When the 14th la Biennale di Venezia International Architecture Exhibition announced that it had (finally) roped in world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas as the director of the Architecture Sector to lead its ranks, the speculative — often skeptical — architecture crowd wore its mixed emotions on its sleeve. The Biennale, much like the announcement of the Pritzker Prize, often creates larger fissures in an incessantly fracturing field. There is always the risk of being too polarizing — an attempt at a polemic discussion can often be conflated with the desire of established architects white knighting their way into our field of vision with a plan to save the seemingly frail profession.
When Koolhaas announced the theme, “Fundamentals,” it seemed to act as a graying of the polemic. Who would argue everyone should know the fundamentals of architecture? It seems as if everyone can agree that architecture’s cyclical nature has in fact rolled over to its desire for (well-designed) simplicity. Not everyone agrees that the best way to approach this is by having a perhaps stagnant, navel-gazing conversation in the form of an international exhibition.
Last week’s official press conference, held at the Italian Embassy in Berlin, was recorded in front of a slide show of collaged images, with Rem commenting on the picture of balconies, one of the elements listed as “the fundamentals to our building, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime … ” Then again, the speeches given from those balconies could have been empty rhetoric, nothing more than the buying of time in a difficult crisis — a largely popular topic within the realm of architectural criticism at the moment.
Koolhaas started his official statement with “Architecture, not architects,” miming the precept put forth in Bernard Rudolfsky’s seminal 1964 work, Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. The investigation of the fundamentals, with a heavy emphasis from both Koolhaas and Paolo Baratta, the president of la Biennale di Venezia, on research creates a flatness — or level playing field, if you choose — throughout the exhibition. In true Rem fashion, the entire biennale has been made larger: there will be 65 countries (up from 55 in 2012) and the exhibition will run for six months, from June 7 to November 23.
A triumvirate of exhibitions, “Fundamentals” is the blanket term given to the interwoven nature of Koolhaas’s historical approach. Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014, Elements of Architecture, and Monditalia will take a step back from former biennales’ focus on contemporary architecture, and wishes to reset the current path(s) through intense reflection. The research plans to rethink the basic elements of architecture:
… the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator, the ramp …
Then again, perhaps the research and exhibition are a one-off meant to cause a profession-wide pause as the ostensibly relentless gauntlet of impending architectural crisis approaches. There is always wariness of the oversimplification of architectural discourse, and without the proper point of view from each participating country, this could quickly turn into a well-curated kit of parts. The specific stance taken, not quite a revisionist history nor a specific projection of the future, runs the risk of being seen as a biding of time in a field that does not have time to lose.