. Back in 1996, he had attended a party at the home of Charles Desmarais, then director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and had fallen in love with his midcentury house. “It was by Carl Strauss, who was Cincinnati’s modern master,” recalls Betsky, who, before his move to Ohio, led the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. “I told the Realtor: ‘I want Charles Desmarais’s old house, plus a thousand square feet.’” Somewhat miraculously, she was able to deliver. “We’ve had amazing luck with houses,” says Betsky, an animated 50-year-old, as he gives a tour of the 1956 wood, brick and glass gem that he now shares with his husband, artist Peter Haberkorn.
Anyone familiar with Betsky wouldn’t be surprised by his very specific vision. Over the course of his career as an architect, curator and critic, Betsky has thought a great deal about buildings. He was an early champion of Rem Koolhaas and other Dutch architects; later, he was an influential supporter of Zaha Hadid. But these days, he’s making an argument that there’s more to architecture than floors and walls. “Architecture has become absent from most of our buildings,” he says. “Most buildings are defined not by architects as much as by building codes, financial operations and computer programs. Buildings have become the tombs of architecture.”
If this sounds hopelessly abstruse, Betsky’s curatorial work at Venice’s 11th International Architecture Exhibition, better known as the Venice architecture biennale, should make his ideas a little more, well, concrete. The title of his show, which opens on September 14, is “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building,” and its mission, he says, is to point the way toward “an architecture liberated from buildings.” The show will feature experimental installations that Betsky hopes will prompt viewers to rethink how their environment is shaped. For instance, An Te Liu, a Toronto architect, will create an exhibit out of air purifiers and ionizers—systems that architects generally go to great lengths to hide. American Greg Lynn, meanwhile, will build furniture out of plastic toys. One section of the exhibition will be devoted to showing clips from movies such as Star Wars, Dr. Strangelove and Moulin Rouge!—films that have conjured new environments. “The idea is to remind people there are other worlds possible than the ones we keep making out of sticks and stones,” says Betsky. It is his first time at the helm of the prestigious exhibition, which he has taken on in addition to his “day job” at the museum.