Viewers and Participants

Viewers and Participants

Reviews: Exhibits

Viewers and Participants

Encounters of the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice

By Einar Bjarki Malmquist
"Window", from Elementi – The Elements of Architecture exhibition at the Central Pavilion on the Giardini. Photo: ebm.
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The most interesting moments of the 2014 Venice Biennale exemplify the belief that architectural programs often have deep political consequences. This is, of course, not new in the history of the Biennale, but this time something seems quite different. As starstruck journalists and architects traveled across continents and transferred between gates, we longed, like Vladimir and Estragon, to see what Rem Koolhaas, as curator for the Architectural Biennale in Venice, had to offer. As Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, as a founder and leader of OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and AMO, Koolhaas is clearly one of the biggest of the stars made possible by the present relationship between capital and architecture. Supported by journalism that adores the spectacular and that looks to Koolhaas for what he says as much as and perhaps even more than what he does, Koolhaas has become as much an icon as an architect. It is this same journalistic tendency that splashes quotes from big names into the big letters in bold on the surfaces of our iPads, tablets, and desktops to be judged through clicks and likes, as a part of the machinery that celebrates the here and the now. The work, however, is not always that critical and not always that diverse. And it is this system that Koolhaas, as curator of the Biennale, announced a departure from. This day in June journalists and architects were leaving for the show that has promised to undo THE SHOW—as it had been called. Undoing the progressivist look, undoing the PR-rhetoric with the “starchitects” as the main attraction and the glue for yet another celebration of “the now” and “see this” and “tomorrow we will” in Venice. It was obvious from the curator’s statement from the first press conference—this Biennale was supposed to be about architecture and not architects. There was, supposedly, no reason to bring along the blog journalists. There were no celebrities to run after, to catch or to miss, as the gates closed and we all went to Venice.

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The Architecture Biennale has been organized since 1980 and is seen by many as the most important architecture venue to exhibit and discuss “A”rchitecture. The opening of this year’s biennale is earlier than usual and coincides with the celebration of Pentecost in which eighty-five percent of Italians, the Christian majority, commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. An odd coincidence given the intention to focus not on the “celebrity” of modern architecture, but rather to introduce interdisciplinary research to the Biennale visitors by exhibiting projects that dig into the “history of modernity.” And also to include the arts of theater, dance, and the discussion of education with their own periods inside the Biennale timeline. This time the gallery of “starchitects” was in hiding, even though Koolhaas himself cannot avoid being the focus of the camera lens and the most important voice to interview. Now, though, he may be the only star on the scene.

Happy shoes. From the scene after the press conference on the 5th of June. Rem Koolhaas sitting in the middle covered by journalists. Photo: ebm.
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"Luminaire". OMA in collaboration with Swarovski. From the entrance to the Monditalia, the main exhibition at the Arsenale, opening to "a scan" of Italy. Photo: Gilbert McCarragher/Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia.
From the Monditalia exhibition at the Arsenale. It presents "a scan" of Italy, established by 82 films, 41 architectural projects. Photo: ebm.
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This year’s Biennale, named Fundamentals, is organized into three parts. Koolhaas and his team have curated the first two exhibitions. The first exhibition, Monditalia, is at the Venice Arsenale, and the other, Elementi, is at the central pavilion of the Giardini. Monditalia is an exhibition showing what the curators call “a scan” of Italy, unfolding curious episodes from the modern history of architecture in Italy as a pedagogic tool. The Elementiexhibition, on the other hand, organizes fifteen selected elements of buildings from the history of architecture—wall, stair, ramp, balcony, ceiling, window, fireplace, and more. The categorization is marvelous selection, especially suitable for young architecture students, for an insight into the variety and history of building elements. The presentation of the element fireplace at the Elementi questions the progressive paths that societies have taken relating to energy. Inspired by the ancient use of fire, the presentation of the element alludes to a rethinking and even return to the old manner with only one fire source. This is presented in contrast to a modern household in which energy use is scattered through energy-intensive electronics across the house. Is such a return to one source desirous and possible? The question here, as in relation to many of the other element studies, remains open.

"Window", from Elementi – The Elements of Architecture exhibition at the Central Pavilion on the Giardini. Photo: ebm.
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The third part of the Biennale belongs to the national pavilions, located around the Giardini and, as in years past, in satellite locations around the city where the twenty-two collateral events also take place. Most of the national pavilions are also curated around a theme introduced by director Koolhaas, named “Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014.” Thus we see for the first time a connected thematization where the different Biennale departments converge into one project. Parallel and sometimes comparable histories from around the globe are curated differently, unfolding both different and sometimes very similar stories: from democratic development in this modernist period in some societies, to stories of border problems and war-initiated occupation in others. Stories about endorsed projects mixed with governed propaganda that in some cases has developed into political pitfalls with catastrophic consequences. These stories are mostly not “historical” in the sense that the narrative builds up an argument toward some instrumentalized progressive future. At best these are stories that modulate a possibility of questioning the status quo and ask for more appropriate actions—like the exhibitions in the Korean and Israeli pavilions (mentioned below).

In the Dark 
One potential use of the study of historical precedent is that such study opens up questions and reflections that allow us to act in an ethical way. The stories do not give us much guidance about how we should make things or what we should do. Rather, such stories set the appropriateness of the architects’ actions on stage in front of the viewer. This is especially the case with the Monditalia exhibition behind the walls of the Arsenale, curated by the Koolhaas team. It is an exhibition without daylight but with enlightened objects. Selected case studies, marked in a post-Cartesian manner with specific geographic coordinates, are distributed throughout the exhibition rooms of the Arsenale. The entire exhibition is based on the map of Italy, from the south to the north. The exhibition is full of stories that might matter as a learning point for architecture, examples of a few pitfalls, some catastrophic failures, and even a few studies that really inspire.

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"Crow´s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula". At the Korean pavilion which opens up to a possible future with knowledge of the the two parallel histories of modernity at the Korean Peninsula. Curated by Minsuk Cho, Hyungmin Pai, Changmo Ahn and Jihoi Lee. Photo By Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.
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One such inspiration is the study of Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Laurentziana (43°46′29″N, 11°15′14″E). “For contemporary artists and architects the lesson of the Laurentian Library is perhaps that mannerism is a dish best eaten cold and in small doses,” writes Rem Koolhaas in the introduction. The exhibition is a photographic documentation, developed after an initiative from Koolhaas, by his daughter Charlie Koolhaas with Manuel Orazi and AMO. The photos reveal fragments from Michelangelo’s famous stair and vestibule of the Laurentian library. On the floor is text written by Koolhaas that describes his inspiring encounter with Michelangelo’s work in 2006 when he traveled through Italy to visit architecture of the Renaissance. The exhibition is especially interesting as it stands out as a piece that in many ways shows architecture as something other than a joining of single elements. It is a thoughtful and interesting contrast to the outspoken belief in elements as a departure for understanding architecture showcased so thoroughly at the Giardini. Earlier architects and scholars, such as Ben Nicholson and Alberto Pérez Gómez, have recognized in many previous studies of Michelangelo’s work its complex nature, not easily understood in terms of typical analysis. This complexity is also reflected both in Koolhaas’s text and in Charlie Koolhaas’s description of her experience of the work, namely, that the totality of the work is a “puzzling experience” of a “brutal beauty” where one gets much more interested in Michelangelo’s intention and his effort to give visitors an overwhelming experience described as “dizziness.” Indeed, the experience comes as a shock to an analytical eye that hopes to extract an understanding of the work out of the elements alone.

From the Monditalia exhibition – 43° 46’ 29’’ N / 11° 15’ 14’’ E – "Biblioteca Laurenziana". A photo documentary by Charlie Koolhaas, Rem Koolhaas, Manuel Orazi and AMO. Photo: ebm.
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One such inspiration is the study of Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Laurentziana (43°46′29″N, 11°15′14″E). “For contemporary artists and architects the lesson of the Laurentian Library is perhaps that mannerism is a dish best eaten cold and in small doses,” writes Rem Koolhaas in the introduction. The exhibition is a photographic documentation, developed after an initiative from Koolhaas, by his daughter Charlie Koolhaas with Manuel Orazi and AMO. The photos reveal fragments from Michelangelo’s famous stair and vestibule of the Laurentian library. On the floor is text written by Koolhaas that describes his inspiring encounter with Michelangelo’s work in 2006 when he traveled through Italy to visit architecture of the Renaissance. The exhibition is especially interesting as it stands out as a piece that in many ways shows architecture as something other than a joining of single elements. It is a thoughtful and interesting contrast to the outspoken belief in elements as a departure for understanding architecture showcased so thoroughly at the Giardini. Earlier architects and scholars, such as Ben Nicholson and Alberto Pérez Gómez, have recognized in many previous studies of Michelangelo’s work its complex nature, not easily understood in terms of typical analysis. This complexity is also reflected both in Koolhaas’s text and in Charlie Koolhaas’s description of her experience of the work, namely, that the totality of the work is a “puzzling experience” of a “brutal beauty” where one gets much more interested in Michelangelo’s intention and his effort to give visitors an overwhelming experience described as “dizziness.” Indeed, the experience comes as a shock to an analytical eye that hopes to extract an understanding of the work out of the elements alone.

From the Monditalia exhibition – 43° 46’ 29’’ N / 11° 15’ 14’’ E – "Biblioteca Laurenziana". A photo documentary by Charlie Koolhaas, Rem Koolhaas, Manuel Orazi and AMO. Photo: Francesco Galli/ Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.
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The Monditalia is physically organized along the Cartesian grid mapped onto a macroscopic representation of the so-called Peutinger table, the massive map of the fifth century AD that showed the cursus publicus (road network) of the Roman Empire. Placed in the middle of the exhibition and written on the floor, the map is the visitors’ guide, to the case studies on the left and films to the right. The sections, organized by latitude from the south to the Alps in the north, are characterized by the presence of case studies, not necessarily architectural, and films that correspond geographically to the latitude lines. Each was chosen with the intention of reflecting upon the places and the studies to which they correspond. The curators’ approach to the exhibition is explained by Ippolito Pastellini as “a very extended network of relations” interested in giving “a spective representation” that focuses on both research and documentation—an “interdisciplinary and transversal experiment,” branded proudly as the “first one” in the Biennale history. Being the first is still in, despite Koolhaas’s supposedly nonchalant approach.

By approaching this multilayered territory, Italy, you are invited into completely different conditions as you move from one coordinate to another. The case studies were developed with the help of forty-one researchers, between thirty and forty years of age, to interpret Italy within many different points of view. The discussion of political monuments and controversial political cases, for example, the small island of La Maddalena (41°12′53″N/09°24′21″E), a study by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, where the G8 summit in 2009 was planned and built into a huge complex but never used is presented with a contrasting parallel story from the nearby island of Budelli in which the island’s sole occupant, Mauro Morandi, “a Robinson Crusoe of the XXI century,” is interviewed. Other case studies present the landscape of great cultural relevance, from studies of the vernacular to modernist architecture.

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From the Monditalia exhibition – 41° 12’ 53’’ N / 09° 24’ 21’’ E – "La Maddalena" by Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine. Photo: Francesco Galli/Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.
From the Monditalia exhibition – 45° 29’ 56’’ N / 09° 15’ 57’’ E – "Sales Oddity. Milano Due and the Politics of Direct-to-home TV Urbanism". By Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation. Photo: ebm.
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One of the most energetic moments in the exhibition is the Milano Due, the Sales Oddity, by the Office for Political Innovation (45°29′56″N/09°15′57″E). The project explores the propaganda for “the good life” and the politics of direct to home TV urbanism. Physically, the exhibition is a blinking TV documentary within a fabric section model of a housing project in Milano Due. Built as an entirely new town between 1970 and 1979 by Edilnord, a subsidiary of Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest, Milano Due was marketed to middle- and upper-class Italians and was also the location of the first private television channel in Italy, Telemilano, also controlled by Berlusconi. This is a case study with many resemblances to cases in other neoliberal cultures around the globe. It is a thought-provoking example that exposes the relationship between political navigation and critical conditions for architecture in terms of building regulations, television advertising, and the projection of lifestyle. The presentation of stories such as the Sales Oddity with a focus on the negative consequences of shallow political propaganda during the era of Modernity remind us of the fact that well-grounded good intentions are rare.

From the Monditalia exhibition – 45° 29’ 56’’ N / 09° 15’ 57’’ E – "Sales Oddity. Milano Due and the Politics of Direct-to-home TV Urbanism". By Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation. Photo: Francesco Galli/Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.
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In contrast, “Radical Pedagogies” curated by a team led by Beatriz Colomina, presents research that has been monitoring the ideological influences on architecture and architecture schools in Italy, unfolding various connections far beyond the borders of Italy into a big global network—mirroring the connections and sources of ideas about architecture in the Western world. In many ways it is much more positive, while remaining aware of the political ramifications latent in the act of architecture and pedagogy.

At the Israeli Pavilion, sand is the material for four printers that draw, over the course of a few minutes, the constantly shifting borders of Israel. The ground floor shows a huge printer drawing in sand the changing borders from 1949 to present day, one at a time, and outlines of typical plan drawings for settlements are similarly drawn in sand by two printers on the first floor. This project, "Urburb", illustrates the brutality of a planning system that is driven without any sensibility or any real contact with the results within the built and human environments. It is a critical project aimed at the planning process that has been developed in Israel through a machine-like approach, represented by the printer machine, that has only produced insensitive urban situations and neighborhoods with challenging consequences today for the people of Israel and of course Palestine. Reminding viewers of the thin hope that this could be a better place, there is a moment when all the borders are erased each moment before the printers start to print again.

From the Monditalia exhibition – 45° 28’ 20’’ N / 09° 10’ 24’’ E – "Radical Pedagogies: Action-Reaction-Interaction", one of the research projects at the Monditalia exhibition. Curated by Beatriz Colomina, Britt Eversole, Ignacio G. Galán, Evangelos Kotsioris, Anna-Maria Meister, Federica Vannucchi, Amunátegui Valdés Architects, Smog.tv. Photo: ebm.
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At Israeli pavilion sand is the material for four printers drawing every few minutes a changing borderlines of Israel changing from 1949 to present day on the ground floor and outlines of settlements on first floor. The project, "TheUrburb", is curated by Ori Scialom, Roy Brand, Keren Yeala Golan. Photo: ebm.
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At the Israeli Pavilion, sand is the material for four printers that draw, over the course of a few minutes, the constantly shifting borders of Israel. The ground floor shows a huge printer drawing in sand the changing borders from 1949 to present day, one at a time, and outlines of typical plan drawings for settlements are similarly drawn in sand by two printers on the first floor. This project, "Urburb", illustrates the brutality of a planning system that is driven without any sensibility or any real contact with the results within the built and human environments. It is a critical project aimed at the planning process that has been developed in Israel through a machine-like approach, represented by the printer machine, that has only produced insensitive urban situations and neighborhoods with challenging consequences today for the people of Israel and of course Palestine. Reminding viewers of the thin hope that this could be a better place, there is a moment when all the borders are erased each moment before the printers start to print again.

From the Swiss pavilion. "Lucius Burckhardt and Cedric Price. A stroll through a fun palace." Visitors select examples from the archives to look at an discuss. Photo: Andrea Avezzù/Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.
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The work on display in the Korean pavilion is also about hope. There the curators placed themselves in what they have called “a dangerous experiment.” In the aftermath of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was split in two. Even as both sides developed differently, they have been unalterably interconnected in terms of economical, political, and ideological systems. Despite the fact that the political situation has often forced an oversimplified picture on the situation, there are stories to bring the sides together. In an attempt to elaborate on these parallel histories, the Korean Pavilion shows architecture from the North and the South brought forward by what the curators call “an agent”—a metaphor for the hope of bringing the two histories into one mirror, that is, the intertwining of stories of modern architecture beyond the confines of a purely political lens. As a prologue made from South Korea in cooperation with the sister country hoping for further cooperation, the exhibition intends to bring into balance the two-sided history, calling attention to the architectural development on both sides of the border—“Intertwined, yet in opposition, spilling over, on to each other.” It is an important endeavor exemplifying that this year’s Biennale opens up new types of research in many of the national pavilions. This is a thought eagerly echoed by the curators from the U.S. Pavilion, the Nordic Pavilion, and the Israeli Pavilion.

"Crow’s Eye View"At the Korean pavilion discusses the the two split but parallel histories of "Modernity" on the Korean Peninsula. Curated by Minsuk Cho. Hyungmin Pai, Changmo Ahn and Jihoi Lee. Photo: ebm.
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Unfortunately, and with few exceptions, the exhibitions of the Biennale only allow us to encounter the knowledge as viewers rather than participants. The visitors don’t shout out or say anything; they don’t write and participate in the discussion. They are primarily spectators, a thinking eye, and, as in many publications by OMA, overwhelmed by information. There are a few exceptions, at the Swiss Pavilion, visitors are allowed to order as in a rare books library material from the archives of Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt to discuss at round tables in the pavilion. At the pavilion of Cyprus, visitors are invited to cut into the layers of paper and cardboard with pictures from the country—to literally dig into its history. At the Latvian Pavilion, visitors are invited to begin research that no one has done by studying the fragments of Modernity in Latvia’s young history. All of these projects insist on participation, but none present material in a way that is particularly engaging. A visitor from the outside, in a little bit of a hurry to see many exhibitions and not knowing much about the subject, is not easily convinced to stop, stay, and start digging for half an hour or more. This is unfortunate. When pausing to take time and understand the intention of the exhibitions, one most often finds thoughtful and interesting initiatives. A better understanding of the visitor’s ability to take it all in would have helped the content to reach the audience. Still, after all, most of these stories seem more important than the specific formal problems and technological endeavors that we earlier have been encouraged to identify as architects visiting Biennales in recent years.
 

From the Latvian pavilion. "Unwritten" curated by NRJA. Photo: ebm.
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"Anatomy of the Wall_Paper". Digging into history at the Cyprus pavilion, in the old city of Venice. Photo: ebm.
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Workshops—Laboratories—School 
The relevancy of history brought about in this Biennale opens up for afterthought but one that lacks an obvious takeaway. This is also, of course, its weakness for those visitors who are used to finding their points of navigation in the curatorial message—for them, Godot never did arrive, even if that was never the intention. This time the curator acts more as a teacher framing a question allowing many parallel voices to tell the various stories of history. What you do with the knowledge encountered and how it matters for architects or the discussion of architecture today is open for discussion. For those looking for the “new” in this Biennale, they might find something we might call a pedagogy based on Rem Koolhaas’s horizon and his team’s navigation. One could imagine the entire Biennale as a school introducing the relevancy of history through some simple and other more academic case studies. In this sense the exhibition is maybe even more important as a school and for those participating in the workshops for research than the visitors as the participants did learn something new to showcase rather than showing what they already knew or had designed. It will be interesting to see how these participants develop their work in the future and whether a quest for more thorough academic craftsmanship with a more transparent and balanced use of references that characterized good academic work might challenge the approach. Looking back I hope that in the coming months, during the exhibition and afterwards, that Rem Koolhaas and the media manages to shadow Koolhaas’s own stardom so that the exhibition becomes more of a reference for even better research into history than the sole example. After all, the exhibition shows so many pitfalls of bold rhetoric that even the PR for the Biennale claiming its own relevancy becomes bleak. The more architects and societies take responsibility for their own intentions and endeavors without leaning on simplified rhetoric, or fifteen minutes of fame, the better.

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​As I was sitting comfortably on the plane from Venice to Amsterdam a few days later, I noticed the curious resemblance between all the small flickering TV screens, hanging above the seats in the dark unfolding their stories, and the big screens hanging around all of the work in the dark rooms of Monditalia. Both places were curiously real and surreal, like a laboratory, immersed in the dark. I recalled walking in the open-air landscape courtyard that surrounded the glass tea-house by Hiroshi Sugimoto, on the Venetian island Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore two days before. Here, the act of preparing a cup of tea for a visitor is intertwined with an inspiration based on Mondrianesque abstraction, all in a peaceful garden and outdoors. I realized that I really love the daylight in June.

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