“Rem is like a great journalist of architecture,” said Ricardo Bofill Jr., sitting downstairs in Venice’s Palazzo Bembo on the third day of the 2014 Architecture Biennale. Two flights up, the peripheral exhibition “Time Space Existence” included a sampling of recent work from Bofill’s (and his famous father’s) eponymous office in Barcelona, Spain, alongside a surprisingly vast array of installations from firms around the world. The Bofills have seen more than their fair share of Biennales—including the seminal 1980 “Strada Novissima” show, in which the elder designer played an important role—and for Bofill the Younger, the 2014 installment seemed like it could mark yet another key inflection point for the field, a credit to curator Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, and his ability to weave history and design into a compelling narrative—ostensibly unified by his title, “Fundamentals.” “For Rem, it all comes back to telling a story,” Bofill says.
But what exactly Koolhaas thinks the next chapter in that story is meant to be was difficult to discern, at least judging from his particular contributions to the current Biennale. The Bembo show (organized by the independent Global Art Affairs Foundation) was altogether a more comprehensive view of contemporary practice than either Koolhaas’s technically minded “Elements of Architecture” exhibition at the Central Pavilion or his “Monditalia” show at the Arsenale. In many ways, the leading man in the Biennale drama appeared to have departed from his own script. The emerging consensus during the preview (consensuses during the Biennale having a tendency to fade in and out somewhat) was that the real action was taking place in the national pavilions. Clogging the paths and courtyards of the Giardini, Prosecco-tippling design fans flocked to see the opening the Belgian Pavilion (a spare, cerebral investigation of interior space), the Israeli Pavilion (an offbeat examination of the country’s urbanism using sand-sifting digital fabricators), and the Austrian Pavilion (wall-mounted models of the national capitol buildings of over 200 countries). For the first time at an Architecture Biennale, the chief curator had tasked all of the national pavilions with a single overarching theme: “Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014.” Far from being a limiting agent, this guideline seemed to inspire many participants to reach further and think deeper.
It’s surprising, in fact, that the Architecture Biennale had to wait till the arrival of Koolhaas for someone to impose some sense of conceptual order on the unruly Giardini. As an exhibition environment, the rambling walkways and waterways at Venice’s eastern end remain a curious place—one part public space, one part artsy theme park—with the feeling that sometimes it is a necropolis populated by unusually extravagant tombs. “I like some of the older pavilion buildings, just for what they are,” says architect John Denton of Denton Corker Marshall, an Australian firm tasked with the daunting commission of creating a new space for their native country. When it’s completed later this year, the new Australian Pavilion—a simple, black granite volume with what Denton describes as a “very Melbourne” character—will not only be the latest addition to the Biennale fairgrounds, but perhaps the last: Preservationist-minded Venetians are staunchly opposed to any further construction, and only a bureaucratic loophole allowed the Australians to move forward with this project.
In the meantime, “Absorbing Modernity” did seem to breathe some new and much-needed life into the faintly funereal exhibition grounds—a sharp contrast with Koolhaas’s own shows, in which the organizing theme was conspicuous in its absence. The Arsenale show was especially perplexing. In room after room of the vast complex, Koolhaas’s assorted collaborators investigated built culture in the home country of the Biennale, using media as varied as film, dance, and archival material to uncover the assorted complexities and contradictions of Italy today. There was much to like in the show, not the least of which was the documents and public programming of Beatriz Colomina’s “Radical Pedagogies: Action-Reaction-Interaction” installation, as well as the 82 movie clips on display throughout the space showing how Hollywood has taken on the Italian landscape. But if there was a thesis at work, it was difficult to make out, and the Italian Pavilion just around the corner covered much the same material with greater concision and curatorial flare, especially with its full-scale model of Milan complete with digital projections showing urban networks and planning proposals over the centuries.
Koolhaas’s “Elements” only threw the thematic center of gravity even further off-kilter, with the Central Pavilion given over to a strangely rote presentation of building components like elevators, stairs, and fireplaces. “It was like an industry expo,” snarked one visitor.
On the other hand, the Biennale’s overlords did not err when it came time to dole out the honorary Lions. Winning the gold was the Korean Pavilion, which showcased a riveting series of videos and images exploring the vexed relationship between North and South, in particular the quasi-hidden history of urbanism and building in the autocratic Hermit Kingdom. And the Chilean Pavilion walked away with a well-deserved silver: For a look back at the country’s troubled past, the organizers carted in a thick concrete wall, originally built as part of a Soviet-backed social housing program created by the socialist Allende government. Production team member José Hernandez showed where the “o” was still visible from the signature Salvador Allende had scrawled on it more than 40 years ago, and explained the challenges in moving the massive hunk from Chile to Italy. “We got a very nice grant from a marine transport company,” he said.
Only slightly less daunting maritime logistics faced attendees leaving the Biennale on Sunday, as a boat race shut down the Grand Canal. The night before, as word of the impending closure started making the rounds of a launch party for design journal Clog (their new issue devoted, naturally, to Koolhaas), attendees discussed possible alternative routes to the airport. “We could always swim across the lagoon,” said one wag. “Yeah,” said another, “but if we were Rem, we could just walk on it.”
Sarcasm aside, this Biennale did seem to confirm one of the peculiar aspects of the Koolhaas Effect in architecture today: The Dutch dynamo was less important for what he built himself than for how his ideas forced every other designer in attendance to react. When this Biennale is viewed in years to come, however, its signal lesson may be just this: Do as Koolhaas says, designers, but perhaps not as he does.