Rooms without views

Rem Koolhaas presents lots of unadorned ideas, but leaves the viewer to reach an opinion

The office motto of Will Alsop used to be ‘No style, no beauty’. It applies very well to Rem Koolhaas’s Venice Architecture Biennale, overall title ‘Fundamentals’. Oh, yes, there’s the Koolhaas sense of style here of course, or anti-style, but he carefully avoids anything that could be considered architectural aesthetics. In his central ‘Elements of Architecture’ show, Koolhaas strips the architecture away from architecture, leaving us with, essentially, building components: ceilings, walls, windows, escalators, balconies, and so forth. Were it not for the strong sense of history and wit at this biennale, it would look very like a glorified version of the Building Centre. 

The idea is to clear away all the cultural baggage, and start afresh, re-imagining what architecture could be. Not that Rem offers any pointers. Perhaps he, like most of us, is waiting for the next big development in architecture while having absolutely no idea what it will be. Perhaps there might be a hint that architects are increasingly marginalised, and that the future of building is in the hands of others. Whatever, this is the logical conclusion of the trend in recent biennales to steer attention away from the ultra-shapeism apparent in 2002’s ‘Next’ by Deyan Sudjic. But this is the first show to ignore those big names completely. And you don’t miss them at all. 

Choose your ceiling: Koolhaas’ dramatic entry room in ‘Elements of Architecture’.
Choose your ceiling: Koolhaas’ dramatic entry room in ‘Elements of Architecture’. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

As you enter ‘Elements’, you are immediately confronted with a wholly architectural coup de theatre: spanning the pavilion’s lofty rotunda is a slice of modern office building, all the pipes and ducts normally hidden above the ceiling revealed in thoroughly sculptural fashion, like the innards of a space station. Above it is a different, earlier kind of ceiling, a gloriously decorated dome. The banal against the sublime? Not quite. These modern pipes are shiny, ordered and dramatic, very unlike the tangled mess you find if you poke your head through a loose ceiling tile in your office to see where the drips are coming from. These look good, interesting. Koolhaas expresses no preferences, here or anywhere in the show. These are just two kinds of ceilings. That’s it. 

The best thing about the ‘Elements’ show is the space it gives for valuably obsessive single-issue collectors and curators. There’s a one-legged man who collects staircases. There’s a British national treasure, Charles Brooking, whose display of windows through the ages is just part of his vast collection of salvaged bits from buildings being demolished. It is now a nationally important resource. 

 

This is the first biennale to ignore those big names completely. And you don’t miss them at all

This is a different Biennale in other ways. Usually its heart is the international exhibition, put together by the director, in the cavernous, long historic buildings of the Arsenale former naval complex. That spills into the Giardini, home of the national pavilions, where it occupies spaces in the enormous former Italian, now Central, pavilion. The national offerings are usually a bit of a side show. Rem, of course, does things differently. Rumoured to have wanted to omit the Arsenale entirely, he has put together a large sideshow there called Monditalia, an unnecessary look at the world as influenced by Italy. Intended to bring in the other Biennale cultural disciplines, there are endless film clips and live dance and theatre performances and various bits and bobs. Fine in its own terms but if it’s architecture you’re after and you miss this section entirely, it wouldn’t really matter.

Instead – apart from concentrating his personal firepower in the ‘Elements’ exhibition – Koolhaas has insisted that the national pavilions’ shows should be on the theme of ‘absorbing modernity’. With 66 nations represented, this is a huge response to marshall: Rem has neatly summarised them all in the 1991 ‘bookship/boatshop’ by James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Tom Muirhead, handily near the entrance. Koolhaas notes that big-name architects, himself included, are largely absent from these chronicles. ‘We are mere intruders in national narratives that we do not influence,’ he says dispassionately. It’s another nail in the coffin of the ‘international style’, too – so many different modernisms emerge from this exercise. 

 

  • The French pavilion is taken over by director Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.
    The French pavilion is taken over by director Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • The smiling face of North Korean reconstruction propaganda.
    The smiling face of North Korean reconstruction propaganda. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Welfare State baroque: One of the legendary Hulme Crescents, Manchester.
    Welfare State baroque: One of the legendary Hulme Crescents, Manchester. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

One of these is the British Council-led contribution, ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’, which displays a commendable lightness of touch. Curators Sam Jacob of architect FAT, with his Dutch collaborator Wouter Wanstiphout, look at the British desire for the utopian, often pastoral, community from Blake’s yearning ‘Jerusalem’ to the greenery of Milton Keynes via a lot of brutalist council estates and the arcane pop videos and publicity photos made in them. Reference is of course made to the film ‘A Clockwork Orange’, partly filmed in the utopia-turned dystopia of Thamesmead. 

The first big room of the British pavilion boasts a curious earthen mound of a viewing platform, edged in pink-painted timber. This partly refers to the world’s first council housing, the Boundary Estate in east London, started in 1890. That of course radiates from just such a mound with a bandstand on top, made from the rubble of the slum cleared to build it. The mound therefore represents a better future. And there is real affection here for a time when the State could provide such large new communities, including later brutalist ones. Because, let’s be brutal, the State has lost that sense of purpose. But will anyone but the British fully understand the delicate nuances of this show? I asked around, and I fear the answer is no.

My favourite pavilions include Germany, which builds a replica of its 1960s chancellor’s modernist bungalow in Bonn inside the Fascist-era pavilion, and South Korea, which stages an absorbing look at the diverging architectures of the two ideologically opposed Koreas, and has won a Golden Lion award for its pains. And let’s welcome New Zealand for its first Biennale contribution ‘Last, Loneliest, Loveliest’, a satisfyingly chronological tour through both historic Maori buildings and distinctly different Kiwi modernism. Meanwhile Russia, curated by the Strelka Institute, challenges Britain for wit. Its romp through its various modernisms comes in the guise of a hilariously cheesy trade fair – perhaps a nod to Koolhaas’s ‘Elements’. 

 

South Korea stages an absorbing look at the diverging architectures of the two ideologically opposed Koreas, and has won a Golden Lion award for its pains

Much happens outside the official programme of course, such as Alex Scott-Whitby’s unit at the University of East London. It pulled off the coup of making an installation on the balcony of the Doge’s Palace which acts as a two-way electronic portal between the Biennale and the London Festival of Architecture. Clever, and a great exercise for students in the arts of making and negotiation. I was impressed too by German artist Heinz Mack’s ‘The Sky Over Nine Columns’ in the forecourt of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore. Clad in glittering gold-leaf glass mosaic, otherwise-simple square columns imply a fundamentalist architecture of magnificence. 

Apropos of which, outside the ‘Elements of Architecture’ exhibition, in the open air, stands a curious object – a building made only of six columns, three floorslabs, one staircase and basic foundations. No walls. It’s a full-size timber replica – commissioned by Brett Steele, director of London’s Architectural Association school – of Le Corbusier’s drawn but never built ‘Dom-Ino House’ of 1914. So something devoid of style and beauty, as basic as this must have seemed a century ago, can indeed usher in an architectural revolution: in that case, modernism. But that was a manifesto design: Koolhaas’s ‘Fundamentals’ carries no such manifesto. It merely observes. Maybe that’s all we can do now, but you come away wanting something more. 

SECOND OPINION
Maria Smith of Studio Weave

My highlight was the Belgian Pavilion, ‘Interiors. Notes and Figures’. Like Fundamentals, it is a celebration of the prosaic, but whereas Koolhaas has elevated raised floors, the Belgians have honoured the ordinary negotiations between ordinary furniture and ordinary homes. It is touching and hilarious. 

The pavilion’s curators visited 256 homes and took 1247 photographs. The subjects of a meticulously selected handful are recreated in reverential white: a fridge next to ‘a wall cupboard with similar attributes’, changes in grout colour between white tiles, a staged yucca plant. Humble A4 print-outs of the photos are blue-tacked to the wall, ‘accompanied by relevant factual information’. The analysis is gold: ‘Some furniture and a pipe evoke the kitchen… the floor’s division prevails… radical compromise is highlighted by the neutral position of the table.’

While Fundamentals – with its flowery urinals and cottaging scenes – is overtly a bit silly, the Belgians are unwaveringly deadpan, to the extent that you could be forgiven for missing the humour altogether. The national pavilions do have the advantage of size – being small enough to exhibit one idea (the German Pavilion exemplifies this beautifully) – but for me the Belgians have beaten Mr Koolhaas at his own game.

THIRD OPINION
Marcus Lee of LEEP architects

Surprisingly accessible must-see Central Pavilion by Koolhaas – thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, nostalgic, stimulating and tactile. Door handle castings, staircase models and wall material mock ups were a joy. 

Overall the show is full of paradoxes. Concrete megastructures abound, loved and abhorred equally, celebrated in the well balanced British Pavilion with glimpses of Boundary Estate, an LCC pioneering project, Manchester’s Hulme Estate Royal Crescent re-interpretation and Milton Keynes’ Campbell Park mound and concrete cows shipped in to guard the pavilion’s steps. 

The Danish pavilion was charming, fragrant with the smell of pine needles, contending that modernism in Denmark began some time before 1914. I particularly enjoyed the ruinous images of Nervi’s wonderful Italian structures in the Arsenale, reminding me a little of Cardross seminary where decaying concrete in a green world has a Piranesian quality. 

We enjoyed the community spirit in Hungary’s pavilion, where exciting looking timber construction projects involved scores of people. France fused Jean Prouvé’s lightweight (and sometimes heavyweight) utilitarianism with Jacques Tati’s house from ‘Mon Oncle’, where everything technical contrives to control the occupant.