Biennial Italy

Rem Koolhaas’s Venice Architecture Biennale opens this week

Architect turned curator explains why history interests him more than the contemporary

Rem Koolhaas, right, with Paolo Baratta, president the Venice Biennale. Photo by Giorgio Zucchiatti, courtesy Venice Biennale

Like Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale last year, Rem Koolhaas’s Architecture Biennale, “Fundamentals”, which opens this week, draws on history and research, rather than contemporary culture. But the Dutch architect says the two shows are not linked since he has been preparing “Fundamentals” for around two years—a year longer than is usually given to curators to work on a biennial in Venice. “That was one of two ­conditions I asked for, the other being that I didn’t want any contemporary architecture.”

If Koolhaas was not directly inspired by Gioni, whose exhibition tried to move away from the market-driven contemporary art world, then perhaps it is a reaction to David Chipperfield’s Architecture Biennale of 2012, which some critics said was too focused on “starchitects” rather than architecture. Koolhaas says he wants his to be “more coherent than previous editions”. He has arranged the exhibition as three separate but interlocking displays, unified by the idea that a historical and political analysis of the past 100 years of architecture is the key to understanding the discipline’s future.

Koolhaas has given the national pavilions a theme, rather than the usual carte blanche to stage whatever exhibition they please. The 65 participating countries (up from 55 in 2012—newcomers include the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Indonesia) have been given the title “Absorbing Modernity (1914-2014)”. Koolhaas asked each country to reflect on the forces that, over the course of the 20th century, have caused their native architectural styles to to be overtaken by the homogenised, global Modernist idiom—the ubiquity of the steel and glass skyscraper, for example. “The past century has not been a gentle one. War and politics have forced countries to adapt their architectural conditions: these are the blows that modernity delivers,” he says.

Koolhaas’s own exhibition, “Elements of Architecture”, will examine the historical development and significance (social, political and architectural) of architectural elements shared by all cultures, such as walls, ceilings, stairs and balconies. “We want to look at buildings through a microscope,” he says, explaining that many of the ideas and research behind this exhibition originated in discussions with his Harvard students since 2011.

The third exhibition, “Monditalia”, aims to paint a portrait of Italy’s current socio-political situation by embracing other disciplines such as dance, theatre, music and cinema, in the hope of informing and inspiring the country’s future architecture. “We chose to look at Italy because of its historic role within the arts and because it’s a country poised between its potential and its current difficult political climate,” says Koolhaas, although he stresses that “this is not a critique of Italy. It’s actually a paradigm of the general situation in many other countries.”

The 14th Architecture Biennale (7 June-28 September) is as ambitious as it is hotly anticipated, which is perhaps why it will remain open for nearly six months, twice its usual length.

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