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Venice Dispatch: Golden Lions for Phyllis Lambert and Korean Pavilion

By Fred A. Bernstein

June 9, 2014
Photo © Architectural Record
Golden Lion Winner: The Minsuk Cho-organized Korean Pavilion in the Giardini.

Could it be a coincidence that minutes after reporting that Phyllis Lambert had received the Venice Architecture Biennale's Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at a ceremony earlier in the day, the radio station in my rental car (as I mbarked on a pilgrimage to Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery) broadcast the Sondheim ballad “I’m Still Here”? Lambert, 87, could have been Elaine Stritch, now 89, singing about good times and bum times, my dear.

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In fact, Lambert has outlived the other co-creators of the Seagram Building—her father, Sam​uel ​Bronfman, and architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson—and because she’s still here, she gets​ ​the ​limelight. “I’ve won lots of awards, but nothing like this,” says Lambert, who also counts founding the Canadian Centre for Architecture among her contributions to design, of the honor. “This is major. Major.” She says she was particularly pleased to have been chosen by Rem Koolhaas, the director of the 2014 Biennale, who like Lambert has a sharp and restless intellect. “It’s a shame the same word—architect—is applied to people like Rem, who are asking hard questions, and people just doing commercial work,” she says.

But if Lambert’s lifetime achievement award seemed almost like the end of a chapter—one focused on sleek​ buildings in first-world cities)—it didn’t take long for Koolhaas to open the next one. At the ceremony, on stage in Venice’s Giardini, Koolhaas explained that his choice of jurors, who bestow the awards for biennale participation, had “definitely eliminated the western and Eurocentric perspective that is almost integral” to ​biennale DNA. The jurors at the last three biennales have included Yale Dean Robert A.M. Stern, Princeton professor Beatriz Colomina, Ohio State professor Jeffrey Kipnis, and MoMA curator Paola Antonelli. But under Koolhaas, there were no Americans. He handpicked Nigerian architect Kunle Adeyemi, Italian Unesco official Francesco Bandarin, Dutch filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, Chinese critic and curator Hou Hanru, and United Arab Emirates consultant Mitra Khoubrou to visit and rank the 65 national pavilions, as well as 41 se​gments of Monditalia, the Koolhaas-instigated dissection of Italian culture.

When the results for best pavilion were announced, the U.S. was shut out​ (though Canada, France and Russia received "special mentions"). Winning the second place award​—the Silver Lion—​was Chile, for a pavilion ​about prefabricated concrete panels, a result in keeping with a statement that Koolhaas has made about his Biennale: It has "nothing to do with design."

The first-place award went to Korea, for a pavilion that tries to imagine a cultural exchange among North and South Korean architects. The show was ​created without the official participation of the north—despite​ many overtures​ by commissioner and co-curator Minsuk Cho​. The​ Korean exhibition's title, Crow's Eye View: The Korean Peninsula, Cho says, was ​derived from a Dadaist poem that ​he believes “points to the impossibility of a cohesive grasp of not only the architecture of a divided Korea but the idea of architecture itself.” That explains the more-questions-than-answers feel of the show: Data goes Dada. But there are fascinating vignettes, including a film about North Korea’s role in erecting gargantuan monuments to African dictators, and a comic book (created by an anonymous North Korean) about a girl who designs buildings inspired by​nature. The pavilion “didn’t quite happen as we planned, but I really hope our work is a small positive demonstration of how interesting it could be if the two Koreas could gather and talk about architecture,” says Cho. That hope was enough for Koolhaas and his judges.

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