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Editorial View: A Biennale for these critical times

If the Venice Biennale is an often criticized event, could Koolhaas’ 2014 edition succeed in being more substantial?

In its giddy, self-referential way, the Venice Architecture Biennale always seems blissfully detached from the real world. Set in the preposterous, decaying stage set that is modern Venice, the press vernissage is a frenzied bacchanal, as the global cognoscenti descend like locusts on a fragile urban eco-system already bludgeoned by battalions of tourists and hulking cruise ships.

In its medieval heyday, Venice was a world power, dominating, trading, plundering, and turning out a galleon a day in its shipyards. Its subsequent historic decline into sad and seedy impotence, popularly epitomised by Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach languishing on the Lido, provides an apt reflection of the plight of the modern architectural profession, marooned on its own island of self-regard, frantically trying to attract the attentions of ships that have long sailed.

Rem Koolhaas, the charismatic chef d’orchestre of the 2014 Biennale is ever alert to this and other contemporary predicaments, especially the political shift around the dismantling of the welfare state and the rise of the ideology that the market should dictate innovation and is the ultimate arbiter. ‘This shift has completely changed the status for architecture and for architects, who are in complete denial’, he says. ‘I wanted to document that and the urgency of today.’        

Beneath the overarching banner of ‘Fundamentals’ is the subtitle ‘architecture not architects’ implying a general back-to-basics cleansing of the Augean stables of pretension and re-engagement with the realities, histories and complexities of the built environment. This is perhaps most literally embodied in the forensic and fascinating dissection of the elements of architecture, that has an obvious visual and cultural appeal beyond the usual ghetto of architectural exhibitions.

The assorted national pavilions, more used to indulging in Eurovision-style fits of the absurd, have also risen to Koolhaas’s curatorial challenge of Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, to provide a composite reading of the last century derived from different psyches and strands of Modernism. Finally, the great rope sheds of the Arsenale have been transformed into a stage set for Monditalia, a labyrinthine representation of the panoply of Italian history. And, with delicious irony, an unplanned coda was added when the mayor of Venice and his associates were arrested for corruption as the Biennale opened.

Together this array of exhibitions and events contrives to deliver what Koolhaas describes as ‘an audit of architecture’ and in the current climate of crisis and conflict, it is timely. In a month when the Glasgow School of Art was incinerated, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that climate change ‘isn’t some future hypothetical’ but is happening now, and a memorial to the victims of Rwanda’s genocide opened 20 years after the original atrocities, the real world will always make the Biennale seem like a frivolous distraction. But this year there is substance beneath the style.


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