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06.11.2014
Editorial> Fundamentally Unstable
William Menking outlines the Rem Koolhaas-curated Venice Biennale, Elements of Architecture.
Courtesy Venice Biennale

The first Venice Architecture Biennale, Proposition for the Molino Stucky, was staged in 1975 and curated by Vittorio Gregotti. It was not a grand international survey, but a narrowly focused competition to repurpose Molina Stucky, an abandoned flourmill emblematic of the loss of Venice’s industrial economy. It was inspired by the role that architects and others can play in urban renewal and sought to remedy, as Gregotti argued, a “destiny of exploitation and physical and cultural neglect.” In fact, the creation of an architecture biennale in Venice was an outgrowth of public protests at the 1968 art biennale when, as Lawrence Alloway has noted, students and intellectuals gathered that year in the Piazza San Marco and at the Giardini in solidarity with geopolitical events around the world. Artists closed their respective pavilions and turned canvases toward the wall to demand transformations within the institution of the biennale itself, which was attacked for being unresponsive to societal developments. In response to these protests, which closed down the 1968 exhibition and forced the biennale to suspend its prestigious “Golden Lion” award, the directors of the Venetian organization apparently decided that architecture has the possibility of spanning the formalism of art and societal concerns. The directors launched a stand alone architecture exhibition that throughout the 1970s remained a relatively modest and informal proposition—one that intermittently explored the social function of architecture and questions of audience and display.

The biennale in the 21st century is no longer a modest event that foregrounds architectural engagement and social need, but a far more ambitious project that speaks of architectural ambitions, intentions, and the profession’s image of itself. The 14th bi-annual edition of the exhibition, Fundamentals, opened to the public on June 7 and is directed by Rem Koolhaas, who grandly promises it “will include the public in an exploration of the familiar, the erased, and the visionary dimensions of architecture (and) take architecture discourse beyond its normal parameters.” The exhibition is organized by la Biennale di Venezia and chaired by Paolo Baratta. Fundamentals consists of three interlocking exhibitions: Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014, the Elements of Architecture, and Monditalia, which is devoted to the history of Italian architecture and culture. Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014 is the responsibility of the various national pavilions, which Koolhaas has charged with questioning whether architecture, once “specific and local,” has become “interchangeable and global?” It is possible for any national pavilion to spin its exhibition to confront or answer Koolhaas’ questions. The United States pavilion for example, looks at American architectural production exported around the world in the post World War II period and then bring in younger practices to redefine this work for the 21st century.

Elements of Architecture focuses on the fundamentals of buildings “used by any architect, anywhere, anytime: The floor, the wall, theceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the facade, etc.” Koolhaas claims that this close attention to the fundamental or “mundane” elements of architecture are revealed as unstable compounds of cultural preferences, forgotten symbolism, technological advances, and mutations spawned by intensifying global exchange. It takes nothing away from Koolhaas’ research or his curatorial ability to assert that he partially formulated this biennale in reaction to recent Venetian exhibitions, which he thinks focused perhaps too heavily on a “celebration of the contemporary.” It is true that the last few biennales were focused on contemporary production, even if the 12th biennale under Kazuyo Sejima argued that the Internet made it impossible to present truly unknown work and asked architects to create works that directly confronted the viewer with the reality of buildings or space.

The last biennale to focus on history was Paolo Portoghesi’s The Presence of the Past in 1980. Though it is remembered for Aldo Rossi’s traveling Teatro del Mondo, the highlight was the Strada Novissima, which helped begin a worldwide debate around “postmodern” architecture. Portoghesi’s spectacular Strada was like Koolhaas’ ambition for Elements, “not to show images of architecture but to show real architecture.” It remains to be seen if the 14th biennale will have the same impact of Portoghesi’s exhibition, or, given the profound cultural, political, and environmental crisis rolling over the world, whether it is enough to empower architects to engage with these issues or simply return to the past.

William Menking