Venice Biennale Can’t Match Grandeur of the City Itself

Rem Koolhaas had big plans for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, but his 'Elements of Architecture’ doesn’t build on the hype.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
North Korean posters on display at the Korean Pavilion.
North Korean posters on display at the Korean Pavilion.Credit: Reuters

When Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was announced as curator of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, about two years ago, architects worldwide anticipated a new and lively agenda.

But after viewing the grueling main exhibition entitled “Elements of Architecture,” which spreads out over 4,000 square meters, it became clear that, this time too, the Venice Biennale had no new tidings for the world of architecture, or the world in general. No new agenda made waves in Venice’s Grand Canal. It was nothing more than a seasonal high tide that flooded the Piazza San Marco, to the delight of the tourists who happened to be there, dipping their toes in with childlike excitement.

If this is the conclusion after a Biennale when the expectations of the curator were so high, it seems we are left with no alternative other than to take a good look at the whole prestigious enterprise itself, which has been showing signs of fatigue in recent years – perhaps because it has become too satisfied and too much a part of the establishment, and just as bourgeois as we, its visitors.

Koolhaas gave this year’s Biennale the theme Fundamentals. He announced that architecture would be broken up into its elementary parts for a reexamination, and complained about the erosion in its traditional status in an era of the global market economy and privatization.

Architectural dictionary

This is ironic coming from Koolhaas, an archetype of global architecture who works, with no pangs of conscience, with tyrannical regimes and tycoons. Just recently, he planned a shopping center for a leading Italian brand that involved irreversible damage to an acclaimed 500-year-old palace in Venice (the project was frozen due to strong public opposition).

“Elements of Architecture,” which is being exhibited in the Central Pavilion in the Castello Gardens, is a kind of dictionary of 15 terms, whose purpose is to represent the concept of architecture: the ceiling, the window, the floor, the hallway, the balcony, the facade, the roof, the fireplace, the wall, the door, the stair, the ramp, the escalator, the toilet and the elevator. Each of these terms is defined and illustrated using various media and references, historical exhibits, actual-size models, sketches, photographs, films, archival material and texts that, ultimately, are more reminiscent of a commercial catalog of construction materials or an obsessive collection than an analysis and examination of the history and status of architecture.

This intense collection, which includes historical and contemporary lintels, toilets, bathtubs, coverings of various kinds and countless doorknobs, is at first informative and entertaining. It becomes tiring after some time and, in the end, raises a disturbing thought: what is the purpose of all this – all the research, effort, financial investment and buzz? The idea of taking architecture apart seems radical and subversive on the surface, perhaps because it is Koolhaas’s idea, but in practice it is a clever exercise that reaches a dead end. More than anything else, there is something irresponsible about it. Koolhaas once wrote in another context that since we are not responsible, we must become irresponsible.

The media coverage of the main exhibition emphasized Koolhaas’ announcement that he would not be inviting well-known architects or exhibit contemporary projects. But the replacement is every bit as ostentatious and disconnected from reality. In any case, high-ranking architects did not participate in Richard Burdett’s 2008 Biennale either. But the exhibition Burdett curated, which was entitled “Cities, Architecture and Society,” dealt with the urgent issues of the time rather than the history of the lintel or the toilet.

Another exhibition Koolhaas curated at this year’s Biennale, “Monditalia,” is on display at the Corderie dell’Arsenale. The Arsenale spreads out over approximately 500 dunams (125 acres), one-third of Venice’s total area. The Arsenale was used by the Venetian fleet and navy during the republic’s heyday.

The Corderie dell’Arsenale in Venice. Photo by Giulio Squillacciotti

The Corderie was first built in 1303 as a rope factory. Built of red brick and covered with a wooden roof, it is 316 meters long, 21 meters wide and 9.70 meters high. As the power of the fleet and Venice itself declined, and as the years passed, the building was abandoned and neglected. In 1980, it was renovated and used to exhibit the first Venice Biennale.

The Corderie’s space is breathtaking, both because of its size and also its ancient appearance, which was kept after the renovation. Biennale exhibitions have taken place in the Corderie as part of the Aperto, the festival’s track for students and young architects. In recent years, occasionally it has been the venue of the main exhibition. Competition with this hypnotic space is simply unfair; almost nothing from the exhibition itself remains in the memory.

National exhibitions

Running parallel to the main exhibitions, dozens of national exhibitions are also on display, each with a curator from its own country. This year, 65 countries from all over the world are participating. Most of their exhibitions are in permanent pavilions in the Castello Gardens, while others are in various buildings and sites throughout Venice.

They are less pretentious and more focused than the main exhibitions, with more human dimensions. The permanent pavilions are a living exhibition in themselves that cover about 100 years of architecture.

Until now, each of the national exhibitions was run on a separate track, with no connection, necessarily, to the Biennale’s central theme or the curator’s credo. This year, though, Koolhaas decided upon the theme of the international exhibitions as well.

Entitled “Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014,” the curators were asked to examine the influence of modernism and globalization on architecture over the past hundred years. The interpretations of the topic are mostly creative and full of inspiration, according to a nonrepresentative sample. Whether they will change the world is a different matter.

An abridged look at this year’s national exhibitions must include the Korean Pavilion, and not because it won the prestigious Golden Lion award – which was just as political a choice as the pavilion itself.

The exhibition, entitled “Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula,” and the display of the hyperrealistic “cultural utopia” posters, are a rare and almost exotic glimpse into the forbidden country of North Korea.

These amazing posters were designed by North Korean architects and graphic artists, who either chose or were forced to remain anonymous.

The Corderie dell’Arsenale in Venice. Photo by Giulio Squillacciotti

‘Clockwork Jerusalem’

The exhibition in the British Pavilion, entitled “A Clockwork Jerusalem,” connects the modernist architectural utopia in Britain with the cosmic utopia of the celestial Jerusalem. The connecting link is the Romantic English poet, painter and mystic William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” which was the inspiration for the exhibition.

Besides the exhibition itself, this was an unexpected opportunity to get to know the poem, which was set to music by Hubert Parry in the early 20th century and became a patriotic hymn. It has been performed, mentioned and even satirized countless times. It was sung by the public at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and only recently was saved from a suggestion by British Prime Minister David Cameron that it serve as the anthem of the England team at the World Cup.

The song ends with the resonant stanza: “I will not cease from mental fight/ Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land.” It is not to be confused with the earthly Jerusalem.

The most modernist structure among the permanent pavilions is the Israeli one, which was planned by architect Zeev Rechter in the 1950s. There was enough there to provide a practical illustration of aborbing modernity.

The exhibition, entitled “The Urburb,” illustrated – on sand tables with a digital ruler that sketches and erases with mesmerizing, Sisyphean movement – the phenomenon of the mixture of the urban and suburban, and the obsession with settlement in the Israeli space as a continuation of architect Arieh Sharon’s population-distribution plan of the 1950s.

“Absorbing Modernity” takes viewers to a wonderfully fascinating place in the German Pavilion’s “Bungalow Germania,” a living exhibition with two displays: The pavilion itself and, inside it, a full-size replica of the chancellor’s bungalow in Bonn, Germany’s former capital.

Fascist and democratic

Originally built in 1909 in Venetian Renaissance style, the bungalow was redesigned in 1938 in Teutonic style on Hitler’s orders. The current bungalow is a transparent, airy modernist building constructed in 1964 in the capital of the “new Germany,” on the initiative and in the spirit of Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. When the capital moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, the bungalow was abandoned. In the exhibition, it has partially come back to life.

The German Pavilion in its current character is a fascist Nazi symbol. The bungalow placed inside it is a democratic symbol, and in its time was known as “the salon of German democracy.” Both are a look into the politics of architecture from both sides of the barricade.

The photomontage of both worlds side-by-side conveys a resonant architectural-political message. Erhard, with good reason, said of the bungalow: “You will learn much more about me by looking at this building than by listening to my speeches.” Submitted for your perusal, planners of the future official residence of the Israeli prime minister.

In conclusion, the “pavilion” that, from the start, looms over every pavilion in the history of the Biennale and is without competition, is the city of Venice itself, an urban legend that is nonpareil, and so it is a test case of whether Koolhaas’ rationales will be continued.

It is a dead yet living city, one that exists only in the imaginations of its visitors and of Thomas Mann. It has hardly any inhabitants, in any case. Koolhaas, too, as an architect, would surely give a great deal if he were to succeed in planning a single one of its small and wonderful piazzas.

This Biennale, every Biennale, disappointing or successful, is just another excuse to find out from close up whether such a thing as Venice really exists.

Rem Koolhaas, curator of the Venice Biennale architecture exhibition.Credit: Reuters
Visitors view the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.Credit: Reuters

Click the alert icon to follow topics: