14th Venice Architecture Biennale


“Please, I’m not the exhibition. This is the exhibition,” implored Rem Koolhaas, the indomitable director of this year’s architecture edition of the Venice Biennale, to a phalanx of journalists halfway through the pre-preview walkthrough of the central pavilion. The members of the press were perhaps a bit too enthusiastic in their pursuits, but who else except a larger-than-life personality could have amassed such an eccentric display of architectural “fundamentals” (as his show was titled)? Like a twenty-first-century William Randolph Hearst and Benjaminian rag picker, Koolhaas lugged his oddball plunder—the result of a few years’ worth of research into a couple thousand years of history—to the Giardini, where it conveniently facilitated Ruskinesque moral claims (architectural elements are being “relentlessly commercialized”) and chilly warnings (“smart” technologies are very “scary”).

Since “the elements of architecture” are, well, fundamental to the show, it’s worth reproducing the list that runs down the front of the official souvenir T-shirts: ceiling, window, corridor, floor, balcony, fireplace, facade, roof, door, wall, ramp, stair, toilet, escalator, elevator. Occasionally served whole—the actual capsule used to rescue Chilean miners and a circa 100 AD stone latrine on loan from the British Museum stick in my mind—most of the elements were sliced and diced and then packed with a taxonomist’s compulsion into fifteen separate rooms sprinkled with didactics that cross-referenced an obscenely high priced, fifteen-volume catalogue.

“Research is expensive,” explained a chipper young PR rep from Koolhaas’s office who boasted about and then, a few minutes later, retracted the seven-digit outcome of the director’s private fund-raising efforts. By expensive did he mean the $50K tuition Harvard design students wagered on a chance to help Prof. Rem with his exhibition, or the cost of tracking down and translating obscure Ming-dynasty tracts on value engineering? “It’s an investment,” a cash-strapped architect reasoned aloud as she thumbed through the €120, Irma Boom–designed pamphlet series in line at the bookshop.

No architect’s stock, let’s be frank, is as high as Koolhaas’s—at least to those within the field. Still, no one was quite sure who would be on hand at this year’s fete after he insisted last fall that the biennial be about architecture rather than architects and deferred many an ambitious designer’s fantasies to 2016. Architecture “is not in particularly good health,” he claimed. And yet there were enough salubrious partisans in attendance to tilt the air-quality index a notch as they stampeded down the Giardini’s dusty gravel paths last Thursday, chasing the rail-thin Koolhaas on his way to his main-stage talk with Nest Labs founder and “Father of the iPod” Tony Fadell.

“This is probably one of the first times that Silicon Valley has showed up at one of these festivals,” Fadell said, flattering himself in that way that tech guys like to flatter themselves. This was also probably the first time that a thousand-plus people showed up to hear three men converse about thermostats. “Oh god,” sighed an architecture historian seated next to me. “It’s like we’re at a trade fair.” (Which is to say it was like being at the Russian pavilion, whose curators had self-consciously styled the interior in the “global language” of the trade fair, with fuchsia booth babes and a step-and-repeat to boot.) The conversation was as dull as a Davos morning session until the issue of privacy turned the temperature up. Fadell’s stilted, legal counsel–vetted first-person-plural (“We believe that your data is your data”) made Koolhaas seem human by comparison. “Can I have a show of hands: Who believes in transparency?” the architect asked the audience. When hardly a vanload of people answered affirmatively, Koolhaas emitted a rare, fourth-wall-wrecking smile. Apparently stars can arch their lips too.

When I caught up with architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio as they boarded a vaporetto on Friday afternoon, just as the two-day vernissage was winding down, the couple was mum. “We haven’t seen the whole thing,” Scofidio remarked. “We’ve been on so many panels.” Were there more talks than at past biennials? I queried the spry soon-to-be octogenarian. “That, and music.”

Had he heard the senior-citizen choral ensemble? Doubtful. That would have required the fifteen-minute schlep over to the Arsenale and then another three-hundred-meter-long march through “Monditalia,” a “polyphonic work” intermingling components of the film, dance, theater, and music biennials among thirty-seven “case studies” of contemporary Italian culture bearing titles that evoked the Semiotext(e) backlist. I’m thinking of “Pompeii, the Secret Museum, and the Sexopolitical Foundations of the Modern European Metropolis” and “Nightswimming: Discotheques in Italy from the 1960s until now” (which was kind of like “La fine del mondo,” a tribute to Turin’s famed Piper Club, only without the dueling loudspeakers). “I feel like I’m in a science museum,” a friend said, speaking to the muffled sounds that leaked in all directions from nearly every screen, stage, and interactive exhibit. “Or Chuck E Cheese’s.”

Wherever we were, it was safe to say that, along with returning us to the fundamentals, this iteration was also offering us a taste of the future. “There’s an appetite to reinvent the idea of the biennial,” Koolhaas pronounced at Friday’s Hans Ulrich Obrist–organized marathon in the HUO-curated Swiss pavilion. Koolhaas ducked in long enough to reassure the SRO crowd that “the market is completely absent from the biennial,” conspicuously check his watch, and then descend the platform before disciples could react in any sensible way.

Oh yeah, Koolhaas also said the biennial, which this year will run for an abnormally long six months (as opposed to three), is on its way to becoming a “permanent condition.” Venice is dead! Viva Venezia!