Ever since I started studying architecture, I have been told that the discipline was dead. Early on in my career, critic Manfredo Tafuri wrote a stark and well-reasoned elegy, seeing nothing but empty signs echoing through the halls of machined Modernism. Around the same time, Charles Moore turned architecture’s death into a New Orleans funeral and, at his Piazza d’Italia, had us all dancing in the ruins of past civilizations. More recently, technology and standardization are threatening to make what some say is the second oldest (and second most ethically and morally suspect) profession extinct. In that sense, Rem Koolhaas’s 14th International Architecture Biennale, "Fundamentals," was not merely one more dirge that sent us marching through architectural history. I was expecting something new, or perhaps something to upset me, but all I got was another elegy.
It was up to some of the participating countries to pick up the pieces. Some of them went beyond building (as I described in my last post), but others picked over the corpses of modernist architecture with great abandon. In the Taiwan Pavilion, which is, as always, hunkered down in the back of the Doge’s Palace, architect Jimenez Lai had a Postmodern moment, resurrecting the Memphis group’s exuberant call for making highly figured and colorful places to live, eat, play, and even go to the bathroom.
In contrast, the Ukraine, now barely a country, had to make do with an army tent it pitched on the quay next to the Giardini where the "official" countries held their funerals. Inside the tent, three constructivist uniforms (designed by artist Kazimir Malevich, who was born in Kiev) hung against the wall, evoking the dead dreams of a utopian, post-state, and post-human world. A Pop Art–scale ring, set with lumps of coal whose smell dominated the place, reminded us of the source of the country’s wealth, perhaps turned into baubles by the oligarchs there and in Russia. Modernism doesn't mean much if you are reduced to survival and your meanings are stolen.
The Brits were more optimistic with their exhibit, "A Clockwork Jerusalem." The exhibit "describes a world where ruins become utopias, where history is written to alter the future, where archeology and futurism merge, the Picturesque is rebooted as concrete geometry, the pastoral is electrified and where pop culture, history, and social ambition fuse into ways of imagining new natural futures," said co-curators Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout. They were describing places like the 1960s new town of Milton Keynes and—though I am not sure I am in love with these concrete exurbs and in-city urban projects, such as the ones the Smithsons designed in the same period—that call was the most optimistic note I saw anywhere in the Biennale. Watching "Wired for Sound" in the Pavilion of Sir Cliff Richard—two years after the 1979 debut of the Walkman, rollerblading through Milton Keynes with a bevy of pastel-clad beauties while proclaiming the beauty of portable music that let even the dreariest surrounding be beautiful—was just as revelatory.
The Russians summed up best what you can do when the dreams of building a better modern world lie in ruins: sell it. They turned their pavilion into "Fair Enough," a trade fair staffed by Slavic versions of Cliff Richard’s roller girls, as well as by earnest salesmen who may or may not have been actors (one had me convinced he was selling his grandfather’s system for making cheap concrete panels, which the architect had developed while in exile in Siberia).
The point was that the country that had tried to build the future with the most gusto and violence now had something to offer. Russia was trading not just standardized mass-production construction methods, which it and East Germany developed and used to build concrete housing projects all over the world, but also the exuberance of the Russian Revolution itself. I have always marveled at the art in Moscow’s subway, where deep underground tile mosaics evoke the air above, with planes racing overhead and divers soaring through the air above you. At "Fair Enough," they offered to build a version of that imagery for you, using whatever was appropriate to your own country. Perhaps we could ask them to design images of football players clashing on either side of the New York subway, or the Golden Gate Bridge vaulting over the Bay Area’s BART stations.
Capitalism has won, the Russians show us, but the defeated dreams of socialism and architecture are fruitful, though there might be some irony there: "Russia’s Past, Our Present"—not "future" was exhibit's focus. "Where archeology and futurism merge," this Biennale showed some ways forward through looking backward.
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.
Two images used via Creative Commons licenses with Flickr user Bruno Cordioli.