Attending the Venice Architecture Biennale and assimilating its many contents requires strategy, and follows certain experiential contours: day one, excitement; day two, initial reactions and early skepticism; day three, fatigue. It’s an event brimming with ideas, images, and important figures, lending a frisson of gossip and speculation about who’s up, who’s down, who’s feeling validated or slighted. It’s stimulating and a bit decadent, so one struggles a bit to be critical for fear of appearing to be a complainer, a cynic, or just no fun. Add to that the question of Koolhaas, widely held to be one of the greatest architects and thinkers in recent decades. Has he outsmarted us? Or fallen too in love with his own ideas?
And then came the flood of words and reactions by day four: “cynical,” “creepy,” “tomb,” “buried.” To which I would add, “detached,” “backward looking,” and “archive obsessed.” Koolhaas, with his eerie ability to see the future, seems mired in the past.
His three part mediation on “Fundamentals” consisted of Monditalia, a sprawling survey of 20th Century Italian culture, which Koolhaas calls a “fundamental culture”; The Elements of Architecture, a catalogue in built form with histories and examples of windows, toilets, ramps, etc; and Absorbing Modernity, 1914–2014, the theme for the national pavilions.
Monditalia is a heterogeneous look at Italy, with projects that examine domesticity, the history of archaeology preservation in Pompeii, a history of discotheques, maps of Mafia controlled areas, and other fascinating if scattershot topics, many of which only tangentially touch on the built environment. Much of the exhibition looks at the history of the Biennale itself, including its art, film, dance, and theater editions. A huge portion of the Arsenale’s Corderie is devoted to clips of Italian films hung from screens from the ceiling. Elegantly installed, these excerpts are hypnotic but ultimately superficial. Why not build a theater and show the full films?
Overall Monditalia is fascinating and pleasurable to take in, but does anyone need to be convinced that Italy made a vital contribution to 20th century culture? And what, if anything, does Monditalia tell us about Architecture’s present or future, let alone its recent past?
Below the frescoed dome of the Central Pavilion, Koolhaas inserted a drop ceiling with the protruding ends of ducts, pipes, and data wires emerging from the edge. It’s a classic Koolhaasian move: take something beautiful and cover it in the mundane, and make the case that the mundane is more interesting that the beautiful. Welcome to The Elements of Architecture. The viewer is told that Elements is the outgrowth of a book from the Harvard Graduate School of Design with chapters on each piece of a building. Beyond that is a reading room, full of beautiful editions of architectural treatises from throughout history. With so many exhibits to see, will anyone sit and read Vitruvius? If Elements is a treatise for today, as Koolhaas seems to imply, it would seem to be a remarkably downbeat one: Architecture, while once an expression of creativity and culture (a Gothic window, a flowered urinal, a hand carved pediment), is now an outgrowth of building codes, industrial processes, and market demands. If the discipline should ever aspire to be more than that, he is emphatically not saying so.
The national pavilions are more successful, due to their diversity and a strong, well-chosen theme. Most countries interpreted Absorbing Modernity along architectural and stylistic lines, to mean Absorbing Modernism. Notable exceptions to this were the Golden Lion-winning Korean Pavilion, The Crow’s Eye View, which offered poignant and highly personal expressions of one country torn apart by ideology, and the French Pavilion, Modernity: Promise or Menace?, which linked the political and cultural uses of architecture in surprising and disturbing ways.
Directing the Biennale is a daunting challenge. By largely abdicating the present and retreating into the archive, Koolhaas created an ample opportunity for the next Biennale director to suggest new directions for the discipline, to engage with the issues of the day. It’s a long way to travel to Venice to be told that architecture is a trip to the library, or worse, the hardware store.