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08.14.2014
Many Voices on Fundamentals
Architects from around the globe offer their impressions on Koolhaas' Venice Biennale.
The Polish Pavilion imagined Rem Koolhaass tomb.
Courtesy Polish Pavilion

In contrast to Aaron Betsky’s 2008 biennale, Architecture Beyond Building, this one—the Central Pavilion, at least, with its taxonomies of staircases, wall panels, and toilets—could be thought of as “Building without Architects.” It offered a reset of sorts, and perhaps a breath of fresh air, for a discipline that might be accused of occasional fits of decadence. In true Koolhaas fashion, it was a provocation, and not seeing it as such would be missing the point. But perhaps it could have gone further. Koolhaas has likened the theme “Absorbing Modernity,” which he imposed on all the national pavilions, to the way one might absorb a blow or punch. What this neglects—and what many of the pavilions showed, to their credit—was how 20th century modernity was in fact resisted, instrumentalized, and transformed by its “receivers.” They punched back, and perhaps it was modernity that absorbed them.

Aric Chen is the curator of architecture and design for M+ in Hong Kong.

 
a Poster by Marysia Lewandowska.
Courtesy Marysia Lewandowska
 

Rem Koolhaas says that “the ideology of the market should dictate innovation and is the ultimate arbiter.” In fact this ideology is nurtured by some politicians and economists today. The economic and social reality of the marketplace is always a compromise between the law as written by politicians and their corporate sponsors and the dynamics of a particular social/economic reality. Our responsibility as architects is to unveil this misleading ideology and not accept it at face value—cynically propagating the free market myth and speaking in terms of self-organizational urban strategies or a market driven view of history.

What I enjoyed at the Bienniale was how some of the national pavilions responded to Rem’s theme of the last hundred years of “national” architecture. Ironically, only two pavilions were closed. Australia because it was under construction and Venezuela’s beautiful pavilion designed by Carlos Scarpa in the 1950s was closed and used for storage by its neighbor the Swiss pavilion.

Carlos Brillembourg is a New York-based architect and critic.

The world’s most important non-commercial architecture event has been too much a showcase of buildings by leading architects and too little a debate about architecture at large. Exit architects. This year’s director, Rem Koolhaas, makes very clearly his points—a talent retained from his journalistic background. He delivers a media-friendly and thought provoking—though somehow unfinished—Biennale. His robust curatorial presence results in a consistency that has not been seen in the Giardini for a while, producing remarkable national shows, including standouts from France, Korea, and Britain. The Monditalia journey to contemporary Italy, all magnificence and decay, recalls the Strada Novissima, brilliantly if only a touch shabbily, inhabiting the Corderie. Elements is less convincing. Encyclopedic, un-exhaustive, ironically Beaux Arts, it explores and dissects the elements of architecture. It fails to address the syntax and only marginally addresses its invisible aspects. The unoptimistic message may be that architects lose power to the idolatry of health and safety and regulations. That parametric design is, of course, irrelevant.

Alessandra Cianchetta is an architect based in Paris.

At the Polish Pavilion, dedicated to memorials, there’s a wall of photographs of architects’ tombs: Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe, Plecnik, Scarpa, Le Corbusier, Aalto are all there. High up, next to Loos, is an uncaptioned photo of what can only be Rem Koolhaas’s tomb. Did Koolhaas notice?

But in truth, it’s not the CCTV building but the Biennale itself that is Koolhaas’s tomb. The voracious amassing of data, and yet more data, has finally caught up with him in Elements: part trade exhibition, part ethnographic collection of every kind of incident to do with walls, floors, windows, balconies, roofs, ceilings etc., this display that had seemed so promising, turns out utterly indiscriminate in its selection, positively bulimic in the endless accumulation of information without focus or apparent purpose. The architect is buried, not beneath the CCTV building, but under the sheer mass of unassimilated data that has been brought together.

Adrian Forty is a writer based in London.

This Biennale is a “great exhibition” in the tradition of the legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, in which everything is tied to a central concept—in this case modernity. Koolhaas’ concept of modernity is not a project, but an irreversible, globalizing, collective process affecting all aspects of society and thus the built-up environment, reminding of Otto Neurath’s legendary Modern Man in the Making from 1939. Absorbing Modernity deals with Modernism as inspired by the First Modernity. Monditalia shows the chaotic implications of the Second Modernity after the Second World War in Italy. Finally, Elements of Architecture hints at how under influence of computing and the Internet the elements of building—wall, floor, ceiling, window, door, fireplace—evolve to develop primitive forms of intelligence. Here Koolhaas puts himself self-consciously in the great tradition of canonical architectural tractates, from Alberti to Giedion’s Mechanisation takes Command from 1948. Far from an operational critique, his tractate is presented as a universe of concrete fragments of a Utopia or Dystopia we have forgotten to formulate, think through, and evaluate.

Bart Lootsma is a historian, theorist, and curator in Vienna.

The Elements of Architecture—a collection of the “fundamentals of buildings,” according to the brief—reads half like a trade show, and half like a catalogue. It’s the kind of compendium that a Ph.D. student could have put together, having stumbled upon a copy of Architectural Graphic Standards for the first time.

Yet the exhibition misses the essential point about architecture and its underpinnings. You can’t simply extract the details; this is one of the most fundamental mistakes in design. Quality matters more than quantity; experience more than specificity. How you connect things, not how you pull them apart, creates the aesthetic moment.

After all, it’s the part of architecture that you don’t see that matters most. Buildings are facts, but their essence is intangible. As for any treasured recipe, the ingredients need to be right, but it’s in the blending that one produces richness and delight.

Rob Rogers is a principal at Rogers Partners in New York.

The Venice Biennale is about Europe inviting the world to think, but the fact that the format is dictated by the Giardini’s set of national pavilions means that there is invariably a colonial sub-text, with the issue of embodying cultural identities in flag-bearing pavilions.

Koolhaas has cleverly avoided this kind of response by doing away with architectural egos and starchitect status building, instead encouraging curatorial teams to look at the past in order to suggest credible ways to move forward. It works particularly well for the emerging powers like Korea, as their pavilion ignores the distinction between North and South, which is in effect a way of ceasing to look at the past and instead working on the best possible future for a reunited nation, a revolutionary approach after a century of geopolitical changes.

But I am not convinced that Koolhaas’ upmarket tradeshow (Elements) is the answer to everything. Personally, I love going to hardware supply stores to stimulate my imagination about what I could do with copper pipes, some planks, and a few tools, but only on weekends… so Venice turned out to be a fabulous place to spend the weekend.

Michael Mossessian is a UK-based architect.

In his June 11th editorial for The Architect’s Newspaper, William Menking suggested—as others have as well—a connection between Paolo Portoghesi’s 1980 Strada Novissima and Koolhaas’ already much talked about Biennale. He wrote: “Portoghesi’s spectacular Strada was like Koolhaas’ ambition for Elements, ‘not to show images of architecture but to show real architecture.’” This could not be more true. I would add that Koolhaas pursues the same ambition has did Portoghesi 34 years ago: render architecture, the most social of all arts, intelligible to all, by using a simple grammar of signs and symbols (here elements) that can be read and understood by all. In other words, avoiding mere representation by putting men inside the street, in contact with architecture. Yet, I would also suggest a perhaps even stronger connection between the Monditalia and the 1980 interior street of facades.

What was the ambition of Portoghesi when building the Strada Novissima? He and his collaborators wanted to fully and totally use the space of the Corderie (a secret space at the time, as the building, although an integral part of Venice’s industrial past, was not open to the public), turning it into a social space of representation, a theatrical and scenographic venue, allowing for a polyphony of emerging voices to be heard. So many resemblances: the strict rules given to each participant; the sense of an emerging generation; the international ambition, yet deeply embedded in Italian tradition; the scarcity of means; the linear progression; even the number of participants, just almost doubled. Because after all, 34 years have passed, and the Biennale, whether we like it or not, has become a big machine.

Léa-Catherine Szacka is an architect and critic in Oslo.