T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit. (1-12)

So I went. Not to T.S. Eliot’s London, but to Venice, Italy, where the patient of architecture lay etherized in the Central Pavilion, and the half-deserted streets all led to the Arsenale, where the remembrances of architectures past refused the question, “What is it?”

At first I thought of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), as I interpreted Rem Koolhaas’s proclamations to mean that architecture, as the making of buildings, is dead. He has produced a Biennale pervaded by beautiful ghosts, but Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, reminds me too much here of Mr. Prufrock wandering through the streets of London almost a century ago.

“The Love Song” continues:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (37-48)

The Corderie of the Arsenale is the place where most Venice Architecture Biennale curators (including myself six years ago) spread out what they think are the most significant bits of buildings being produced today. Koolhaas instead filled it with the “Monditalia,” an evocation of the post-World-War-II Italy, filled with decaying monuments, experiments in housing, great films, and discos.

Eliot carries on:

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume? (49-54)

The Biennale’s other official site, the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, or Public Gardens, consists of the cultural and technical history of ceilings, floors, walls, stairs, fireplaces, toilets, escalators, and lifts.

This is how Koolhaas introduces it, as written in a pamphlet distributed to attendees:

“Without my parents’ balcony I would not be here. They lived on the 5th floor of a new social democratic walk-up. Born in the last months of the war, a cold but very sunny winter, when everything that could burn had been burned, I was exposed to the sun, naked, every possible second to capture its heat … the wall of my small bedroom, when it started to shudder and then cracked in two parts, my bed jumping off the floor … much later friends took me to a kampong a hut full of intrigue, made of woven palm leaves, immune to any earthquakes …”

And it goes on, Koolhaas eliding his youth in post-War Netherlands and its former colony, Indonesia, into a dream in which only the elements of architecture remain. Where Modernism tried to rationalize these essential elements, Koolhaas says, Postmodernism suppressed them. Now, he says, we live in a world in which “firmness, commodity, and delight” and the French Revolution’s “freedom, equality, and fraternity” have both been replaced by “comfort, security, and sustainability.” What is worse, Koolhaas says, ending his creed, “ ‘Big Brother is us” instead of Sartre’s “hell is—other people!’

Eliot writes:

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid. (83-86)

The poem continues:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (124-131)

In my next post, I will speak of what remains of architecture—though Koolhaas has banned anybody even approaching Michelangelo from the premises.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.