As the 14th edition of the Venice Biennale of Architecture prepares to open, the pavilions of the Giardini might be the perfect venue for an analysis of the architectural manifestations of national identity.
Here is a series of buildings each attempting to say something serious and legible about the nation that built them. They represent extremes of hubris, humility and hope. There are buildings here by the masters of modernism, Alvar Aalto, Carlo Scarpa, Gerrit Rietveld and Josef Hoffmann, and others by one-time names now so obscure that even historians struggle to recall them. Here is the 1938 German pavilion with its severe Nazi-era façade, the rather fey Russian pavilion designed by Aleksey Schusev, architect of the Lenin mausoleum. The British pavilion is an odd, feebly domed work by Edwin Rickards, an almost impossible space to show work in. There is the beautifully minimal Nordic pavilion by Sverre Fehn and the extraordinary maximal, green ceramic-clad Hungarian pavilion by Géza Maróti.
Each pavilion tells us about the desire to express something of the national character – and the prevailing political aesthetic. And it is this idea – and what happened to it – that is at the heart of the theme set by this year’s curator, Rem Koolhaas. The question is posed through the juxtaposition of cities a century ago – with their distinctive, bustling streetscapes, busy with architectural detail – with shots of contemporary central business districts, the anonymous cityscapes of glass towers and urban freeways that could be Houston or Dubai, La Défense or Doha. The question Koolhaas poses is: How did this happen? How did these diverse cities absorb this idea of modernity in such a homogenous way, how did one type of architecture attain such hegemony?
It is, in its way, an obvious question. And superficially at least, it addresses a taboo subject in architectural discourse – style. That’s because modernism, which started as a radical, often political idea about remaking cities for a technocratic, classless age of automobiles and sun terraces, was almost immediately co-opted as a style, a way of expressing taste, fashion and a perceived modernity. The most enduring monuments of modernism are, you could argue, not communal housing blocks or private villas but the elegant mid-century commercial office slabs that inspired the “blandscapes” of the contemporary city.
Architecture is a curious world in which the things we hate might look very similar, to a less-inured eye, to the things we love. It is a question of degrees, of finesse. Koolhaas exemplifies the paradox. Here is an architect who might on one hand scathingly point out the inadequacies of contemporary architecture, its hopelessness and its prostration to the power of money and commerce – yet is also in thrall to its ubiquity and the very universality for which it is disliked.
Koolhaas has professed a love of the “generic” in architecture: his own buildings are usually made of cheap, off-the-shelf materials and standard parts, a world away from the obsessions of his contemporaries who strive to make things of their place – or at least profess to do so while actually just building things they like. He eschews the genius loci and the particular, which brings him closer to the modernity of the modernist pioneers – who were in love with mass production – than many of his contemporaries.
And here in Venice, he is attempting to analyse this paradox with a study not of the special (which is the usual subject of the Biennale) but of the ordinary. In the main Italian pavilion, his theme “Elements of Architecture” is about the pieces that go together to make a building. In their invention, evolution and standardisation, these parts have contributed to exactly that generic nature of contemporary architecture. Skyscrapers, for instance, would have been impossible without elevators; malls and airports without escalators and air-conditioning.
Koolhaas is interested in the banal: the suspended ceiling, the disabled access ramp, the repetitive apartment balcony and the modern wall. The modern block relies on curtain walling: whether it is glass, brick or stone, the contemporary façade is never more than a skin overlaid on a steel armature and that thinness, that sense of architecture having been reduced to a veneer accounts in part for its apparent superficiality.
Although Koolhaas began his presentations about the Biennale with those juxtapositions, the radically different cityscapes of a century ago and today, it was, in a way, a little disingenuous. After the explosion of national expression and sculptural architectures that occurred around the fin-de-siècle (Arts and Crafts, art nouveau, national romanticism, secessionism and so on), there was actually a period of reaction in which the French beaux arts model, the monumental classical architecture of the academy, became the world’s default architecture just as corporate modernism is today. From London and Milan to Washington DC and Moscow, the dominant streetscape of 1914 was influenced more by Paris than by any ideas of local tradition. National romanticism had been crushed by an idea that taste emerged from Paris, much as it also did in fashion or cuisine.
The innovations of that period were being made in industrial architecture (where an exemption was made for a kind of proto-functionalism) and in the colonies. There, the ruling powers were keen to display that they had absorbed local architectural ideas and combined them with their own (superior) styles to create a hybrid. This rooted them in place while showing exactly who was in power – think of Lutyens’ New Delhi or French architecture in Casablanca.
A century ago we were also seeing the emergence of the first truly modern skyscraper (Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in New York, 1913). Here it was not the style that emerged from the particularities of the place (it was clad in a kind of Westminster-cum-Addams Family gothic), but the form. It was a tower that was extruded from a grid on bedrock.
Koolhaas’s brilliant dissection of the meaning of the skyscraper in his 1975 book Delirious New York includes the insight that the elevator – which finally makes the long-dreamt-of skyscraper possible – also allows its expression to be disassociated from its structure. The endless extrusion no longer has any structural logic or rationale that can be expressed on the exterior; instead its architecture – its style – is now purely applied.
Koolhaas extends this idea in his 2001 essay “Junkspace”, where he indicates that out-of-town locations, air-conditioning and the escalator have finally broken any notions of architectural responsibility to context and any ties between scale and architecture. “Architecture disappeared in the 20th century,” he wrote.
Architects have been enfeebled: their role is now principally as shapemakers, sculpting profiles for developers’ logos. They work for contractors, way down the construction food chain, and have been complicit in their own decline. Cities want skylines with recognisable towers and architects have been anxious to create them.
The most sophisticated architects, who work at ground level creating parts of real cities, engaging with conditions, remain cult figures. Meanwhile, the global stars – of whom Koolhaas is of course one – create their masterpieces across the skylines of the world. It is the superstars who are emulated and the international corporate practices – who digest and dilute the work of the sometimes prickly “starchitects”, making something similar, but cheaper and friendlier, for developers, councillors and contractors – homogenise the world into a bland non-place, a simulacrum of Singapore.
There was a moment, sometime in the 1970s, when it seemed like there might be an alternative. The idea of a “critical regionalism” represented an attempt by a few architects and academics to escape from the low point of global corporate banality and to introduce an idea of local building tradition, materials and typologies. This was not, it needs to be stressed, an outpost of the parallel strand of postmodernism with its tacked-on historical references and attempts at humour; it was, rather, a refined idea of a modernism adapted to its locality.
Those figures who were put forward as its proponents (although they didn’t always necessarily see themselves in that way) Juhani Pallasmaa, Álvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura, Carlo Scarpa and others, have remained widely admired. Yet the idea never quite took off. These were all brilliant architects building their own versions of modernism, mostly in small to medium-scaled buildings in cities they knew intimately or had lived in most of their lives; buildings that could afford to be rooted in a particular tradition of craftsmanship.
Throughout all of this there has been the curious pretence that modernism is not a style but somehow the default architectural language of our age – as if it was inevitable. It is, in fact, merely easier than other styles: easier to design and to build. The architectural and construction industry has talked itself into and geared itself up for a way of producing buildings that looks as if it’s the most functional solution to a problem.
In fact, as Koolhaas has shown, the exterior (ie architecture) has become completely detached from the interior, from what goes on inside, through technology and through sheer scale. In a way, architecture is over. All that is left are the handful of boutique projects that serve to assure us there is still some rationale behind all those years of education and all those centuries of culture. Architecture has absorbed modernity and modernity has chewed it up and spat it out. Modernity, not modernism, has won.
‘Fundamentals’, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, runs from June 7 to November 23
Antarctopia: building in a glorious wasteland
Is it just me, or does the idea of building in the white wastes of Antarctica evoke an inner cry of “Noooo!!”?
However much one loves architecture, there is something magnificent about the absolute lack of it. About the notion of a place on the planet where humankind cannot plant a permanent footprint. A tranche of virgin land, forbidding and innocent in equal parts.
But that’s already just a distant dream. Science, exploration, meteorology, research into mineral reserves, the inevitable television crews, the equally inevitable high-priced tourism – no doubt even penguin-watching parties – have all planted themselves firmly on the continent. There is a population of 1,162 during the dark winter months, rising to 4,000 in the summer, as well as some 26,000 visitors each year.
So it’s as well, perhaps, that good architecture, with a sensitive regard for the environment and the aesthetics of the nascent community, gets involved from the start. This is the spirit in which Antarctopia – the “[trans]National Pavilion” of the Antarctic, commissioned by artist Alexander Ponomarev and curated by Nadim Samman – comes to this year’s Biennale of Architecture.
It is the first time a continent will have been represented, a telling comment on the old-fashioned notion of national pavilions. Russian architect Alexey Kozyr’s studio creates an overall imagery of the provisional or transient building on the continent, and a plethora of international architectural names explore present and future models of living there.
And after all – how much more fun could an architect possibly have?