Modernity is invisible. It cannot be pictured. That seemed to me one of the arguments Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, made with the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

In the lead-up to the Biennale, Koolhaas said he wanted to "sever all connections with contemporary architecture which, in spite of many impressive manifestations, is not in good health." He indeed did not do so—a few models, drawings, and especially fragments of structures designed and built in the last few years snuck in. He exhibited, as I noted in my last blog post, memories of the era when the Biennale’s host country tried to create a modern world for itself, along with fragments of buildings from throughout the ages.

The U.S. Pavilion
Flickr user Bruno Cordioli The U.S. Pavilion

Koolhaas said he wanted to show, and asked the other participants showing in Venice this year to further exhibit, the march and spread of modernity around the world. Perhaps “Monditalia,” the exhibit about Italy featuring movies, data, and a collection of fragments, was an example of that. “Elements of Architecture,” the exhibit built around fragments, showed modernization destroying the handcrafted, specific, and, above all, social nature of the bits and pieces of buildings, leaving them to turn into bytes and invisible, isolating systems.

Many other countries showed what remained: the production of cellular containers for living, working, and playing that—because of the progression of more efficient systems of production and space utilization, as well as of standardized codes—become more of the same and give less evidence of material, context, or human use. Peru, for instance, displayed the introduction of different building systems that have allowed for the mass production of social housing, while the Netherlands focused on Jaap Bakema reducing every situation, “from the chair to the city,” in his famous formulation, to a 3D grid the Dutch Pavilion showed in wood blocks. The U.S. laid out hundreds of such grids, helicoptered in all over the world according to the design of American designers. The Pavilion’s design, itself a grid, was as deadening and pompous as its subject.

Chancellor's Bungalow
Aaron Betsky Chancellor's Bungalow

I found it depressing. The complexity of our modern world, and the fact that it changes and moves continually (that is the essence of modernization), Koolhaas and the other curators seemed to be saying, only exists when it is visible as a grid. That grid is imprisoning and not human. Students of London’s Architectural Association built a monument to this fact in an empty wooden, full-size replica of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino system.

What gave me hope were the ghosts that haunted this empty grid. The very monumentality and materiality of the Dom-Ino (I would love to see it in a few months, weathered by a few Venetian rain showers) was matched by the scrumptiousness of Germany’s re-creation of the old Chancellor’s Bungalow in Bonn, a neo-Miesian construction of marble, glass, and steel that dissected the neo-classical pavilion in which it sat. This full-size model made you sense the power and money that hid in that seemingly modest and abstract structure and evidenced itself in lasting, luscious, and expensive materials.

Israel's "Urburb" exhibit
Aaron Betsky Israel's "Urburb" exhibit

The Israelis showed the grids in an even more ephemeral manner: Robots etched lines in piles of sand, drawing the outlines first of the country itself, and then of modernist settlements. These sand mandalas managed to make the grid into an image that evoked the politics present in their construction, but also their artificial and perhaps ephemeral nature.

The Belgian Pavilion
Flickr user Andrea Osti The Belgian Pavilion

Best of all, I thought, was the Belgian Pavilion. Architects Sébastian Martinex Barat, Bernard Dubois, Sarah Levy, and curator Judith Wielander exhibited photographs of what most of us actually do with the bits of the grid—the supposedly neutral cells—that we rent, buy, or grow up in. We make them work. We add staircases where we have to, we grow plants in corners, cut windows through walls, put refrigerators and out-of-scale furniture in them, and otherwise humanize these spaces. The curators then showed these interventions as abstractions, so that they became works of art, which is to say useless and beautiful objects, sitting in the Pavilion’s skylit spaces. They also reproduced some of the conditions they documented: They cut windows that look into what are usually service spaces and simply left a back door open that allowed you to escape from the Biennale’s rarified constructions into the messy reality of the neighborhood next door.

Not only will human beings find ways of making every bit of modern construction their own, the curators seemed to be saying, but we can find beauty in such adaptations. Their views, sculptures, and escape hatches came as close to representing modernity, and thus to anything like a modernism that I saw in Venice this year.

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.

Photos used via Creative Commons licenses with Flickr users Andrea Osti and Bruno Cordioli.