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The New Review: Critics: Architecture: Put yourself in their space...: Rem Koolhaas's excellent Venice Biennale sets new sensibilities against old, and maps out Italy's history of grandeur and brutality: Venice Architecture Biennale Until 23 November

June 8, 2014

Rowan Moore



Welcome to the Future of Air Conditioning, says a poster at Venice airport, straight after passport control. Next to the words is an image of a composite Shanghai/Dubai-like city, made of sealed towers of the kind that would be impossible without artificial air. Any association with this year's Rolex-sponsored Venice Biennale of Architecture is coincidental, but the poster is an eloquent exhibit of the event's main theme. This is: thousands of years of architectural history are being changed utterly by modern techniques of constructing and servicing buildings which, predetermined by technical considerations, make architects marginal to their making. If, for example, a fireplace was once an occasion for social gathering and ornamental embellishment, there are now sensors that can track an individual and provide heating specific to that one person. The provision of heat becomes a solitary, dematerialised and invisible affair.

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 Harvard and a considerable team of collaborators, has installed a series of rooms which represent the elements of architecture - doors, stairs, walls, balconies and so on - and their contemporary versions. It is a 3D Google of what buildings have been and are now.

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 Sherwood Forest. You can experience the nerdy delights a science museum might offer, for example in the spiral escalator installed in Holloway Road underground station in 1902, which functioned for a day (or it might have been in 1906: the not completely meticulous cataloguing gives both dates).

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 Italy is surveyed in all its splendour and squalor. The country, says Koolhaas, "has amazing gifts, but has difficulty realising them". In this, it might stand for all developed societies.

At other biennales, Italy is the uninvited host, on account of the fact that it ceded its supremacy in new architecture some time ago. Here it is laid out for inspection, like a body on a slab, in a series of exhibits arranged according to geography from south to north, starting with the modernist buildings Mussolini built in the colony of Libya. It proceeds via the contemporary arrangements for dealing with illegal immigrants on the island of Lampedusa, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, all the way to the Sikh festivals that now take place in the Po valley, and ultimately to the Alps.

Perhaps 60% of the enjoyment of this space comes from the accompaniment of clips from great films set in Italy, by Antonioni, Rossellini, Godard and others, and the display is arguably an overload of ideas and incidents. It would take days, if not weeks, to take it all in. But every element rewards attention, and the governing themes are clear enough - the country's intersections of power, money, humanity and beauty.

These are summarised by a new film by Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine, in which the architect Stefano Boeri mournfully tours the palace he was asked to design on the gorgeous coast of Sardinia, to host the G8 summit. Berlusconi didn't like it, so it was never used, leaving behind a fenced-off folly, environmental contamination and accusations of corruption in the construction process. In view of which it is particularly poignant that the mayor of the magical city of Venice could not attend the Biennale's opening party, as he and 30 others had been detained that very day on suspicion of extortion and money-laundering. Like the air-conditioning advert, this event became an inadvertent exhibit.

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. Korea responded interestingly, with a display that combines North and South in a way that makes them look more similar than you might expect.

The British pavilion, led by Sam Jacob of the about-to-dissolve practice FAT, shows how the transformative dreams of William Blake'sJerusalem have played out in concrete housing estates, new towns, and in music and film. It offers a series of flavourful cultural snacks, which also manage to embody something important about British culture.

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.

Captions:

Beneath the domed hall of the central pavilion built in 1909, Rem Koolhaas has installed a floor of machinery and ducts. Photograph by David Levene

The Arsenale exhibits Italy's heritage 'in all its splendour and squalor'. David Levene


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Source: Observer (UK)


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