When Rem Koolhaas is in charge of the Biennale – it ends up being no ordinary Biennale. This year’s international exhibition of architecture in Venice opened its door to the public at the very same time as the art exhibition. It will be on display six months – almost twice as long as other architecture exhibitions. This move anticipates a great public interest because the exhibition was curated by the most influential architect today. By calling the exhibition Fundamentals, Koolhaas was seemingly trying to reiterate the period of modern culture influencing the contemporary one, evoking, so to speak, the turning point in architecture by marking the beginning of the First World War (1914-1918) and the beginnings of the avant-garde movements in architecture.
Rem Koolhaas, today’s most influential architect, in Venice, Italy
Koolhaas worked on the exhibition for four years, and the concentration needed to curate such a Biennale is clearly visible in the exhibition itself. Unlike other exhibitions, which mostly acted under the same aegis (the Arsenale, the Italian Pavilion, the National Exhibition), this year’s exhibition was a completed whole. The focal points of interest switched from the Arsenale to the Giardini, especially towards the Italian Pavilion which housed the Elementi exhibition. The focus also shifted towards the national pavilions whose themes were profoundly coordinated with the main theme of the Biennale. The absorption of the modern, as Koolhaas himself points out, is not positive in itself, but more like a boxer taking and absorbing his opponent’s punches.
The national pavilions are more uniform than they were in the previous exhibitions. The entrance of the British Pavilion.
Croatia used the Biennale to do fundamental research on the continuity of modern architecture in Croatia (1914-2014) under the title Fitting Abstraction. Karin Šerman and her team approached the exhibition with the thesis that modernism in architecture in Croatia became an active creator and foundation of cultural memory and identity. The opening event of the pavilion had a somewhat autistic form with a predominantly Croatian audience which is slowly becoming a traditional must each time Croatia participates in the Biennale.
This Biennale will be remembered in Croatia because of the success of Ana Dana Beroš whose work Intermundia, dealing with the issue of immigration, received special jury praise.
The Italian Pavilion filled with parts of houses, without a single project
By naming the exhibition Fundamentals, Koolhaas created great expectations that this very event will determine a turning point and leave a certain trace, such as Portogesi’s Strada Novissima did thirty-four years ago for the articulation of post-modern architecture. Never the less, the impression of this exhibition is somewhat vague; what Koolhaas deems positive and what is the object of his criticism remains unclear.
The exhibition is very appealing; Koolhaas turned the Italian Pavilion into a wonder room, “Soan’s Museum on Steroids”, as the Guardian named it. The entire pavilion is filled with elements of houses: doors, windows, ventilation shafts, toilet bowls. But unlike Sudjic’s 2002 Biennale, where he exhibited building elements in real scale alongside projects in order to eliminate the abstract dimension of exhibiting architecture, Koolhaas presents only building elements, not a single project.
Koolhaas has stated that previous architectural elements reflected power and beauty. Today they are a reflection of technical norms and regulations.
Koolhaas has determined that architecture is comprised of fifteen elements: floor, wall, ceiling, door, façade, balcony, hallway, fireplace, toilet, stairs, escalator, elevator, and ramp. Not arguing whether architecture can indeed be deconstructed in such a way, the choice of elements is a bit confusing. It’s as if it were made by an architecture enthusiast, not a person familiar with secrets of the trade. Why is a balcony one of the important elements, but not the pillar? Is there a stronger tectonic or symbolic element in architecture than a pillar?
Regardless of the chosen elements, one cannot escape the feeling that the exhibition portrays a disheartened view of contemporary architecture and presents with sentiment the historic elements, deeming them real and proper.
Koolhaas said, “Architecture today is a tiny bit more than card-board; our territory has been reduced to two centimeters of thickness. Everything else is out of our hands.” That is the absolute truth. Joshua Prince-Ramus (REX), the previous head of the American OMA office, compared creating a house to creating life at the 2009 ČIPTalks in Zagreb: contemporary architects are interested in 5 (maybe 10) minutes of pleasure then leave all the toil and labor to someone else for 9 months. One question arises: how can they feel accountable for the final fruit of their labor?
Ana Dana Beroš received special jury praise for her work Intermundia that deals with the issue of immigration
Croatia does not lag behind in this trend. Architects enthusiastically left the chamber they shared with civil engineers and dedicated themselves to writing declarations, policies, redesigning trademarks and logos, grading seminars… On the other hand, in the real world, a degeneration occurred: “Čovjek i prostor” (Man and Space), the only critical journal on architecture died out, architectural tenures became a curiosity (the City of Zagreb is writing its own regulations on public tenures), and the only criteria, even in the case of crucial edifices of Croatian culture, is the lowest bid; just like it was in the early 90s. Architects do marginal things because that is the only thing they actually do.
Croatia used the Biennale to do fundamental research on the continuity of modern architecture in Croatia, photo: Andrea Avezzu
Of course, the question of Koolhaas’ Elements of Architecture raises a broader issue concerning the role of architecture and aesthetics in contemporary society. Ignasi de Sola-Morales wrote Weak Architecture a quarter of a century ago in which he clearly refers to ‘weak thought’ of Gianni Vattim and proposed a thesis on how architectural production is related to this contemporary ‘weak thought’. Sola-Morales explains the crisis of modernism using Nietzsche’s ‘the Death of God’ where all absolute references are obliterated. Classic architecture had a clear system of symbols and reasons as to why chapel ceilings were monumental and ornate. This is why that chapel ceiling is different from the office ceiling at the entrance of the Italian Pavilion at the very beginning of Koolhaas’ exhibition. An architect does not influence these reasons alone. Modernism has, by denying the classic system, developed a stable system of sound references. Real crisis occurs when modernism fails and last ? are lost.
Koolhaas’ exhibition can be interpreted as an attempt to return the architectural discourse to basic architectural categories, photo: Zucchiatti
Today’s architecture is in the midst of an entirely different world with no referential points, thus it is forced to operate within a vacuum. Without strong references, every single project needs to set its own system of values and responses.
Morales describes ’Weak Architecture’ as ornamented. Ornamentation is not a vulgar repetition of stereotypes, but a discreet withdrawal into the background. Ornamentation itself is accepting the weakness of architecture and art where a less exposed spot ensures a more elegant and more influential position. The Italian Pavilion can be explained in this manor: an attempt to return the architectural discourse into the basic architectural categories and within the space architecture takes up in today’s society.