The Twentieth Century Society

Exhibitions: Venice Biennale 2014

Reviewed by Stuart Tappin

‘Fundamentals’ is the heading of the 14th Architecture Biennale, and ‘Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014’ is the theme offered to the national pavilions by the 2014 curator, Rem Koolhaas. The invitation is ‘to show… the process of the erasure of national characteristics in favour of the almost universal adaptation of a single modern language…’ This is set alongside images of early 20th century buildings that drew on local traditions and modern, indistinguishable glass towers. With the challenge thrown down, a lot of the participating countries have ignored it and chosen to present their own version of the last 100 years.

Brazil follows the rules and presents a résumé of this period, with photos and drawings from each decade, arranged within spaces that show the evolution of cobogó, or pierced screens, that allow the movement of air to help with cooling.

Staying in South America, Uruguay seems to have done little more than decant some shelves and contents from their equivalent of the RIBA library. Indonesia presents craftsmanship as the basis for its identity; Thailand has a handy little book of their key buildings and a darkened room that requires a willingness to surrender to the void. Some chance with so much to see!

Others have taken the ‘throw everything in’ approach. Japan’s arrangement looks like it has been put together in a most un-Japanese way, full of good and not-so good things. The Russians have taken a similar route, with the pavilion divided up, a bit like Camden Market, with stalls promoting items like the Moscow Metro and visits to overseas, Soviet-influenced architecture. I still haven’t worked out if the whole thing was an enormous joke. Maybe the pink-haired ladies behind the front desk mean that it is.

I really enjoyed learning about relationships between countries after World War II and the collapse of empires. The deliberate choice of Norway, Sweden and Finland to help develop some of the newly independent African countries in the 1960s and 70s was full of promise. I may have missed something at the German pavilion, which recreated rooms from the chancellor’s 1964 residence in Bonn, but nearby in France, the 1:10 scale model of the Villa Arpel, star of Jacques Tati’s film Mon Oncle, was a sheer delight. Headed ‘Modernity, promise or menace?’, the question is explored further with the 1934 mass-housing development at Drancy that, in 1940, was used as a detention centre for Jews prior to their deportation to the Nazi extermination camps.

‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’ at the British pavilion, explores, among other things, Blake’s poem, the Garden City movement and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – or rather, the imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film. A mound, covered with soil from Robin Hood Gardens, introduces the themes. Presumably, at the end of the show a little bit of Venice will be forever Tower Hamlets. Other sacred sites include Stonehenge, the Royal Crescent in Bath, the U-shaped blocks at Hulme in Manchester, Cumbernauld and Milton Keynes. Their interwoven history and architecture are in the accompanying book for those unable to get to Venice. Go to britishcouncil.org for more details.

In the central pavilion, ‘Fundamentals’ has been developed by Koolhaas into the ‘Elements of Architecture’. Here rooms are dedicated to the wall, window, corridor, floor, stair, fireplace, toilet etc, etc. It’s a great study of the development of what goes to make buildings (note to Rem: you forgot the foundations) but whether this is successful depends on whether you consider architecture to be an assemblage of parts.

Experienced Biennale-goers tell me that this is one of the better ones, and certainly C20 members who were able to attend will have found much of interest.