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Peter Cook on the Venice Biennale

Peter Cook

With the expectations for this year’s Venice Biennale so high, the seriousness of Rem’s fundamentals is let down by attempts to be more ‘relevant’

Knowing that Rem Koolhaas would be its director, there were high expectations of the Venice Biennale. Such is the respect that he commands, particularly among the key 25-50 year olds. Prospects looked good: getting back to ‘fundamentals’ is surely essential for the soul, the conscience, the digestive system of architecture, and maybe even its survival.

So the Central Pavilion of the Giardini was undoubtedly refreshing: via the clarity and straightforwardness of the selection of facts and artefacts describing the Elements of Architecture. Rem has not lost his editorial touch and, as he did with the classic S,M,L,XL book, can summon up a talented and pliant set of collaborators. His stated aim was to ‘expand the architectural discourse beyond its normal parameters, and include a broad public in an exploration of the familiar and the erased, and the visionary dimensions of architecture’. The show has impact − as we pass under a classical dome interfered with by a waffle of servicing pipes we are seduced by a wittily edited series of film cuts of life inhabiting these.

Eventually out into sunlight, ready to do the rounds, for the Biennale preview days are the architecture Salon of all time: five biennales back you only went if you were involved; now everyone is there for gossip-pauses with that historic figure from Belsize Park, followed by a clutch of kids from Tongji Uni, then that irritating Brazilian hanger-on, then that chatty lady from Madrid (or was it Seville?). Deals are done. Enmities forgotten. Pride caressed by camera attention. International flirtations rekindled.

Yet the seriousness of Rem’s challenge is heeded, and the ‘national’ pavilions tried harder than usual to fit in with the theme, but after a while, for me, a cloud begins to descend. Each attempts to be more ‘relevant’ than the next, or seizes up, as in the German Pavilion, where a dreary 1964 ‘Chancellor’s Cabin’ ‘sets up a dialogue’ − with what? Boredom, I would say. So let’s see some action with the increasingly observable rivalry between Japan and Korea. The first is never boring and manages to pack in a revisit of the 1970s. (Of course, nothing new.) The Koreans bite the bullet and reflect on the dichotomy of their divided peninsula, ingeniously beating the Japanese at their own game.

Across to the British pavilion where cows at the entrance merely herald a rather dry, neat display of recent history: almost ready for a comfortable tour of county museums in the UK.

I tour the Giardini and then the Arsenale and realise what has happened: by and large the show is in the hands of Academics. As in the schools of architecture: PhDs on the walls, visually choreographed. Plus endless ‘chat-shows’ (I prefer the pomposity of the German term Podiumdiskussion), and, as a natural show-off I take part myself, as do all my friends. Chat, chat, document, document, gazing at your navel, our national navel, our mannerist navel. But beware of anything new.

A few pavilions break the mould, perhaps they were not paying attention, ‘go to the back of the class’. And most are rather ‘back of the class’ exhibitors: Morocco’s projects on real sand, Canada’s projects on suggested ice, Thailand’s haunting shadow-play spookiness, Australia’s clever simulation of buildings that could have been built − mercifully including some new ones (naughty).

Symptomatic was a moment in the Argentine pavilion where my favourite 20th-century building, Clorindo Testa’s bank in Buenos Aires, is on the wall: but with a tacky photo and the best bits cropped off. In other words, an exhibition left to the discrimination of the filing-clerk mind. Dead creatives are honoured from Cedric Price to Oscar Niemeyer, but there is no new dynamic. One looks wistfully back to when Terunobu Fujimori forced a rethink by the wit and audacity of what he was doing, or Toyo Ito encouraged his younger colleagues to respond to the atomic tragedy by real projects, or further back, the shock of the unmitigated digital, or the explosion of Zaha on the scene.

I refuse to believe that there is no creativity out there, that there are no genuine explorations being made, that the Biennale perpetuates itself as a mere backdrop of scholarly chatter for less scholarly gossip passing by. It cannot be left in the hands of academics who unwittingly fit so well into a ‘tick-box’ culture. Saddened that someone as witty as Rem should lead his troops into such a trap? And once such an admirer of the ‘Paranoid-Critical Method’. Or is it a fiendish plot?

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