Venice Architecture Biennale: Architecture as a living organism

Rem Koolhaas’s Biennale reflects his discipline not just as a technical process but as the embodiment of human experience across the ages.


This year, the Venice Architecture Biennale, as its title “Fundamentals” suggests, has gone back to the building blocks of architecture—perhaps appropriately, as both Venice and Italy are fighting to re-establish the foundations of a healthy political system.

Rem Koolhaas’s exhibition is ambitious and coherent. After a series of spectaculars, rife with impressive but largely unachievable architectural fantasies, the 14th international architecture exhibition looks to the future of the practice through a research-based lens, rather than through starchitects, and focuses on the basics of construction without shame or snobbery.

Koolhaas, who was born in Rotterdam in 1944, is one of today’s great architects. The founder of OMA Studio and the winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2000, he is capable of challenging the architectural system from within while also working with it. He is both a starchitect and an anti-starchitect, and has brought his unique and complex perspective to the Biennale.

Koolhaas’s journey through the past 100 years of architecture begins in the central pavilion at the Giardini, in his “Elements of Architecture” exhibition. Its core concept is that the future of the practice can only be determined by delving deep into its past, into its very foundations, which he has identified, over the course of two years of research with his team and students from Harvard University, and presents in 15 exhibition rooms. In the first room, visitors are shown Koolhaas’s source material, from texts by the Roman architect Vitruvius to the rules of Hindu architecture expounded in the Shilpa Shastras, as well as the writings of the Italian architects Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio (who helped build the Palace of Fontainebleau) and Giacomo da Vignola (the architect of the Villa Farnese); the late 11th-century treatise on imperial Chinese architecture known as Yingzao Fashi; the writings of Sedad Eldem, the 20th-century Turkish scholar and architect, as well as texts by the English architectural critic Reyner Banham and the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. On the wall, a giant screen shows a complex film montage, from James Bond and Marie Antoinette to doors and panoramic windows, that suggests to the viewer the exhibition’s breadth and ambition.

The exhibition acts as a kind of meticulous and elemental catalogue raisonné of architecture—ceilings, windows, corridors, flooring, ­balconies, chimneys, façades, roofs, doors, walls, stairs—in which entire spaces or environments are explored, from the great dome of the central pavilion, decorated by Galileo Chini in the Italian “Art Nouveau” style, to the archetypal modern-day office, complete with panelling and electrical wiring; from the different types of window found in the Brooking Collection in London to the vast network of tunnels at Welbeck Abbey in Sherwood Forest; from the energy-generating dance floor of a Rotterdam nightclub to the balconies of Hitler, Eva Peron and Nelson Mandela; from the vernacular roof type of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum to the sculptural kind pioneered by Zaha Hadid and Felix Candela; from medieval castle walls to ­airport security barriers. The sheer variety ­transforms this from an ordinary exhibition into a multidisciplinary ­laboratory for research, similar to Massimiliano Gioni’s art Biennale last year, that looks towards the development of new ways of building while simultaneously preserving both the shared and individual histories of the countries that are taking part in what is a complex and rewarding exhibition project.

Modernity examined

For the first time in the history of the architecture Biennale, the curator of the main exhibition has also taken over the rest of the event by selecting a theme for the national pavilions, namely “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014”. The theme offers each country an opportunity to examine the ways globalisation and technological advances have affected them. The relationship between architecture and history has always been an important aspect of this Biennale. During its first edition, in 1980, a young Koolhaas was called by the curator Paolo Portoghesi to design one of the iconic façades of the exhibition’s “Strada Novissima” project, a prototype for the Postmodern street. Today, Koolhaas has used the year 1914 as the threshold year for his exhibition, both for its political significance, as the start of the First World War, and for its architectural significance, as the year in which Le Corbusier presented the prototype of his Maison Dom-ino, which is replicated in the Giardini by the German architect Valentin Bontjes van Beek and students from the Architectural Association in London. “Over the last 100 years, globalisation has been a painful process for all of us, and national identities have suffered,” Koolhaas says, “but this exhibition also shows what we have gained, not just what we have lost.” A record 65 countries have taken part this year. The British pavilion has “A Clockwork Jerusalem”, which places Britain’s own brand of Modernism somewhere between science fiction and historicism; the French have linked prefabricated structures with works by the architect and designer Jean Prouvé and a section on the Villa Arpel, which featured in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film “Mon Oncle”; the Italians are showing 85 studies on contemporary architecture and Milan as a case study for national Modernism.

Meanwhile, at the Corderie dell’Arsenale, an enormous glittering portal of light, courtesy of Swarovski, welcomes visitors to the “Monditalia” section, a journey across Italy, composed of 41 projects and case studies that outline the changes that have swept across the country in the last century. Koolhaas is using Italy as a “prototype for the current situation”, a paradigm of the global dynamic, he says, although the exhibition also addresses some very Italian issues, such as the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila , the construction of Berlusconi’s “Milano Due”, a residential construction project on the outskirts of Milan which provided an opportunity for the mafia to launder money, the vast abandoned complex originally built for the G8 summit at the island of La Maddalena (abandoned because Berlusconi abruptly changed the venue to L’Aquila shortly after the earthquake), the crumbling walls of Pompeii, 1980s nightclubs in Italian beach resorts and the remains of Italy’s colonial architecture in Africa. Here, architecture is not just a discipline but a complex embodiment of life, history, hope and disappointment. It is a study of “the gap between what we are and what we could be”, Koolhaas says. Even the performance pieces and the many screens that show fragments of films about the history of this beautiful but troubled country (“the most curious and romantic country in the world,” as Koolhaas calls it) stimulate ­viewers to think rather than just enjoy.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'ARCHITECTURE as a living organism'