Back to School: The 14th International Architecture Exhibition Venice

Philip Ursprung
The 14th International Architecture Exhibition, 18.08.2014

Someone called the Giardini section of the 14th Venice Architecture Biennial the “School of Athens.” It evokes the atmosphere of an exhibition that differs from all the earlier ones that I visited. The idea of the director, Rem Koolhaas, and his collaborators, most notably Stephan Trüby, to announce the theme “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014” more than a year ahead and invite the participating nations in the Giardini and other venues to reflect on the history of architecture, has proven fruitful. Even if one does not agree with the hypothesis that the diversity of architecture in the early 20th century was homogenized by Modernity – in my view, Modernity is not the absorbing force, but rather a cultural reflection of a driving force that can be historically located and has been absorbed by another force, capitalism -- it points to the blind spot of current architectural debates, namely the neglect of history. Rather than featuring the usual beauty contests among competing architects and cultural diplomats of different countries, this year’s Giardini are about ideas, reflection and questions.
  As I strolled through the Giardini in early June, I had the impression of moving around a huge summer school. In every pavilion the homework given by Koolhaas had been done. Some pavilions were more ironic and playful like the Russian, the Spanish and the Belgian, others more pedantic like the Danish, the British and the Austrian. I had been involved in the planning of both the German and Swiss pavilions and am not neutral. But I am convinced that both these exhibitions and many others would have been unthinkable elsewhere or at another time. Be it the Nazi architecture of the German Pavilion absorbing in one big gulp the one-to-one replica of the International Style Chancellor’s bungalow in Bonn, the most laconic gesture of the entire Biennale. Or be it Herzog & de Meuron’s iconoclastic exhibition in the Swiss Pavilion confronting visitors with an empty hall where architecture students (casted and trained by Tino Sehgal) involved them in a learned discussion about the archive of Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt.

Architektur Biennale 2014 Fig. 1

  More than at the last Architecture Biennial 2012 dedicated to the theme of “Common Grounds,” which was a statement of exclusion rather than inclusion, this summer I perceived the presence of an architecture community. No doubt this sensation is my subjective projection. As a historian and member of the academe, I felt at home in the scholarly context of pavilions such as the French, depicting the ambivalence of modernization after the Second World War around Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and postwar mass housing, the Japanese with a charming reenactment of blueprints, the Korean with its meticulous depiction of divided Korea, the Chilean with a brilliant study of the international spectrum of "Plattenbauten", and the pavilion of the United States featuring an ambitious project of collective research on the presence of international architecture firms. My favorite was the Romanian pavilion. On its entrance was written “One thousand factories were closed in Romania after 1989.” Inside there was a kaleidoscope of images and sounds of production, a montage from propaganda films and newsreels of the 1989 revolution.

Architektur Biennale 2014 Fig. 2

But there were no images from the time since the revolution. Instead, a door opened to another space, literally inscribed into the surface of the projection screens. I found myself in a white, empty, tower-like environment. Devoid of images and sounds its mirror-floor made me reflect my own position. Was it in this void where the images had disappeared and Modernity had been absorbed?

Architektur Biennale 2014Fig. 2

  If the Giardini were a success, this is not only because of the director announcing the theme ahead of time, but also due to the fact that he did not – and could not – control the content. The exhibition Elements in the Italian pavilion, on the other hand, is under the curatorial control of the director, and I find it much less convincing. If the exhibition in the Giardini is singular, the exhibition in the Italian Pavilion could have take place anywhere and anyplace. Of course, in view of the structure of the Biennale, with many different voices to include and a tiny budget at hand, it is legitimate to divide the task and invite sub-curators to work on an encyclopedia-like accumulation. There are plenty of discoveries to be made in this "Wunderkammer". I particularly liked the Kafkaesque show of corridors and the spectacular cut through a ceiling at the entrance of the show, which depicted how much more space was used for services than for the actually served space.

Architektur Biennale 2014 Fig. 3

But after all, for me as a historian, the activity of collecting and accumulating objects looks anachronistic. It presupposes an essence of architecture and reduces its complexity, thus leaving out the economic, political and social context in favor of an a-historical perspective. It reaffirms what we know – or think we know - but does not touch what we don’t know. It is a "search", but not "research".
  The third leg on which the exhibition rests is Monditalia. The idea to take Italy in its current state of crisis not as an exception but as an example of “the world” is intriguing. As in Elements, many discoveries could be made in the exhibitions presented by a number of sub-curators. But also as in Elements, Monditalia remained, in my view, in large parts an anecdotal accumulation of fragments, loosely held together by the topic of “Italy.” In a presentation given in Zurich in April, Koolhaas said that he had intended not to include the Arsenals in this year’s exhibition, but that the Biennale insisted that it be used. This critical attitude towards the Biennale’s insatiable appetite to absorb new venues is remarkable. The idea to leave the Arsenals alone is a striking statement in an institutional context which seems to know only expansion. Perhaps only an architect like Koolhaas, with his aptitude for handling powerful clients, can formulate such as statement that touches the question of the autonomy of architecture and the difference between art and architectural practice. Koolhaas can regard the institution of the Biennale as a kind of “client” with whom he can argue about the brief and with whom he does not have to identify. (An art curator, always eager to serve the institution, would hardly dare to openly criticize the Biennale’s tendency of expansion).
  The main title of the Biennale was Fundamentals. Only Koolhaas can coin such a title in the current context of growing political and religious fundamentalism and not be mistaken as reactionary. In the hands of architects such as Kazuo Sejima or David Chipperfield, the same topic would inevitably have split the architectural community. In the hands of Koolhaas and Trüby, the notion of “fundamentals” remains elastic enough to include different points of view and yet more thought-provoking than most earlier titles of architecture exhibitions. But anyway, the majority of the visitors probably are focusing on Koolhaas as a person more than on the concepts he proposed. Never has an architecture biennale been personalized to such an extent around its director. This raises the question of whether the shift of influence from production to distribution, from the artist to the curator, which took place in the art world now, is affecting architecture world. Is the star architect succeeded by the star curator? I don’t think so. The realm of architecture follows different rules than the art world. And although Koolhaas has produced several prominent contributions to earlier Biennales in Venice, he is not a curator. The fact that he, as the most influential architect of our time, has taken over this role does not mark the end of his career, as Peter Eisenman suggests. Rather, it is symptomatic of the growing importance of exhibitions in the realm of architecture. With the decline of star architecture - Koolhaas included – since the beginning of the financial crisis, there is a vacuum in the economy of meaning of architecture. The construction industry and the world of real-estate development have moved center stage economically and politically, but they have lost their symbolic capital. Unlike in the booming 1990s, the non-built is now again as interesting as what is actually built. The exhibition and, more generally, the representation and mediation of architecture are becoming a crucial resource of meaning in the realm of architecture again. The control of this resource will be at stake in the coming years.

June 7 to November 23, 2014, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice

Fig. 1
GERMANY - Bungalow Germania
14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia
Photo By Andrea Avezzù

Fig. 2 and 3
ROMANIA - Site Under Construction
14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia
Photo By Andrea Avezzù

Fig. 3
Central Pavilion - Elements of Architecture 
14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, la Biennale di Venezia
Photo By Francesco Galli

Photos: Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Philip Ursprung is Professor for the History of Art and Architecture, ETH Zürich.