A shiny tangle of pumps and pipes spills out above a suspended polystyrene ceiling in the central pavilion of the Venice Biennale, the metallic guts of air conditioning and sprinkler systems sliced open for all to see. Above this cross-section of a contemporary office ceiling, which hovers claustrophobically close to your head, soars a majestic dome, frescoed with heroic scenes of the evolution of art.
"The ceiling used to be decorative, a symbolic plane, a place invested with intense iconography," says Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch director of this year's architecture extravaganza, standing beneath his exploded ceiling. "Now, it has become an entire factory of equipment that enables us to exist, a space so deep that it begins to compete with the architecture. It is a domain over which architects have lost all control, a zone surrendered to other professions."
That is the message of Fundamentals, an exhibition that describes the evolution of architecture through its "essential elements" - from the door and floor to window and wall - and with it, the progressive eradication of the discipline of architecture itself. It is a story of mutation from things that were once heavy and hefty, thick with the meaning of their making, to a world of skins and screens, flimsy surfaces made "smart" with the slippery magic of technology.
"Architecture today is little more than cardboard," says Koolhaas, walking into a room where the plaster walls have been chipped away to reveal layers of Venetian brickwork, in front of which projects the plasterboard veneer of a new gallery wall, its perfect white surface held on slender metal brackets. "Our influence has been reduced to a territory that is just 2cm thick."
Now in his 70th year, Koolhaas is bristling with more impatience than ever. He has worked on this show for almost four years - twice the usual time - and it will run for six months, double the normal length of the Architecture Biennale. With a 15-volume catalogue of more than 2,000 pages, it has been a mammoth undertaking: smashing open the past 100 years of architecture and ripping out its innards for forensic analysis.
"I started out writing about the impact that inventions like the escalator, elevator and false ceiling had on architecture," says Koolhaas, referring to his seminal 1978 book, Delirious New York, which traced the evolution of the
Taking things back to basics, he has eschewed the club of celebrity "starchitects" to focus on the specific stories of bits of buildings. His team has assembled a captivating chronicle, laced with wit and punchy polemic, told through a menagerie of oddballs and eccentrics, with jewels mined from the more unlikely seams of architectural history.
Devoting a room to each element, the pavilion is an extended cabinet of curiosities, a
In the next room he pitches the radical French architect
"I was keen to show that architecture is not just a creative process, but an endless labour of calculation and research," says Koolhaas, who has drawn out the sometimes dubious "science" behind the lonely crusades of his various fanatics, displayed with wry detachment.
One of the most popular rooms, dedicated to the toilet, presents a scatological family tree, from the Roman stone latrine modelled on a chariot to the latest Japanese robo-loo, complete with warming seat, music, lighting and deodorising - ordered in advance by smartphone. Alongside this lineup of lavs are the graphic diagrams of toilet-obsessive
Elsewhere, a wall of beautifully carved window frames from the 18th century is set against the whirring machines of a Belgian window factory, putting aluminium frames through their paces in the middle of the gallery. The crafted world of decorative fixtures and fittings has been swallowed in the pursuit of a seamless edge.
This survey of architecture's struggle with, embrace of and capitulation to the inevitable tide of modernity extends into the national pavilions of the surrounding Giardini, co-ordinated under a guiding theme for the first time: Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014.
"We didn't necessarily mean 'absorbing' as a happy thing," says Koolhaas. "It is more like the way a boxer absorbs a blow from his enemy." For once, the rag-bag of national contributions reads as a relatively coherent whole, charting how the forces of modernism have been channelled, inflected and resisted. There are stories of colonial triumph and local dissent, revealing how a seemingly "international style" was in fact steered by distinctly national priorities.
The British pavilion, curated by the recently disbanded
The clarity of what Koolhaas has marshalled in the Giardini is thrown into relief by the muddle of work on show in the Arsenale, the 300m-long rope factory that generally hosts the curatorial centrepiece. As if in riposte to the perennial local clamours for Italian content, he has given over the entire space to a slice through contemporary
Curated by his energetic Italian colleague Ippolito Pestellini, it is an ambitious attempt to bring the concurrent festivals of dance, theatre, film and music together with architecture for the first time.
"It is a portrait of the country in its current moment," says Pestellini, "full of complexities and dense layers of politics and religion, exploring the association between treasure and trash." While it rewards close observation in places, it also provides powerful evidence for Koolhaas's own thesis: that this century has too often seen architects relinquish control by ignoring buildings and drifting off in a mist of poetic irrelevance.
The best of the biennale
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Essential elements A structure entitled A Clockwork Jerusalem, main picture, dominates the British pavilion, while other exhibits
include a toilet room, a series of international dancing displays and an examination of the changing nature of staircases Photographs:
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