In the Floating City, an Architecture of Modernism: The Venice Biennale

The split between North and South Korea, an index of architecture in the Arab world, a project on parliament buildings around the globe, and lots of Rem Koolhaas. A survey of the interesting exhibits at the world’s premier architecture event.

AP

The 14th Venice Biennale – the world’s premier architecture event – opened to the public this week. Anticipation has been especially high this year because the event’s chief curator is none other than Dutch architect and provocateur Rem Koolhaas.

Koolhaas, one of the most influential figures in architecture in recent decades, hastened to declare this the centennial of the birth of modernism, a stream whose definition was notably expanded immediately following this announcement. All 66 nations participating in the event - 10 of them for the first time - were asked to simultaneously survey how modernism has come to be expressed in their country over the past hundred years, since the advent of the movement during World War I.

Upon revealing the title of the general exhibition – Fundamentals – in early 2013, Koolhaas declared that today it is no longer apt to speak about local architecture, be it Chinese or Swiss, for this has already been sacrificed under the uniting identity of modernism and its glass towers. That being the case, there is certainly no point in talking about architects. Rather, the only subject should be architecture, decreed the Dutch master architect. Hence, the one-word title for this vast international exhibition.

Aside from the general curating of the international exhibits, Koolhaas’s staff also curated the Elements of Architecture exhibition, about the basic components of building, to be presented in the central pavilion, as well as the Monditalia installation, comprising 41 projects from the entire length and breadth of Italy and beyond. Numerous events and lectures are scheduled in conjunction with these projects throughout the six months of the Biennale.

It’s too early to say how the main subject of modernism will influence the different pavilions, but certain trends are already discernible, ranging from mere verbal adoption of the guideline to integrating it in an unnatural and forced way. Many pavilions, such as those of Montenegro, Armenia and Taiwan, deal with ruins or neglected buildings that once embodied the modernist promise of a new future. More affluent countries like Japan, France and Denmark are conducting a more methodical study of the essence of modernism, or of the modernist history in their country.

South Korea

The South Korean pavilion is called Crow’s Eye View, after a poem by the Korean architect-turned-poet Yi Sang, who died in 1937 at age 26. The pavilion deals with different perceptions of the split between North and South Korea. Contrary to the singular and universalizing perspective bird’s eye view, the crow’s viewpoint highlights the impossibility of a cohesive grasp of the architecture of a divided Korea as well as of the idea of architecture itself.

Venice Biennale. Photo by AFP

Through the prism of four main themes – Reconstructing Life (after the Korean war), Monumental State, Borders and Utopian Tours – the pavilion’s curators seek to shed light on the existing divisions. By integrating as many points of view as possible – of architects, urban planners, poets and writers – they aim to blur the urban and architectural distinctions between the planned and the unofficial, the individual and the collective, the lofty and the mundane.

Russia

Politics appears to play a key role in Russia’s supposedly apolitical exhibit, which deals with the radical architecture that developed in the country over the past century, while remaining detached from any context. Under the name “Fair Enough,” the Russian pavilion will operate according to a formula that imitates other international fairs, be it for medicine, high-tech or art - an international phenomenon of the past century, according to the curators.

The chief curator of the exhibition, architecture critic Grigory Revzin, was dismissed by the Russian culture minister two months ago after he wrote a column critical of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. He was replaced by Semyon Mikhailovsky, rector of the St. Petersburg Academy of Art. Revzin curated the Russian pavilion in 2010 and 2012, when it was awarded the judges’ prize at the Biennale for the first time.

It’s hard to know whether any message has been removed from the Russian pavilion, which seeks to portray a crossroads of different urban and architectural ideas over the last century as a response to social and political aspirations – some flourishing, some peculiar, some old-fashioned or failing. At the entrance to the pavilion, visitors will be greeted by receptionists who will give them personal tags and a program, and invite them to wander among the different spaces, each of which presents a different architectural experiment. After the first week, this activity will cease and the pavilion will take on an “after the festival” feel, with flyers and pamphlets strewn around, and catalogs for visitors to use.

Venice Biennale. Photo by AP

The Ukrainian pavilion is called "The Face of My Square." The exhibition will be based on the urban implications deriving from the work of Kiev-born artist Kazimir Malevich, who founded the Suprematism movement when he designed the set for the futuristic 1913 opera “Victory Over the Sun.”

Bahrain

The Bahraini pavilion, making its third appearance at the Biennale, has set itself an ambitious goal this year: Promoting the creation of a archival index of the architecture of the entire Arab world. To this end, its curators have collected records of 700 buildings from more than 20 different countries, with the aim of understanding the connections between the modernism movement and fundamentalism, and their influence on architecture.

The starting point for the exhibition was the idea that at a time when the Arab world is experiencing many changes, the importance of reflecting a pan-Arab heritage becomes all the more important. Above the central exhibit – which resembles a circular laboratory containing a catalog and collection of constructed projects – a dome is to be built upon which the national anthems of the 22 Arab countries will be projected. There will also be articles offering a historical perspective on the architectural evolution in Iraq, the Gulf States, Egypt, the Levant, and North and East Africa. All the materials will be available through the Arab Center for Architecture. Two more Arab countries, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, are among the new participants to join the Biennale this year, and they will present exhibitions on the ways that modernist building has supplanted traditional architecture over the past century.

Austria

The Austrian pavilion was originally supposed to focus on a critical evaluation of the slated renovation of the Austrian parliament building, but it expanded into a global project that analyzes 196 parliament buildings from around the world. The result, called “Plenum: Places of Power,” takes one on a journey among these houses of authority, from Andorra to Zimbabwe. White models of the parliament buildings line the walls, accompanied by dry bit of information - the name of the architect, the year of construction, the architectural style, the method of government, the country’s democratic ranking and its GDP.

Venice Biennale. Photo by AP

Only a very few of the world’s parliament buildings are more than 100 years old, apparently. Most were built in the latter half of the 20th century. The one in Helsinki bears a striking resemblance to the one in Pyongyang, North Korea. Meanwhile, dozens of copies of the Capitol in Washington can be found throughout the world, as it has become etched deep in the public consciousness as the model of a political institution, says curator Christian Kuhn. Thus, in Nigeria there is a green-and-white clone; in England, an orange-and-red version; in the Micronesian Islands, a replica made of wood.

Austria’s parliament building, built in 1993, is about to undergo a 360-million-euro renovation. With the consent of all the political parties, although without any public input, the renovation will mainly consist of historic preservation. Kuhn told the Austrian media that he can’t understand why the choice was made to focus on preservation rather than to take the opportunity to create a discussion on modern democratic perceptions.

The United States

One of the most ambitious exhibitions of all is the American pavilion, which aims to present 100 years of American influence in the world, by looking at 1,000 buildings constructed in this period and 200 architecture firms active during this time. The exhibition, titled “OfficeUS: Criticism by Remaking,” was organized by New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture and the PRAXIS journal, and is curated by eight architects selected from an international roster. Eva Franch i Gilabert, the chief curator for Storefront, described the American exhibition as an “anti-exhibit” and “a new model for global architecture.”

With a dynamic exhibition that addresses a number of subjects simultaneously, the American pavilion examines the American architectural identity, as well as the question of what constitutes importing and exporting in architectural culture. One theme, for example, is the architecture of American oil – which was a key focus for the large architectural firms starting in the 1930s. At first they followed countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Indonesia, and later the Middle East.

Thus arose American embassies, military towns, new cities for oil workers, airports, banks, shopping centers and luxury hotels. It was an encounter of a spatial void – a tabula rasa – with the huge sums that came from oil money and facilitated the creation of idyllic modern cities, like the military city of King Khaled (1974-1986) in Saudi Arabia. The exhibition raises the question of what the next kind of energy-centered architecture will look like, as the world moves toward finding alternative energy models.

Another subject of the exhibition is the creation of “Little Americas” by architects who had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe and were called back to work in their home countries following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

AP