The singular vision of Dutch master Rem Koolhaas has delivered an unusually pluralist Venice Biennale. By Andrew Mackenzie.

Unfolding Modernism at the 14th Venice Biennale

Part of the Japanese pavilion, In the Real World.
Part of the Japanese pavilion, In the Real World.

In a recent interview I asked Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas what essential quality defines the work of his practice. “We take the ingredients that a client gives us and do more with it than was expected,” was his reply. Looking back at four decades of work, at Rotterdam Kunsthal, Shenzhen Stock Exchange or Casa de Musica in Porto, you can see what he means. His schtick is to rewrite the brief, and in turn to reinvent building types – the gallery, the office building or the concert hall. It should hardly be surprising therefore that as creative director of the 14th Venice Biennale Koolhaas decided to do things differently. 

Firstly, he has taken twice as long to prepare as any previous director, allowing collaboration with literally hundreds of participants. Secondly, he has dispensed with the survey model showcasing contemporary architects, instead focusing on architecture as a historical process. He said defiantly at the outset that this will be an exhibition “about architecture, not architects”. 

Coming from someone more generously predisposed to the profession this might have seemed a pedantic distinction, but from Koolhaas, who has carved a parallel career as critic of the profession’s vanities, obsessions and hubris, it represents a paradigm distinction. The result can only be described as a curated manifesto; an energetic and insistent provocation against the professional status quo. 

The biennale is divided between two utterly picturesque locations: the Giardini and the Arsenale. Historically the Arsenale is almost entirely dedicated to the director’s themed exhibition, typically in a conventional narrative form. For the first time in the biennale’s history, however, Koolhaas invited participation from other disciplines – dance, theatre and film. The result, entitled “Monditalia”, features a bewildering profusion of Italian cultural chaos. 

Upon entering, the sheer quantity and diversity of platforms and content, of performances, films, sounds and installations, makes one quickly abandon hope of apprehending it in one visit. Some figures in black writhe and stretch on a floor, Marcello Mastroianni’s face of undisclosed ennui is projected over there, while on a small screen further along a line of colourful VW Beetles navigates ancient colonnades and underground water systems. While there is a linear logic to the journey through the series of voluminous spaces, moving conceptually from the south of Italy to the north, any hope of order and sequencing is subordinate to a visceral energy that is tasted more than understood. 

With its patina of ageing masonry and theatrical chiaroscuro lighting, this Arsenale exhibition is reminiscent of Fellini’s journey through the psychosexual undergrowth of Rome in his eponymously named 1972 film. For this reason I imagine those who come to Venice looking for a neat resolution to questions answered will be disappointed. 

In the Giardini, on the other hand, where most of the 65 national pavilions are, the mood is altogether more orderly, with its neat cluster of miniature national museums. Usually these are curated by their respective country, with only a cursory reference to the creative director’s theme. This year Koolhaas revealed his theme, “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014”, over a year in advance to provide each nation ample time to respond. The theme reflects his insistence that modernity remains an unfolding agency that is far from spent. 

Responses divide into one of four exhibition strategies: the managerial display of archives, the exhibition as singular installation, the crafted exposition of selected artefacts and the exhibition space as workshop-in-progress.

The American pavilion sadly gets my wooden spoon in the first category. A white interior features lines of white shelves on which are arranged hundreds of neat white folders each containing A4 sheets of information. Each folder’s contents is about a project by an American architect for an overseas client. Yup, that’s it. An exhibited publication. They apparently had big plans to “transform an exhibition space into an architectural office”. If this looks anything like a typical US architecture office, it’s no wonder standard American architecture is so procedural and fallow. 

The relatively sterile qualities of an archive does, however, provide a surprisingly animated opportunity at the Swiss pavilion, curated by all-round culture star Hans Ulrich Obrist. Entitled A Stroll through a Fun Palace, the exhibition attempts to reconstitute and reposition the work of two more or less marginal figures in the modernist canon: Swiss sociologist and urbanist Lucius Burckhardt and British architect and educator Cedric Price. 

Wandering into the pavilion you see people wheeling trolleys loaded up with folders of drawings to and from an archival antechamber. It transpires that each is an expert in the collections of Price or Burckhardt, and they expound on the drawings, sketches and ideas of the two. Within the biennale’s sea of somewhat overwrought mediation, this direct and analogue manner is arresting. Counterintuitively, this is radical curating, confronting modernity’s obsession with speed, consumption and novelty. 

1 . Exposition of artefacts

The most prevalent exhibition strategy is the exposition of artefacts. Here it is interesting to compare the French and English approaches, located in neighbouring pavilions. France features an earnest historical approach curated by Jean-Louis Cohen, whose 2012 book The Future of Architecture. Since 1889. segues nicely into this exhibition theme entitled “Modernity, Promise or Menace?” The exhibition features film screens, models, prefabricated panels and text panels. The screens run looping footage of the construction of a ’30s housing scheme on the outskirts of Paris with an unusual history: from unwanted housing, to police headquarters, to concentration camp. In the centre of the room sits a model of Villa Arpel, the building as protagonist in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. The exhibition exposes with effortless beauty modernity’s duality of the grotesque and the comic. 

At the British pavilion, not so much. Here the British agents provocateurs FAT were chosen to curate A Clockwork Jerusalem, where the duality of menace and utopia verged on the apologist. The exhibition seeks to celebrate planners and the garden city as instances of utopian hope and faith in progress. Whereas Cohen does not duck the consequences of utopian failure, FAT seem happy to, presenting a sequence of images from Stonehenge’s circular form to Bath’s Royal Crescent to a crescent of social housing in Manchester, as a case study in historic continuity of forms. They fail, however, to complete the journey in the rubble of domestic violence, addiction and community collapse that was also a product of so much British postwar volume social housing. Perhaps this is why collaborating historian and journalist Owen Hatherley walked off the job halfway through, citing “differences of opinion over content”.

Undoubtedly the best pavilions are those that opted for the workshop approach. Here Japan and Korea rule supreme with pavilions that present a rich and layered picture of modernity’s legacy. The Japanese pavilion presents early exploratory work of three national architects during the ’70s before their careers exploded into large-scale buildings and urban infrastructure. The exhibition exposes the surprising origins of such mega-structures in an intense study and observation of the small scale and intimate social interactions of the village and the street. 

Meanwhile, the Korean pavilion, which has won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, explores the shared and interwoven stories of modernity as it was received and disseminated in the north and south. The result is a rare cultural bridge between otherwise energetic enemies.

Then there is the Italian pavilion, forming the third piece in Koolhaas’s architectural puzzle. The largest of all, it is divided into 12 rooms, each featuring its own exhibition of a single building element, such as would be used “by any architect, anywhere, anytime”. There’s a room dedicated to windows, another to doors, another to walls, windows, balconies, et cetera. 

This could have devolved into a mash-up of trade-show meets history book, but it instead reveals a compelling world of architecture’s components, inscribed over time with human characteristics: a room full of loos reveals our evolving attitude to hygiene and privacy, doors speak of differing attitudes to security, while corridors are seen to enact and embody social integration and separation. Koolhaas’s central thesis here is that technological and material advances in building components, from elevators to suspended ceilings to floor systems, have largely been ignored or downgraded by the profession, which has in turn ceded ground to other building technologists. The exhibition is therefore a cri de coeur to engage once again in the fundamental elements of building, or risk ever-increasing irrelevance in the design and delivery of what was once called architecture. 

Taken as a whole, the 14th Venice Biennale has sharply divided its audience. Some consider it a profound and vital opportunity to stop and rethink this old profession. Others consider it the neurotic musings of an impossibly conflicted architect, who is both critical of and central to the problem. Then there’s the plain sniping, along the lines of an exhibition about architecture, not architects … except one. 

While it undoubtedly confirms Koolhaas as the most significant architectural thinker of our time, it would be seriously wrong to see the biennale through the lens of personal ambition alone. That would be to conveniently ignore the fact that this is the most collaborative, cross-institutional, team-based and research-heavy exposition of architecture that Venice, or quite possibly the world, has seen. 

Without doubt it will now influence a generation of discussion within the profession, just as his monumental book S,M,L,XL did almost 20 years ago. That publication and this exhibition bookend a period of architectural thinking and practice that has no contemporary parallel.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 21, 2014 as "Unfolding Modernism".

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Andrew Mackenzie is an architectural writer, publisher and consultant.

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