Venice Architecture Biennale: Snapshots

Rem Koolhaas Fundamentals

Rem Koolhaas, curator of the latest Venice Architecture Biennale, remembers lying naked on a balcony as baby, in the cold last winter of the Second World War. He recalls an earthquake when he was growing up in Indonesia splitting the wall next to his bed. He still dreams of Italian films from the 1960s. And out of these memories he has built his giant exhibition, “Fundamentals.” There are no buildings here, nor the work of any star architects, only the “elements” of architecture (ceilings, floors, walls, fireplaces, stairs, those balconies) as seen in models, photographs, and wall texts. As in a dream (or a nightmare), nothing quite hangs together, so you go wandering through the remains of architecture.

In the spirit of that theme, for the National Pavilions, Koolhaas asked the participating countries to comment on their indigenous architecture. In a parade of photographs, the U.S. showed how it has imposed good, bad, or indifferent monuments on other countries around the world, while the Belgians demonstrated how people pervert (or “improve”) the buildings architects have designed for them, by adding their own stairs, windows, air conditioners, or refrigerators. Meanwhile, in the Israeli Pavilion, robots trace out suburban settlements in sand, only to wash them away again faster than any politician could ever hope to. Koolhaas’s Biennale lets you wander through a graveyard of modernist architecture where only the ruins of its utopian monuments remain. Here, some highlights.


Fundamentals, Elements In the Exhibition Pavilion, Koolhaas has assembled the “Elements” of architecture, including this suspended ceiling sliced off and useless below the Pavilion’s painted dome. Fragments like a window from Prada’s Tokyo store mix with turned wood newel posts and a line of toilets. They all represent the elements Koolhaas remembers from his childhood, and which he thinks are dissolving into virtual and security technology.

Photo By Giorgio Zucchiatti; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia


Fundamentals, Mondo Italia The Italy that you might not remember: past a Swarovski crystal sign, Koolhaas’s trip down memory strada takes you through half-remembered movies from the 1960s (is that Gina Lollobrigida?) projected in the medieval Venetian rope-making factory to fragments of the buildings that you likely didn’t notice next to the Pantheon. And apparently there was also a vibrant disco scene in the 1960s that here is the subject of some serious scholarship.

Luminaire by OMA in collaboration with Swarovski. Photo By © Gilbert McCarragher


United States

America the mighty projects its power not just with guns and hamburgers, but also with export architecture. Good, bad, or indifferent, the office buildings, hotels, and embassies American architects have produced all around the globe are showcased in a parade of black-and-white photographs in the American Pavilion, created by New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture and devoid of any commentary. Apply at the desk for more information about who made what for whom, though you’re not likely to learn why.

Photo By Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia



Like what Stalin did to Moscow? Believe in the virtues of youth camps? Love the Moscow subway? In “Fair Enough,” Russia’s contribution, organizers from the Strelka Institute will claim to sell you bits and pieces of their architectural history, or design paintings in the style of those you find in the city’s underground subway stops. They will even sell you a financing package. This is, after all, the new Russia: everything—from ideology to the buildings it produced—is for sale.

Photo By Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia


Belgium Consider the chair rail. Architect Benjamin Lafore did. It is a piece of wood we nail to the wall to protect it from scuff marks. In the Belgian Pavilion, Lafore and his co-curators contemplate this and many other additions to our daily environments, from refrigerators we place in cabinets, to stairs we add where the architect didn’t intend them to be. They show you these perversions (or improvements of architecture, depending on your taste) in deadpan photographs, and then abstract them into minimal sculptures like a Shaker-style chair rail with permanently attached chairs. Suddenly, the practical becomes mesmerizing modern art.

Photo By Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia


Israel Like sandcastles on the beach washed away by the tides, Israeli settlements appear out of the nozzle of a robot that etches their outlines into piles of sand, and then wipes them away as soon as they are done. In these modern versions of Tibetan sand mandalas, curated by a team led by Ori Scialom, architecture is impermanent and poetic in a way hard-fought and contested reality never can be.

Photo By Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia


Taiwan In his perch tucked into the ground floor of the Doge’s Palace, architect Jimenez Lai has constructed Postmodern places to sleep, eat, or have fun that look back to both architectural history in general and the playful forms (think Michael Graves) of the 1980s.

Photo By Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia


United Kingdom Just when you thought the suburbs and European “New Towns” were grim and gray, here comes British Pop Star Cliff Richards in a 1981 video, “Wired for Sound,” rollerblading through the concrete squares of Milton Keynes, a much-derided New Town built north of London in the 1960s, bopping along to the sounds on his new-fangled Walkman. Curators Sam Jacobs and Wouter Vanstipthout show us England dreaming of better living and getting concrete playgrounds that turned into ghettoes, but ask us to remember the dream as much as the real outcome.

Photo By Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia