Rem Koolhaas has chutzpah. First, he wants us to believe that “architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity,” according to Venice Biennale materials. Sweeping, but OK. As director of the 2014 International Architecture exhibition, he wants every country in the world to show how it has lost that “specific and local” and become part of a global culture of Modernism. He asserts that his short evaluation of the last century of architecture history is true, seeks to show it in the vast exhibition halls the Biennale will make available to him, and will embark on a research project lasting more than a year to prove his point.
Truth be told, we always knew that Koolhaas was one of the purest Modernists around. Pure, but not uncomplicated. His Modernism is actually postmodern in the sense that it looks back at the history of Modernism, mines its forms and its ideas, and rearranges them in ways that respond to the continual change and movement of goods, people, and information that are the hallmarks of modernity. He is in that sense, the purest Modernist working today.
In the last few years, he has also been radical in his call to look beyond preservation and assert the necessity of building new structures. Now he has been given architecture’s ultimate bully pulpit to make his point. At the last Biennale, he showed some of the forgotten and not much loved bureaucratic bulwarks of Modernist government structures. Now he will try to show that what was a way of making things that still had some ties to local conditions and materials (I am here inferring from his short statement), as well as local histories and traditions, dissolved as our economy and culture became more and more unified. He is probably right. I would only quibble about the starting point: by 1914, I would argue that most of what we think of as architecture, which is to say the self-conscious making of buildings according to a preconceived plan, had already become so rationalized, as had the thinking about it, and even the ways in which architects were taught, that local variations were either incidental or willful attempts to reassert specific identity. To get really pre-modern, you might, as Leon Krier has long argued, have to go back to some period well before the French Revolution.
Koolhaas is here as much interested in the difficulties of the thesis as he is in its assertion (as usual). As he points out: “The transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognize, involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions and imperceptible ways of remaining 'national.' In a time of ubiquitous Google research and the flattening of cultural memory, it is crucial for the future of architecture to resurrect and expose these narratives.”
It is the history and the complexities of these architectures that interest him as much as any result. I am excited at the prospect of this thesis being meted out at the Biennale, though I must say that if I was the commissioner of a country pavilion (which I have been three times), my first reaction would be to reassert the identity and specialness of my territory. It will take a lot of persuasion and some enlightened commissioners (and the state agencies that fund them) to let the destruction of part of the culture these pavilions are funded to display be on display.
Koolhaas also claims that this Biennale will be, unlike the last few (including the one I directed in 2008, I assume), be about “architecture, not architects.” To that, I say: Give me a break. Though I admire the fact that this architect himself has worked hard to deflect media attention away from his outsized personality, articulate positions, and undoubted talents and toward the work of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture that he heads, we still live in a culture in which personalities are recognizable and empathetic place-holders for ideas, actions, and institutional structures. That construction of personalities is as much part of Modernism as is the fetishism of new materials. You can criticize either within the work itself, but you cannot deny its presence. I look forward to attending Mr. Rem Koolhaas’s Biennale.
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.