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To understand this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice you need to see the critical tagline tucked away on the back of the catalogue: “Architecture not architects”. Curator Rem Koolhaas and his team have managed something that others have tried but never yet succeeded – the shift in discourse from personalities to components, from the stylistic comfort zone of modernism to a hazier, more intangible notion of modernity.
This is an exuberant display of architectural anxiety, a pixelated view of architecture not as a single, coherent cultural entity but as a series of micro-narratives, of parallel and often contradictory histories. It is by turns witty, surprising, impressive, banal and, most visibly, free of conclusions. It is a provocation about the diminishing influence of the architect in the contemporary city and the global cloning of architecture through the dominance of techniques developed for production – not art. It is unsettling and questioning.
Koolhaas has divided the sprawling site into three ostensible themes. The Italian pavilion is at its heart and features “Fundamentals”. This is a strange, densely packed study of the development of architecture’s elements – floors, ceilings, windows, fireplaces and so on – in an exhibition that combines the aesthetics of both museum and trade show. Some rooms are more successful than others but, in the efforts to draw out individual stories, some compelling characters appear. There is the antisocial 19th-century Duke of Portland, who built miles of corridors beneath Welbeck Abbey, near Nottingham, attenuated spaces that range from dark, etiolated walkways to grand galleries. There is Friedrich Mielke, the German soldier who lost a leg and spent the rest of his life obsessively collecting data on stairs. Opposite is Tim Nugent, another second world war veteran who spent his career pioneering research into ramps and disabled access.
There is an ugly but engrossing room about doors, constructing to-scale cut-outs of palatial entrances in a stage-set perspective that brilliantly culminates in the grim, grey plastic of an airport X-ray arch, the de facto city gateway to the contemporary traveller. It beeps impotently as you enter. Other doorways are lined with dozens of door handles that condense the history of modern architecture into a few square metres. This is also, amusingly, almost the only place the big-name architects, from Frank Gehry to Norman Foster, appear – all their genius reduced to a small lump of metal.
This central pavilion, with its working window factory, its display of toilets and lift technology, presents an intriguing but ultimately depressing view of architecture. The mother of the arts reduced to a trade catalogue. The intensity is in the research, the individual obsessions, the ingenuity of myriad engineers and inventors who are not architects yet whose products, from the false ceiling to the escalator, have more fundamentally changed the shape of building than has the output of any architect in history. The scale and technical complexity of modern construction has left the architect in control of only the membrane of the façade – and even this is exposed by Koolhaas as he strips away the false wall containing the exhibit to reveal the scraggy bricks and pipes behind, pulling aside the Wizard of Oz’s curtain.
Koolhaas has also corralled the national pavilions into a common theme, “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014”. What is usually a rag bag of competing voices has produced, for the first time I can remember, a coherent and intriguing response. Almost every nation has acceded intelligently to the brief, producing studies of how their infrastructure has been informed by and transformed by modernity. There are too many to mention but the French pavilion, which centres around a model of the delightfully ridiculous modernist villa in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle and then surrounds it with tragic human stories of the failures of the modernist housing estates that still blight Paris and other cities is particularly good. Elsewhere, the British identify a strange and forgotten history of visionary planning that somehow manages to meld Stonehenge, Bath and Thamesmead, while the Germans have rebuilt the 1960s chancellor’s residence in Bonn. A self-effacing brick bungalow inside the Nazi-era pavilion, it is a sharp comment on the uses of modern architecture to project a political image.
The Russians comply with Koolhaas’s trade fair aesthetic in a luxuriously cheesy pavilion filled with trade stands purporting to sell products that will transform your existing, bland buildings into communist, constructivist masterpieces or, alternatively, decorate them with traditional Russian ornaments. Adorned with shocking-pink mini-dressed hostesses, it is bitingly cynical. But the most viscerally affecting pavilion sits outside the main site. A military surplus tent has been erected beside the massive moored yachts of the Russian oligarchy. Inside, it is dark and swelteringly hot. On the wall three dummies’ costumes, based on Kiev-born Kazimir Malevich’s stage designs, are suspended in gas masks, carrying sinister sickles while at the centre sits a black square of coal. This is Ukraine’s pavilion, its humour as black as Malevich’s square.
Finally there is Monditalia, a history of modernity seen through Italian culture filling the huge Corderie. This is, at first, a dense, tiring, relentless spectacle but perseverance is rewarded by a series of intriguing explorations of culture spanning neorealism, radical pedagogy and abandoned cities. It is not coherent but it is a powerful testament to the history of an Italian modernism that, in the country’s post-Berlusconi ditch, seems impossibly distant.
This is a biennale of stories. Not of monuments, not of proposals and not of the kind of idealism that might once have characterised modernism. It is less a celebration of architecture than a provocation of its increasing impotence. That there are no answers, analysis or any sense of meaning or symbolism behind the exhibits is unsettling. There is an existential emptiness at its heart but it is the cynicism of an architect who remains profoundly fascinated by architecture, even if not hopeful for its future.
There are, however, glimpses into the corners of Koolhaas’s mind, little things that have Freudian-slipped in. There is a vitrine of models of exquisite Indonesian roofs rearing up like dragons, surely a memory of the architect’s childhood in the newly independent former Dutch colony. And, easily missed, a wall of photos by his daughter, Charlie, of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. A short text on the floor reveals a fascination with the building’s wild, sculptural mannerism, its famously distorted form.
It is a kind of scream, an architect looking back to see that architecture was once better, was once part of art, a thing that could scare and thrill just through proportion and a subversion of the basic elements. It is the very last thing you might expect to find here amid the encyclopedic nihilism of this brilliant and frustrating show – nostalgia, not just for the lost modernism on display but also for what came before.
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