Opinion

Rem Koolhaas and the failures of architecture

Venice

18 June 2014

Architecture’s failures. That’s what seems to be the overarching and rather bleak theme of Rem Koolhaas’ Venice Architecture Biennale, Fundamentals. At least that’s the feeling I get as the projects presented within it linger in my mind.

In Koolhaas’ biennale architecture’s failures are manifold. Its key functions to preserve, protect, bring together, and represent are subverted such that they become annihilation, oppression, division and perversion. These traits are represented by projects like La Maddalena in northern Sardinia, the now abandoned and polluted building site of the half-finished conference centre designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri for the G8 summit in 2009; modernist housing in Drancy outside of Paris that was used as an internment camp in the 1940s; or surveillance films produced by Mansfield Police Department in the USA in 1962 to entrap and convict “sexual deviants” in a public toilet. But it all starts with a false inner ceiling – a seemingly benign contraption that contrives to contain all of the negatives listed above.

As you enter the central pavilion, where the Koolhaas-curated Elements of Architecture exhibition is on show, the first thing you see is a false inner ceiling suspended over half of the room. Its air-conditioning ducts and cables are fully visible above the square ceiling tiles and high above this is a beautifully painted cupola. It’s this void between inner ceiling and actual ceiling that Koolhaas asks us to consider. It’s a space off-limits to architects, a silent, untouched area that can quickly become the stuff of nightmares when in the right hands – ponder Danish director Lars von Trier’s spirit-filled hospital in The Kingdom or the final raptor-filled scenes of Jurassic Park.

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Koolhaas invites visitors to consider the space between the false inner ceiling and the actual ceiling, prompting debate over the degree of control that architects now exert over the spaces they design

Koolhaas asks for this space to be reclaimed by architects or at least to be contemplated. This seems to be the message repeated throughout Elements, where 15 standard components of architecture are scrutinised historically, practically, philosophically and sociologically: the ceiling, window, corridor, floor, balcony, fireplace, facade, roof, door, wall, ramp, stair, toilet, escalator and elevator. It’s like a 21st-century expanded companion to German architect Gottfried Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture from 1851, which comprised the hearth, roof, the enclosure and the mound.

Walking through the exhibition – the culmination of two years research by Koolhaas and his students at Harvard University – is, I imagine, like flaneuring through a Google search: disparate facts and pieces of research mingle to create fractured stories of architecture. Quirky research topics are brought to the fore, such as Stephan Trüby’s ’s PhD on the history of the corridor; or German war veteran Friedrich Mielke whose life-long study of stairs is now an institute; or Alexander Kira, Architecture Professor at Cornell University, and his writings on the lavatory. “Architects and builders – who actually are the purchasers and who actually are responsible for the design of our bathrooms – must begin to think of hygiene facilities as an important part of the home and as an important aspect of our daily lives rather than as a necessary evil to be accommodated according to the dictates of some obsolete handbook or drawing template in whatever space is left over with whatever part of the budget is minimally required to meet legal standards,” wrote Kira in his book The Bathroom from 1976.

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Alexander Kira's writings on lavatories are explored on one of 15 rooms exploring the history of standard architectural components

Although Koolhaas' effort to bring these hidden spaces into architects’ general consciousness is here presented in the context of the architecture biennale, it feels like a somewhat banal preoccupation in the bigger picture of architecture’s history; something a trade catalogue might tell you was important, rather than one of contemporary architecture’s most well-known practitioners. The display of historical toilets is accompanied by the bizarre screening of the Mansfield Police Department’s film, throwing these rooms into a different territory. The film, reclaimed by artist William E. Jones with the title Tearoom, makes for disturbing viewing. Here a public architecture, that of an underground convenience in central Mansfield, is used to frame males engaging in homosexual activity, ignorant of the fact that their most intimate exchanges were being captured on film and would still be screened even fifty years later. Here the cleaning cupboard of the toilet was used to conceal a police officer with a 16mm film camera, capturing activities that led to 38 arrests and convictions. Here an architecture that was meant to bring relief instead ensnared and became hostile to its unknowing users.

The 14th Venice architecture biennale is different from previous years in that it looks mainly at historical rather than contemporary architecture practice. This is a biennale by architecture researchers and curators, rather than by architects. Except of course for Koolhaas himself, who has secured this historical viewpoint throughout the biennale by setting a theme for all of the national pavilions – Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014. Disappointingly most pavilions have stuck with the theme quite literally, rather than subverting it. It results in the distinct feeling of Groundhog Day upon entering many of the pavilions – timelines, graphs and diagrams are repeated ad infinitum, with the overarching sensation that the advent of modernity was hard and painful for most.

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The British pavilion curated by Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout

In the French pavilion a female inhabitant of one of the many banlieue tower blocks built around Paris in the aftermath of the Second World War talks of her feeling of unease and unfamiliarity with her surroundings; that she never managed to settle or feel at home. In the Chilean pavilion a prefabricated concrete wall gets to tell the history of Chile’s changing politics over the last fifty years. The British Pavilion, A Clockwork Jerusalem, “is a story of a nation’s struggle to come to terms with modernity. It’s a story of attempts to resolve the inequalities, violence and fear embedded in the industrial city…” or so reads co-curator Sam Jacob’s introduction.

The pavilions, Koolhaas explained in his introduction to the biennale, “portray a terrifying century: almost every country was destroyed, divided, occupied, drained, and traumatized, yet survived. The role of architecture in these narratives is substantial, but perhaps not as crucial as architects would hope.” It seems that Koolhaas is hinting at delusions of grandeur on the part of architects, himself included. But such downplaying seems to ignore the real abuses of power to which architecture can sometimes be put and the corruption of the democratic processes within which architecture typically occurs. Venice itself proved the best example of this during the opening days of the biennale.

The vernissage of the Biennale was set against the backdrop of Venice’s mayor Giorgio Orsoni and 35 local government officials and businessmen being arrested for corruption and bribery in relation to the Moses project – a €5.4bn mobile barrier system currently being built at the three inlets to the Venice lagoon to protect the city against rising sea levels and storms. It’s as if the political scandal unfolding in the shadow of the biennale’s opening could be considered what the biennale guide refers to as a “collateral event”, an event taking place outside of the leafy surroundings of the Giardini, the permanent site of the Venice Architecture Biennale and its main exhibitions. The media coverage the scandal generated could be viewed as a real-time response to Koolhaas' theme for the national pavilions. After all, here is an undoubted construction for good – to preserve the delicate architecture of Venice from rising sea levels – but instead the barrier has become a monument for corruption and ill-advised public tendering, playing on the strong emotions surrounding Venice in both its citizens and visitors.

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The entrance to Monditalia was executed in collaboration with Swarovski. Koolhaas' biennale had a more visible presence on the part of sponsors and brands than any before it

The Moses project served as a evocative introduction to the final part of Koolhaas’ biennale Monditalia. Curated largely by Koolhaas' AMO partner Ippolito Pestellini, this exhibition contains film, theatre and dance, as well as architecture. On display in the former rope factory at the Arsenale, the exhibition looks at Italy as a symbol for the current global situation, where many countries – a lot of them not yet represented by their own national pavilion – “are balancing between chaos and a realisation of their full potential,” as Koolhaas has it. Monditalia looks at Italy throughout history, told through a series of 40 projects. These projects are presented in geographical order, from the far south and Italy’s involvement in Libya in the first part of the 20th century, to the north where the project Italian Limes by design studio Folder, looks at the constantly changing glacial border in the Italian Alps as a way of demonstrating the fragility of political constructs such as geographical borders.

It is in this part of the biennale that architect Stefano Boeri speaks about his failure as an architect in his large-scale project on La Maddalena in northern Sardinia. Koolhaas commissioned filmmakers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine to create the film in which Boeri says “I have been an active participant in an affair that up until now has been a big failure. I have been a planner of works that now are abandoned that have had large investments that have been the object of delinquency and criminality, draining money, thus from the people.” But in the light of the other exhibits, one gets the feeling that Koolhaas teased this statement out of Boeri. An admission on behalf of many of the other projects on show; am admittance that Boeri is also struggling with modernity and with what the bureaucracy that has built up around architecture means for his practice. It is a bureaucracy that is at time misappropriated and difficult to control.

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Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine's film about Stefano Boeri's ill-fated La Maddalena project in northern Sardinia

But if the biennale deals with architecture’s failures, then its exhibitions can also be regarded as such. The biennale was founded in 1980 to deal with the academic side of architecture. It was to be an opportunity for architects to show their work in a context free of commercial (and even realistic) constraints. But this year the setting was more obviously commercial than before. Koolhaas’ team had to do extensive fundraising to afford its aims and proof of this is scattered throughout the exhibits. The Elements and Monditalia exhibitions at times read like trade fairs, with brands like Zumtobel, Swarovski and Nest being mentioned within exhibits. The presence of these brands cast doubt over content. Were they there as paid-for inclusions; simply part of the sponsorship package? Or were they there because the curator saw them as vital in the development of his argument? I still don’t know the answer, but within the context of a biennale I would rather not wonder about it.

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Irma Boom's graphic identity for the Venice Architecture Biennale

The same thoughts around failure accompanies the graphic design of the show. Irma Boom's identity for Fundamentals is clear and concise, with a CMYK square frame encasing a sans serif title, the theme of the biennale expressed clearly in low-fi design. But when the same identity is applied to the actual exhibition spaces itself it is often hard to engage with. Its columns are impossibly wide and its colours become difficult to read. It’s as if Koolhaas is insisting on being difficult to interact with. He really doesn’t want to be pleasing.

The two years that were dedicated to putting the Elements of Architecture show together have raised many questions, but there is little help on the part of Koolhaas to deal with them and he seems disinterested in providing answers about how to move on from here. I feel forced to go back to Boeri on his abandoned island for some sort of explanation of all this… stuff, all this miscellany of the Biennale. “This place is destined to become a symbol of one of the biggest disasters in Italy's foreign policy,” he said, "or it can be one of the grand occasions in which Italy restarts, starting off from its errors and failures.” If Italy in this instance is meant to represent the global contemporary condition, is it possible that Koolhaas is dealing with the vast span of history so as to create a platform from which we can move on from? It’s simplistic, but then again maybe that’s what fundamentals is all about.