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LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA: 14th International Architecture Exhibition – Fundamentals

Every two summers, the sinking city of Venice becomes the most important place in the art world. That’s because it gets taken over by the Venice Biennale; a sprawling, multi-disciplinary, triumphantly international celebration of art. Think Glastonbury-level importance, except everyone is wearing linen trousers and drinking prosecco on a boat.

The Biennale is a great way to spend a weekend away. You get to see a lot of art in one massive hit. Venice is sunny in the day, and perfect for exploring on foot at night. There are boats, you’ll definitely have to go on at least one boat. The people are cool. And an Aperol Spritz rarely sets you back more than €2.

And, best of all, it’s spread across Venice, from its most intimate spaces to the cavernous. This makes it a varied and rewarding way to see the city, without feeling too much like you’re just there for the gelato.

For 2014, curatorship of the Biennale has been led by Rem Koolhaas, an architect whose vision is one of the forces that define and sculpt the urban landscape.

Look around you in London, New York, Rotterdam, and many other cities around the world. You’ll find Koolhaas’ touch everywhere, from the iconic ‘loop’ of the CCTV HQ in Beijing to the angular Casa de Musica in Porto.

But in 2014, Koolhaas’ focus is on Venice.

His Biennale actually consists of three interlocking exhibitions. The first, Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014 takes place in the Giardini, a semi-wooded Venetian glade with pavilions nestled among the trees. Each pavilion is the size of a large house, architecturally unique and belongs to a separate country. One larger, main pavilion is the venue for Elements of Architecture, a standalone exhibition that investigates the architectural ‘fundamentals’ from which the whole Biennale takes its name. The third exhibition, Monditilia, occupies the Arsenale. It’s a 300-metre long disused rope factory, right on the waterfront, which means the best way to get to it is by water taxi. (Hard life.)

After several architecture Biennales dedicated to the celebration of the contemporary, Fundamentals looks at where we’ve come from, how we got here, and where ‘here’ actually is. In the Giardini’s main pavilion, Elements of Architecture puts the fundamentals of our buildings, and all those that have preceded them, under the microscope.

Walls, ceilings, floors, walls, roofs, doors, windows, toilets, stairs, escalators: we interact with these things continually, maybe not giving them very much thought. But each one has a history that spans the globe, and connects cultures to each other. In the main pavilion, individual rooms are devoted to each of these building elements. We’re invited to meditate on what each one means.

Does this sound dry? It’s not. Even a wall full of door handles takes on a sense of some importance.

In the entrance to the main pavilion there is a hall, with a massive and elaborate golden dome rising out of it.

Directly beneath the dome is the cross section of a roof you might find in any modern office building. Its guts have been exposed, ventilation ducts and pipes laid bare, where they are normally covered up by the thin screen we know as the ‘ceiling’. Ceilings used to be windows to heaven, but in the modern world they’re a bit less fancy.

The point this makes is neutral, neither celebratory nor accusatory. And it’s representative of much of the rest of Elements of Architecture, which deals with its subject matter in a similarly non-judgmental way.

This is in contrast to the next part of the Biennale, entitled Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014. This sprawling audit of ‘modern times’ takes place in the Giardini, a huge, semi-forested outdoor space containing many pavilions. Each pavilion has been curated by a different country.

It’s the first time the Biennale has set a single ‘theme’ to all participating countries, as opposed to allowing them to freely interpret wider subject matter.

In this case, each one was asked to explore the idea of ‘absorbing modernity’. This is about the way in which the world is moving from a collection of unique and disparate national identities, to a singular place where everything looks and feels eerily similar.

If you’ve ever been to a Starbucks in a country where you couldn’t speak the language, and still ended up with the right coffee, you’ll know the feeling. Cities share characteristics everywhere, thanks to the prevalence of certain building materials like steel and glass and the global popularity of modern building techniques.

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Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 14.34.32This idea of ‘absorption’ of modernity is not necessarily positive. As Koolhaas says, it could be more like the way in which a boxer ‘absorbs’ a punch from his enemy.

Together, the 65 countries participating in this part of the Biennale paint a picture of a century of change, followed by a post-millennial period in which a strange equilibrium has been reached.

The work in the German pavilion, Bungalow Germania, is almost invisible, a shell within a shell. The original pavilion building was designed by Albert Speer, the architect responsible for much of the buildings constructed by the Nazi party.

However, what lies within is a reconstruction of the Kanzlerbungalow, an airy, cheerful house designed by modernist architect Sep Ruf in 1964.

The unsettling World War II history of the pavilion is lifted and, somehow, given hope by the bright indifference of Ruf’s interior space, which is largely free of adornment, in opposition to the ornateness of the building that houses it.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 14.36.19The weird truce between the two is made weirder by the ‘aspirational’ quality of Ruf’s design. It wouldn’t seem out of place in a Foxtons catalogue. What it lacks in dictatorial grandeur, it compensates for in its depiction of a utopia that is meant for everyone.

The Japanese pavilion, In The Real World, is the opposite. It’s an explosion of ideas in a single mirrored space, with hand-drawn sketches and notes piled high on top of packing crates. Signs and mementoes are littered everywhere.

It’s an investigation into the research of a group of renegade Japanese architects during the country’s economic depression, when post-war oil prices suddenly dropped and left it in financial ruins.

Among the chaos are signs of order. The plans of these ‘dissident’ architects, found in far-flung places, show that it can take extreme change to restore normality. The complex weirdness of this space has given way to a society that is successful thanks to its reliance on order. One look at the Japan of today shows that this is the case.

It would take a while to describe in detail the 63 remaining pavilions in the Absorbing Modernity section of the Biennale. Each one is different, and there is not a single one that is not fascinating.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 14.37.16The third part of the Biennale is entitled Monditalia. It occupies the 300-metre disused rope factory known as the Arsenale, and constitutes the largest space in the whole exhibition.

The Venice Biennale gets a bunch of complaints each year that it does not pay enough attention to Italy itself. Koolhaas’ decision to devote such a significant portion of his Biennale to the host country is a bold, warm and open-minded move.

In a climate of continual political change, the Biennale looks at Italy as a ‘fundamental’ country. It’s a nation with a unique history and strong characteristics, but is also a potent symbol of globalisation – the creeping change other countries are going through, or having thrust upon them.

The Arsenale is a long, narrow space. Walking through it feels like walking along a line that explains the ‘idea’ of Italy.

From an operatic reenactment of the crucifixion, to cigarette-thin models astride Vespas, via a neon building facade, the space is a scan of Italy through the ages, cataloguing the changes that have brought it to where it is today.

One of the most interesting pieces examines the history of Italy’s physical borders. In the twentieth century, tectonic activity meant that the borders between Italy, France and Germany actually shifted, resulting in the need for governments to renegotiate where their country ended, and where the next began. It throws into sharp relief the idea of national identity. If a country’s physical borders are in flux, perhaps the borders that govern identity within the mind are equally fluid.

The picture it paints of Italy is a place alive with intent, with its eyes set on an uncertain but hopeful future.

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Rem Koolhaas’ Biennale feels important. The individual strength of each separate exhibition is impressive, and the three somehow tessellate to form a complete, coherent whole. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that the curator is one of the foremost architects of our time.

There is a real joy in experiencing the difference between the spaces that each exhibition in the Biennale inhabits, from the leafy, sun-dappled glade of the Giardini, to the stark, sun-scorched landscape of the Arsenale. When you add in the smaller galleries dotted around Venice itself, the entire experience takes on a depth that is unlike any other exhibition on the planet. ‘Exhibition’ is, really, far too small a word.

The subject matter at hand is a bit weighty at times, but dealt with in a way that feels accessible and vital. Boredom is impossible here. This is not an exhibition about architecture, this is an exhibition about life itself, and at times, what it means to be part of humanity as a species.

On a slightly less grand level, it’s also a properly great weekend away – mucking about on the canals, drinking endless Aperol Spritz, meandering through tiny back streets looking for galleries. Biennale time is the only time to visit Venice.

- Mark Edwards 





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