The 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale
By Ulf Meyer
To move away from the notion of ‘starchitects’ was one of the primary goals of Rem Koolhaas, when he described his concept for curating this year’s architecture Biennale – entitled ‘Fundamentals’ and currently underway in Venice for the 14th time. And the concept works very well.
In the central pavilion, a giant exhibition on the ‘Elements of Architecture’ makes this Biennale unusually research-centered. These ‘elements’ represent the reference points for the discipline: floor, wall, ceiling, door, roof, window, façade, balcony, corridor, fireplace, toilet, stair, escalator, elevator, ramp etc.
The exhibition is the result of a two-year studio with the Harvard Graduate School of Design as well as collaborations with experts from the industry and academia. It looks at the fundamentals of buildings – used by any architect, anywhere, anytime. The exhibition shows a selection of the most revealing and surprising moments of these different building elements, by which it seeks to reconstruct a global history of each element. It brings together ancient, past, current and future versions of all the elements and in order to create diverse experiences, different environments (such as archive, museum, factory, laboratory, mock-up, simulation) have been created – to great effect.
Koolhaas manages to shift the discourse from personalities to individual parts. The display of toilets, false ceilings and lift technology, is both witty and surprising at times. Occasionally, it feels like a museum, at other times like a trade fair. The overall effect is impressive, but it is also bordering on the banal – or even depressing – as it seems to illustrate the diminishing influence of the architect.
The Monditalia section in the huge Corderie of the Arsenale turned out to be rather overwhelming and tiring with 41 research projects including dance, music, theatre and cinema. For the first time, Venice’s other Biennales for dance, music, theatre and film collaborate with the Architecture Biennale for a scan of Italy, showing a total of 82 films.
The national pavilions
The theme ‘Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014’ was proposed for the contribution of all the 65 national pavilions in the Giardini, the Arsenale and the city of Venice. For the first time, the national pavilions are invited to respond to a single theme. 65 countries examine key moments from a century of modernization.
Together, the presentations reveal how diverse cultures and political environments transformed modernity into individual regional interpretations. What is usually a cacophony of voices has become a concerto this time around: most countries acceded to the brief, casting an interesting light on how their country’s architecture has been transformed by modernism.
The Danish contribution stood out as inviting visitors to sense, wonder, be curious and reflect. The pavilion, curated by Danish landscape architect Stig L. Andersson, reintroduces the aesthetics as an essential complementary component to the rational – a key point in a scenario called DK2050, which poses the question of how people will live in Denmark in the year 2050.
The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievements was awarded to Phyllis Lambert from Canada and the South-Korean Pavilion chosen as the best one. Together with the 22 collateral events, exhibitions and initiatives in various locations in the city, this year’s Biennale is a big chunk to swallow, but certainly a worthwhile one.