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The Carnival of Thought: Charles Jencks on the Venice Biennale

Charles Jencks critiques Fundamentals, the Biennale curated by his former student Rem Koolhaas

What does one ask of the Architecture Biennale, after 13 previous attempts to define the state of the art?

With over 60 nations tempted to do their own thing, and an old rope-factory more than 300 metres long, its organisation resists a single personal voice or vision. And with a limited budget and time, and the forces on each Director to pull off a spectacular but arresting argument, it becomes a poisoned chalice. Many architects have failed to set the agenda. No wonder Rem Koolhaas turned down the offer several times, and only accepted on his own terms. He demanded two years of curating, lots of corporate sponsorship and donations of hardware; and he asked the President Paolo Baratta to accept his triple themes − ‘Absorbing Modernity’, Monditalia (a smorgasbord of Italian history, dance and architecture), and his own central exhibition, Fundamentals (or what could be called The 15 Prescient Elements of Today’s Architecture).

Peter Eisenman, who I saw briefly, was sceptical of Rem’s back to basics − was it a kind of pragmatic fundamentalism? As the reader will find in the interview, I found an unlikely parallel with Eisenman’s own work, especially in its conscious destabilising of the professional paradigm. And also in its focus on the realities of architecture, and with a corresponding taboo on personalities or celebrities (save one). No matter what the judgement − and opposite opinions were rife − some conclusions are inescapable. This is the first extravaganza for a long time with clear themes and without the usual hit-parade of trophy buildings. And it is one of the few to entertain and educate at the same time (whether or not one accepts the message). It will set the standard for the next few, to reach, surpass or contradict.

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The door room consists of a series of 1:1 mock-ups of various symbolic historical doors, from China, India, Italy and USA, as well as an airport-style security scanner

Koolhaas has once again galvanised teams of researchers from around the world, as he does with his own collective global office OMA/AMO. The collaborators come from opposite professions, from AMO of course, from Harvard and various universities, and from the world of journalism (in his 20s Koolhaas was one). They include filmmakers, writers, nerds from Silicon Valley, pornographers, advertisers, toilet companies (the most popular element on web reviews, which ‘No architectural treatise cites …’), Chinese scholars, and several from architectural teams. Patrik Schumacher, with an ironic smile at Rem’s initial demand to Baratta − ‘that I can sever all connections with contemporary architecture’ − answered ‘well, we got into the show, in the Roof element’. Indeed, Zaha Hadid Architects supplied several white roof-models, while Dutch museums and the Hong Kong and Shenzhen work teams supplied many others. Among them, some stunning analyses of Asian roof sources, including the first translation of the 1103 building manual, the Yingzao Fashi.

As for the usual canonic treatises, there are 10 on view including the predictable Vitruvius. Words from Henry Wotton’s Elements of Architecture (England, 1624) are blown up on the wall near Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (Switzerland, 1948). The last, along with the writing of Buckminster Fuller and Reyner Banham, lie behind the techno-determinism that is on display and a major argument behind the 14th Architectural Biennale.


Carnival of paranoia

Such techno-provocation might drive architects a little bit crazy as they careen from one room, and element, to the next pushed by the crowds. Koolhaas, as often, is inspired by Salvador Dalí’s Paranoid-Critical Method and he uses paranoia to good effect, just as a journalist grabs the hurrying commuter. How do you keep people moving and thinking on a hot day in the world’s centre of tourism? A Venice without spectacle, sex and superyachts is as unlikely as one without a carnival. Indeed, since ‘The Carnivalesque’ became a category of 1980s Postmodern fiction and politics (the premeditated breakdown of class and custom through mass revelling), it has permeated the film and art biennales. Complain and do not go if it is not your taste, but the Great Whore Babylon (as New York or Hollywood are called) will go on cracking the whip when it comes to cerebral stimulation. What is the big idea according to our Director?

The evolution − the progress, regress and extinction of elements − is stated explicitly in the Catalogue (page 193) and reiterated in captions and wall texts. To quote, across this text − ‘… the appearance of a new element is rare; most are reinventions … the fact that elements change independently, according to different cycles and economies, and for different reason, turns each architectural project into a complex collage.’

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The toilet room showcases a range of historical toilets, ranging from a Roman toilet through to the latest Japanese washlet

Projects (Rem means buildings) then are collaged and bricolaged together from elements − or even smoothly integrated mixtures − and that is the principle assumed for architecture today. This pragmatic method is accepted as the norm, instead of a theory of composition; or, say, Robert Venturi’s commitment to ‘the difficult whole’, or Eisenman’s to a generative grammar. The justification is description and analysis. Koolhaas wants to look here at ‘architectural DNA … under a microscope’, to look at ‘details, fragments … micronarratives … multiple histories, origins, contaminations … regulatory requirements, and new digital regimes’. It is evolution all over the place, backwards-forwards, progressive and degenerate; the time 228,000 years ago when the first fireplace was dug evolving to tomorrow’s heat sensor that will follow you under the sheets − a rollercoaster ride of science, innumerable facts and paranoia. No wonder Eisenman is not in love with it.

But seeing these elements in freeze-frame evolution is interesting, and a contribution to architectural thought. It does destabilise the profession, and force it to take in the way architecture is challenged today by new techniques and economic realities; that is what Rem’s theme ‘Absorbing Modernity’ really means − ‘Grasping Not Denying Modernisation’ (as he makes clear to me below). For him it means understanding the progressivist-spy-thermostats from Nest (recently sold to Google for $3.5 billion) which nudge you towards good, green behaviour. Rem debated these points with its inventor, and the mixed implications in the age of iPhones and digitised toilets, when every object screams at you like a seatbelt that hasn’t been plugged in; the age of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and Big Data which is supposed to do the thinking for you, the high-paranoia age of swarm behaviour engendered by social media (itself perfectly illustrated by flocks of us converging suddenly on Clockwork Jerusalem, when it opened for drinks at the British Pavilion).

Fellini captured this carnivalesque mood perfectly in some of his postmodern films about the media, and the fact that the day before the Biennale opened the mayor of Venice and 30 of his collaborators were arrested for laundering money intended to Save Venice from Sinking meant that we all appeared to be extras in a Berlusconi sequel.

Not fade away

But I digress from Koolhaas’s reading of evolution, which is partly towards the further dematerialisation of architecture. This theme is close to Buckminster Fuller’s notion of ‘doing more with less material’, Giedion’s idea of transparency, Jean Nouvel’s lightness and digital miniaturisation. The room on the element Walls shows this inexorable dematerialisation, as does Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s element Facade, but both combine with new functions. The Wall text explains: ‘With the advance of technology, the wall, no matter how temporary or flimsy, becomes more and more permeated with wiring and plumbing, insulation and acoustic engineering, even as outwardly it becomes bare, minimal, even transparent’.

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An ultra-thin fabric scrim wall of pulsating nipples

Zaera-Polo gives perhaps the most materialistic explanation for the disembodied facade in his section, and its various donated building products. This room is, as all those devoted to the 15 Elements, a spectacular display that makes the exhibition feel like London’s Building Centre with Attitude. Again the narrative is ‘the end of style, composition and representation’ with the triumph of ecology, economics, function and matter.

I do not think this trend is so exclusive, but you know what he means and it perhaps explains why today’s counter-current of the iconic building is such a strange affair of the enigmatic signifier, which suggests multiple metaphors through materialistic affects. Zaera-Polo knows this opposite conclusion perfectly well, since he asked me to give a two-hour lecture on the subject to his Berlage Institute in 2005. But, as with the whole genre of a polemical Biennale, you ask for a strong thesis − not the counter argument.

Rem summarises what he calls ‘A super short history of architectural elements’ in his catalogue, and so I will give a super short summary of running through his 15 rooms with super short conclusions to each trend. First you enter through a high Ceiling (date 1909) of iconography and are pressed low under a flat abstract ‘false’ (sic) Ceiling of Miesian panels (1950). They hide ducts, lighting and heating etc. Then you proceed past Vitruvius et al and the most engaging, funny and unmeaningful succession of film-clips ever montaged together (average duration 10 seconds). For instance, everything you can do in front of, jumping out of, or bouncing off a Window is shown in 50 seconds. It is a mesmerising spectacle, and the architectural pilgrim cannot help sitting down, and being delightfully stupefied.

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A wall of windows from the Brooking National Collection

Next is Windows, the extraordinary collection of the Brooking National Collection of sawed-up fragments, while in the centre of the room Sobinco’s automated pneumatic testing machine slams together new window parts 25,000 times until they are tested to destruction. Art lovers will recall Duchamp’s famous The Large Glass of 1921 which made a sexual metaphor out of such machine pulsations.

Next is the 19th-century surreal, underground Corridor of Welbeck Abbey constructed for the Fifth Duke of Portland so he could be the master of all he was beneath (as it were), and many lessons are drawn on the positive and negative consequence of this element which, according to the text, ‘first appeared in 14th-century Europe’. (I know what the Egyptians would say about that Eurocentric view, and have been saying since Black Athena appeared many years ago).

On we go to Floors and then Balconies, to experience symbolism again giving way to rational grids, and today’s interactive dancing surfaces, and we learn that the cantilevered balcony of the Bauhaus not only typifies Giedion’s space-time transparency, but that Eva Peron, the Royal Family and Julian Assange use it as a defensible platform to address the world. The Fireplace, next, evolves over 228,000 years into 29 separate micro-functions in an evolutionary diagram that is both provocative and informing but slightly contentious. Fire connects it all? Well, as far as science goes, it sounds like we are back with the Four Greek Elements but never mind, the polemical connections do make you think again.

Facade is next and, as mentioned, spells the end of representation, while Roof, as mentioned, contrasts the white ‘parametric’ abstractions of Hadid & Co with the incredible models and analyses of Chinese scholars and students (here the past is preferable to the present trend).

The Door, next, evolves from symbolism to the kind of screening device you march through at every airport. Walls, next, aim to disappear into quantum nothingness. Stairs are shown in every possible type and configuration (this section will be a great help to architects as long as we have legs). Ramps (as Koolhaas shows in his own work) can be lived on and used as long as they are carefully calibrated. Toilets have already evolved into the minimalist overall white perfection that Le Corbusier predicted in his 1925 polemic. But they are now headed in an ecological and interactive direction which will improve your health (and make you more anxious on the loo). Escalators may, someday, go around corners seamlessly, as they did once in a single London example of 1902-6 (this presumably shows regression or extinction in evolution). And finally, Elevators will someday conquer the two-mile high skyscraper just as they have already conquered the two-mile low mineshaft (the comparative evolutionary diagram again reveals a telling story).

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The room explaining the history of fireplaces covers 228,000 years. Overhead, sensor-activated heaters follow you across the room

The Fundamentals Catalogue makes this story even more digestible, if less immersive, and a collection of smaller booklets on sale explain the ideas of each element at greater length.

I think the 60-plus national pavilions carry the same mixed quality. Some, like the French, Korean, Japanese, Russian and Brazilian exhibitions, have responded inventively to the challenge of ’ Absorbing Modernity’. Others, like students at too many universities, are simply overwhelmed by the research and the intellectual abstraction of the Three Ms (Modernism, Modernisation, Modernity). These categories, which I discuss overleaf with Rem, can have three very different, even contradictory, trajectories. Most people, and architects, tend to lump them together because of their prefix. But, as I pointed out in a debate at the Japanese Pavilion, the Modern of the Christians in the fourth century, was different from the Moderna of Filarete and Vasari of the Renaissance, and that of John Soane of 1800, and Gaudí of 1900, not to mention Hitler’s Reactionary Modernism of 1935. Jean-Louis Cohen, another historian and critic, made similar points at this debate, referring to the complexity and contradiction of words and movements, those that historians care to distinguish.

Tony Blair urged Britain to modernise many times under his Labour supremacy, when he should have said instead to post-modernise (as in the greatest industry of the time, electronics). And his broad-brush, one-word-fits-all-situations − Modernise über alles (more than anything else) − suggests a basic problem with the whole enterprise. It may be good journalism, refreshing polemic, a way of sampling the Elements under evolutionary pressure; but you are thankful that Koolhaas (not Blair) often presents many contradictions to his own message.

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