Last Friday, Rem Koolhaas sat on stage in the main event tent of Fundamentals, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale de Venezia, for a panel discussion on preservation. His shoulders were characteristically hunched and his hands were folded over the microphone. All eyes were on Koolhaas as the packed house waited for him to speak, willing him to fully explain why, as director of the biennale, he broke La Biennale into three parts, tasking the national pavilions with a research imperative entitled Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014, devoting the Central Pavilion to the kit-of-parts Elements of Architecture, and filling the Arsenale with the interdisciplinary, countrywide scan, Monditalia.
The generation in attendance at the Biennale was by and large a group that came of age with S,M,L,XL (1995) and the Project on the City volumes from 2002. Given the profound impact of those books on the discipline, there was a collective feeling that Koolhaas would set the directive for the next decade. Yet, no architectural sermon was forthcoming. The panel discussion wandered blandly over issues of heritage and identity, but buried in the response to one forgettable question was a line that hinted at intention. “At the moment that you want to change everything, that is the moment you have to identify what remains,” he said, echoing similar earlier statements. (“To survive, urbanism will have to imagine a new newness,” Koolhaas writes in the S,M,L,XL essay “Whatever Happened to Urbanism” before calling for the explosion of the limits of architecture and the destruction of its traditions.)
Much has been said of the Biennale’s retrospective gaze. Koolhaas’ Absorbing Modernity brief produced many country-specific history lessons on the rise of modern architecture, leaving the success or failure of each national pavilion up to how the curators flipped, twisted, and unpacked historical research. As its mash-up title suggests, A Clockwork Jerusalem, Great Britain’s contribution curated by FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians, views the development of housing and urban design through the lens of popular culture from William Blake to Stanley Kubrick. France’s Modernity: promise or menace? curated by Jean Louis Cohen, which received a Special Mention from the jury is similarly filmic, but with a darker lens. The one section of the pavilion features Villa Arpel best know from Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Both exhibitions question the lingering after-effects of modernism and social housing in the New Towns and banlieue, each keeps close to Koolhaas’ the research criteria: a 100-year framework.
The aestheticization of archives and repositories—the unpacking of libraries, stacks of boxes, and binders on shelves—proved a common motif. The Japanese pavilion addressing the climax of modernization in Japan in the 1970s through documents, objects, and artifacts displayed on packing crates. OfficeUS in the United States pavilion presented a rigorous meditation on the global export of architecture via 700 dossier folders, each one documenting a project abroad. Six design partners embedded in the pavilion for the next six months will use these projects as a jumping off point for new work and ideas. The Swiss Pavilion, entitled Lucius Burckhardt and Cedric Price—A stroll through the fun palace, fetishizes the archive into a performance piece. Docents man library carts piled with reproduced sketches, drawings and letters. The only thing missing are the white gloves.
Yet for all the careful, critical research, there are few projections and little inclination to speculate a future for architecture. Perhaps given the season we find ourselves in marked by conflict across the globe, this is a blessing. That said, the Korean pavilion, the winner of the Golden Lion, breaks from recollection and directly addresses the breaking of the Korean Peninsula into North and South. But how to present the architecture of the Deomcratic People’s Republic of Korea, a military state that cut off communications to its southern neighbor eight years ago? Curators Minsuk Cho, Hyungmin Pai, and Changmo Ahn answer with research into the parallel architectures of Seoul and Pyongyang, a mapping of the DMZ, and an exuberant geopolitical speculation: a united peninsula.
An emphasis on gazing into the rear view mirror has led to some vocal decrying of Koolhaas’ curation, with once ally Peter Eisenman suggesting that the architect is calling for an end of architecture. But we have to remember the subtitle of Delirious New York, “A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan.” Which leads to the question: Is Fundamentals a retroactive manifesto for architecture?
I would answer yes. If the national pavilions are about assessment and reflection, then the Elements of Architecture and Monditalia exhibitions are, combined, a way forward. In Elements Koolhaas presents with trademark wit the banal building blocks of architecture: the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator, the ramp. In doing so tips the architectural discussion towards the physical and away from the purely theoretical.
The stuff of spec sheets and construction drawings, however, does not make for architectural discourse. This is where Monditalia comes in. At first pass, the exhibition in the Arsenale is difficult to parse. Large portions of the building are given over to stages for dance performances and to video screens representing the best of Italian cinema. The forty-one small architectural exhibits, often in dim light, can’t compete with these gestures. On closer look, Monditalia is a more than a “scan,” as suggested in the wall text; it’s a case study, an investigation into emergent themes and territories for future practice. Koolhaas says as much in his statement: In a moment of crucial political change, we decided to look at Italy as a “fundamental” country, completely unique but also emblematic of a global situation where many countries are balancing between chaos and a realization of their full potential,” he writes in statement about Fundamentals.
The Biennale honorees offer insight into potential new fundamentals. Andrés Jaque and Office for Political Innovation’s Sliver Lion wining Sales Oddity: Milano 2 and the Politics of Direct-to-home TV Urbanism looks at domesticity, media, and politics. Special mention went to Intermundia by Ana Dana Beroš for a study of the “in-between” spaces that arise from conflict, immigration, and mobility. And by indexing the educational experiments that arose in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Radical Pedagogies: ACTION-REACTION-INTERACTION, curated by a team led by Beatriz Colomina and Britt Eversole, underscores an urgent need to reimagine present day architectural education. Ultimately, Koolhass’ curation does not offer bombastic solutions or any formal style guides. And a viewer might come away wishing for a juicy piece of stylized architecture rather than histories and object lessons. Still, this Biennale is not a zero sum game as some might imply. Instead, it is a serious assessment of what remains and plants the seeds for new growth.