Welcome to the Future of Air Conditioning, says a poster at
The point is made in the large central pavilion at the heart of the Biennale's gardens. Here, this year's director, Rem Koolhaas, together with students from
Just after entering, you reach the pavilion's domed hall, whose rich blue and gold decorations from 1909 have recently been restored. Below, Koolhaas has installed a section of ceiling such as you might find in a modern hospital, in which a layer of dumb panels separates off a zone of ducts and machinery, in volume as large as the lower space inhabited by people.
The progress of doors is traced, from decorative and ceremonial frames to the disembodied beep of modern security. A marvellous wall of windows, from the Brooking Collection of such things, looks on to a testing machine borrowed from the Belgian Sobinco window factory, which, with relentless rhythm, opens and closes to infinity.
There are joys: for example in a montage of film clips of the ways in which bits of architecture have been exploited by the movies - people hanging off cornices, the opening of doors to shocking discoveries, and the silver screen's never-ending fascination with smashing sheets of glass. A video follows the many miles of tunnels created by the fifth duke of Portland at Welbeck Abbey in
The show is partly a celebration of what built spaces can do, but there is also an underlying pessimism. Things Ain't What They Used to Be is one message, or We're All Doomed. This is striking, coming from Koolhaas, who has usually seemed happy to embrace contemporary techniques and has never been too precious about the niceties of traditional architecture; but then, paradox has also been one of his favourite tools.
The message is delivered in a different way in another Biennale venue, the long and venerable rope-making works of the Arsenale, where
At other biennales,
Perhaps 60% of the enjoyment of this space comes from the accompaniment of clips from great films set in
These are summarised by a new film by
The other main element of the Biennale is the set of national pavilions distributed among its gardens. Koolhaas requested that they represented the ways in which they have absorbed modernity, "as a boxer absorbs a blow", over the past century.
The British pavilion, led by
The Biennale is greatly enhanced by the fact that, unlike its predecessors, it does not pay tribute to the big beasts of contemporary architecture (Koolhaas excepted) and the absence of their honking and rutting adds greatly to its enjoyment. They are represented mostly by a panel of door handles, each designed by a famous name and each only slightly different from the others, a microcosm of previous biennales that is eloquent in its pointlessness.
At times, this year's biennale is only obliquely about architecture (it includes, for example, dance performance), but as architecture is usually best experienced obliquely, this is a strength. Shows like this can be a wearisome tramp through information, but this one is stimulating. It doesn't offer answers, but the questions it raises are pertinent. You couldn't ask for more than this.
Beneath the domed hall of the central pavilion built in 1909, Rem Koolhaas has installed a floor of machinery and ducts. Photograph by
The Arsenale exhibits
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