This year's Venice Biennale of Architecture, curated by Rem Koolhaas, officially opened on June 7, under the theme "Fundamentals". The deluge of criticism and reporting coming out of the Biennale will surely continue until it closes November 23, but so far reactions from the architectural journalism community seem pretty consistent. Critics seem at once relieved that the biennale is not given away to preening and doting upon architectural personalities, but instead focused on "architecture, not architects", as per Koolhaas' design. The flip-side of this could be seen as replacing objects of starchitectural value with a too-safe generalism, imbued with the self-importance of Koolhaas' cult of personality. Responses seem largely concerned with interpreting the man at the same time as his Biennale, rather than investigating the interplay of national pavilions' personalities under a unifying theme. But we've got many months to go, and this is only the beginning.
But with the sheer mass of reporting coming out of the Biennale, we've gathered a selection of meatier accounts, and broken them down for you. Be sure to check out Archinect's reporting on the biennale, courtesy of Terri Peters, as a primer.
Aaron Betsky waxes poetic about Rem's Biennale for Architect Magazine, comparing it to modernist poet T.S. Eliot's 1915 poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". You can interpret the subtext yourself and read Eliot's entire poem here, but the Cliffs Notes is that Betsky is comparing (favorably, it seems) Koolhaas' biennale to a middle-aged man grappling with life's grand questions.
The Architectural Review features two interviews with Koolhaas, one by Charles Jencks, Koolhaas' former architecture tutor, and another by Andrew Mackenzie. Jencks interview, entitled "The Flying Dutchman", pokes at Fundamentals' technical determinism, and Koolhaas' Dutch-ness. The two go way back.
Mackenzie engages Koolhaas on international translations of the modernist style -- in regards to client expectations, regionalisms or political biases. Koolhaas insists on separating theoretical writing, done for himself, and completed projects, which are collaborative exercises. It should not be assumed that they are reinforcements of one another, or that they should even agree. The Fundamentals theme is a nod to architecture's atavism in the midst of contemporary digital immediacy -- revisiting a past that's easy to take for granted in the present, oversaturated with imagery.
Reinhold Martin focuses his piece for Design Observer on issues of land rights and real estate, and argues that architecture's disputes can best be imagined through concepts of "ground" -- the fundamental missing from Koolhaas' indispensable 15. Like many other reviews, Martin's agrees that the focus on architecture over architects is for the best. Trying to represent modernity in architecture through individual architects' visions would only muddy the issue and create false conflations. But by regarding architecture as simply permutations of inalienable elements, we also aren't out of the woods: "There is in fact a distinct air of the fetish, and hence of the sacred and the magical, in the invocation of “architecture” itself as a timeless set of logical subsets."
In perhaps the most quotable piece I've encountered so far, Kieran Long writes for Dezeen: "Elements just makes you feel unutterably sad for [Koolhaas] and for what he thinks architecture is. That a director of the biennale, whose work and writing make him unarguably the leading architect of his generation, should make a show that proposes that architecture is, when stripped right back to 'fundamentals', the mere shuffling around of cladding, walls, doors, stairs, roofs and toilets. I may sound ingenuous, credulous. But how else are we supposed to feel?"
Long's piece is very concerned with what the Biennale means for Rem's oeuvre, and can come across as absolutely intoxicated on the Koolhaas Kult of Personality. Much of the criticism is built on questioning Koolhaas' intent, trying to figure out the man behind the exhibition rather than deconstructing the implications of Fundamentals for contemporary architecture, and architectural history. For example:
Rowan Moore's piece for The Guardian also makes a (perhaps unintentional) reference to "Prufrock", comparing the exhibition of Italy's deconstructed architectural elements (whose supremacy was ceded long ago) as a somewhat perverse arrangement, "like a body on a slab". He interprets Koolhaas' theme almost as a eulogy, "The show is partly a celebration of what built spaces can do, but there is also an underlying pessimism. Things Ain't What They Used to Be is one message, or We're All Doomed."
He seems similarly depressed by Fundamentals' reminder, that technological advancements are narrowing the architect's role by diminishing their necessity in certain building conditions: "If, for example, a fireplace was once an occasion for social gathering and ornamental embellishment, there are now sensors that can track an individual and provide heating specific to that one person. The provision of heat becomes a solitary, dematerialised and invisible affair."
He's not a total downer though, and is relieved that little time is spent doting attention on starchitects' personalities: "The Biennale is greatly enhanced by the fact that, unlike its predecessors, it does not pay tribute to the big beasts of contemporary architecture (Koolhaas excepted) and the absence of their honking and rutting adds greatly to its enjoyment."
Uncube's treatment pays service to Koolhaas' Kult but remains critical, invoking his personality as an endearment to the biennale: "Though the overall show comes across as slightly over didactic, what also comes through is the sense of keen interest, excitement and underlying humour, that Koolhaas, however polemical, always seems to bring to bear, in his writing, exhibition-making... and even sometimes still to his architecture." But Koolhaas' charm notwithstanding, "This is a museum show and a museum of a show, and at times one can’t see the (architectural) wood for the trees. Indeed a recurring criticism has been that if architecture is a language, all that is given here is the vocab, not the grammar."
That's our round-up for now, with more from the 2014 Biennale to come. Stay tuned.