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Critique: Rem’s Rules

At the Venice Biennale, Rem Koolhaas urges visitors to look at architecture’s fundamentals, but exactly what is he asking us to consider?

By Sarah Williams Goldhagen
June 18, 2014
Photo © Sergio Pirrone
In the Central Pavilion in Venice’s Giardini, Rem Koolhaas and his curatorial team have broken down architecture into 15 basic “elements.” The Ceiling display pairs the dome in the pavilion, painted in 1909 by Galileo Chini and newly restored, with its contemporary counterpart, the dropped ceiling.

Rem Koolhaas, director of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, casts scorn in myriad directions in this three-headed hydra of a show, ambitiously entitled Fundamentals. His approach, we learn from the torrent of print drenching the pavilions, advances various socio-critical goals. National identity, a notion that underlies the very Biennale concept, is deemed obsolete in a globalized world. Previous Biennales, heavy on form, are implicitly condemned. Architecture is exposed as thoroughly constrained by how inextricably embedded it is in other social phenomena. Architects are declared largely impotent to affect the economic, political, and social forces shaping buildings. “We may posture as geniuses,” Koolhaas writes, “but we play our assigned role in the uberscript of modernization.”

The 2014 Biennale, which opened on June 7 and runs through November 23, has three parts. For the national pavilions—clustered primarily in Venice’s Giardini, a Napoleon-era public garden, and Arsenale, a former shipyard of the Venetian Navy—Koolhaas instructed curators to investigate how the countries they represent have dealt with modernization under the umbrella title Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014. In a second section, also in the Arsenale, Monditalia curators developed an achronological multimedia extravaganza highlighting Italian architecture’s cross-fertilization with other forms of cultural expression in a display of architectural, artistic, and intellectual oddities and glories from Ticino to Sicily.

For the third section, exhibited in the Central Pavilion among the national presentations, Koolhaas collaborated with students and faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Design as well as other institutions and industry experts, presenting what they deem the 15 Elements of Architecture. Each, we learn, will be the subject of its own book. Thus Koolhaas, his research office AMO, and the Harvard team position their 15 new books as superceding Vitruvius’s five and Alberti’s 10. So you don’t miss the point, copies of these and other canonical treatises greet you as you enter the show.

The Venice Biennale has typically showcased projects and installations that curators select for formal elegance, technological innovation, or both. At worst, it serves as architecture’s Fashion Week, an uncanny carnival of decontextualization crammed with preciously made models, artful photographs, and installations by big-name stars of the show. Form über alles.

Koolhaas is correct in pointing out that this elides and mischaracterizes critical issues in contemporary practice: it belies architecture’s invariably collaborative nature; it ignores the multiple ways in which design is constrained by economic, political, and social contexts; it glosses over the irrelevance of nationalistic preening in an ever-more-networked, globalized world. What’s important, Koolhaas insists, is not architects but architecture.

True enough. But when you entitle the most lavishly funded and heavily curated architecture exhibition in the world Fundamentals, expectations get raised. What’s fundamental about how countries have “absorbed” modernity? Why 15 “elements” of architecture, not 11, or 20? What is Koolhaas trying to say? Should we listen?

In the national pavilions, most curators’ answers to Koolhaas’s question—how, since 1914, did their country deal with modernization?—deviate from his nostalgia-saturated, simpleminded presumption: that the hand-in-hand spread of modernization and modernism has “flattened” and homogenized the built world, replacing local cultures and national identities with “the almost universal adoption of a single modern language,” by which Koolhaas means modernism. The American pavilion, which promulgates a poorly conceptualized and Koolhaas-saturated agenda centered on the dual themes of office collaboration and American imperialistic hegemony, proves the exception rather than the rule.

Many curators of the national pavilions, individually and collectively, offer a different, far richer story, revealing that modernism was never a single unitary “international” style but always a situated practice whereby clients and architects assimilated modernization’s materials, urban forms, social practices, and symbols to local cultures, economic and social circumstances, and political realities. Thus the curators of the Dominican Republic’s pavilion recount a fascinating episode in which Rafael Trujillo, the country’s dictator, tried and failed to haul the country into the West with a single ambitious project, an expo fairgrounds of 75 buildings constructed in Santo Domingo from 1955–56. In Brazil, by contrast, modernization was always tethered to modernist buildings, which continue to symbolize Brazilian national identity. In the Korean pavilion, the curators contrast North with South, exploring political ideology’s entanglement with architectural style and introducing some little known projects (such as those by Kim Swoo-geun) along the way. Curators of the sand-covered Moroccan pavilion imagine the Sahara as the site of a developed society, exhibiting some of the most visually arresting, if unrealizable, projects in the show. Ireland’s pavilion, beautifully conceived and executed, showcases five major infrastructure projects that advanced the country’s economic development.

And on and on. No flattening here. A glorious, polychromatic polyphony of situated modernism reigns.

The Central Pavilion’s Elements exhibition more closely hews to Koolhaas’s programmatic agenda. And that’s when the Biennale gets disturbing. Fifteen things, we learn, are elemental—and fundamental!—to contemporary practice, “used by any architect, anywhere, anytime.” They are: ceiling, roof, wall, facade, window, door, balcony, floor, corridor, stair, ramp, escalator, elevator, fireplace, and toilet.

Reread that list. Walls and facades? Surely a facade is a wall, though not every wall is a facade. Stairs and escalators and elevators and ramps? Aren’t these all what architects call “vertical circulation”? Balconies? Fireplaces?

Elements aggressively forces upon its puzzled viewers grab bags of artifacts, chintzy party favors at the architecture world’s most expensive fair. By what logic did Koolhaas and his collaborators determine the architectural elements of today? Keeping their eyes on the curatorial ball, surely they tried to make a cool-looking show. In some cases, they did, as in the visually and experientially arresting Facade installation (organized by Alejandro Zaera-Polo), with 12 closely spaced walls incorporating a variety of technologies and materials. As for underlying selection principles, Koolhaas clarifies: the elements they chose loom large for him. “Without my parents’ balcony,” he explains, “I would not be here.”

Now put the incoherence of the Elements exhibition together with Koolhaas’s stated agenda for the Absorbing Modernity theme, and his underlying message emerges. Nothing in architecture is elemental, nothing fundamental. History is all we have. We and our buildings are all thoroughly mediated, social constructs.

Thus the Biennale regurgitates the most vapid strain of postmodern cultural theory, which continues to permeate academic architecture and commands a powerful insurgency into architectural practice through Koolhaas and his legions of acolytes. The rest of the world—including most of the academy—has, wisely, long since moved on. In this delusional postmodern world, essences are mirages, no principle is grounded. That’s why Koolhaas and most of his collaborators refuse to actually curate. They flagrantly refuse to select objects according to considered criteria; indeed, they abdicate their responsibility to take a position on much of anything. The result, which Fundamentals cloaks in its barrage of typescript and objects, is intellectually vacuous and deeply cynical.

Return again to the Elements list, but, this time, consider what’s missing. Why might Koolhaas and his collaborators include corridors, which many buildings lack, or fireplaces, which are almost obsolete, while excluding, for instance, light? Or axis, or space, or structure, or systems?

A simple answer is that the latter represent abstract concepts, not objects, and, in the end, at the Venice Biennale, objects must be displayed. But the real reason is more troubling: the exhibition eschews form and design as they are understood by actual people. Light gets shaped through form. Without bodies, climate control makes no sense. Axes, space, views, and boundaries only exist in the space between people and designed forms.

The fundamental elements of architecture are not five or 10 or 15 cherry-picked objects but cognitive constructs that rely on users—feeling, thinking, seeing human beings—as they respond to built forms. But the centrality of design and aesthetics to people’s experience of the built world is precisely what Koolhaas and his collaborators wish to deny.

Some valuable (and a lot of sloppily executed and conceived) historical research has emerged from Koolhaas’s provocative challenge. But what of the directions the Biennale suggests for contemporary practice? Let’s hope most people either ignore or reject Koolhaas’s anachronistic, contemptuous agenda, and that architects go back to the fundamental, elemental task of design.

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