Rem Koolhaas tackles ‘architecture’s fundamental repertoire’ as Director of the 14th International Venice Architecture Biennale, 2014

Lucy Bullivant

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas will be the Director of the 14th Venice International Architecture Exhibition to be held in 2014, from Saturday 7 June to Sunday 23 November, a now extended version as long as the 6 month Art Biennale, it was announced on 8 January 2013. He takes over from David Chipperfield, the British architect who directed the 13th event. It has been rumoured that the co-founder of OMA was due to be given this prestigious curating role since the opening of the last Architecture Biennale in August 2012, which by its close at the end of November had been attended by more than 178,000 visitors.

At a meeting of the Board at the Biennale headquarters in Venice, President Paolo Baratta said that ‘the architecture exhibitions of the Biennale have gradually grown in importance internationally. Rem Koolhaas, one of the most significant personalities among the architects of our time – who has based all his work on intense research, now (a) renowned celebrity  – has accepted to engage himself in yet another original research, and – why not – rethinking.’

The Architecture Biennale ‘is evolving into a major exhibition research project conducted directly by the Director’, said Baratta, in an update on the plans last week. Being Director entails preparing a major exhibition in the Arsenale’s 300 metre long former rope making complex and a second in the 2800m2 gallery space of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. While the role has always entailed setting a cultural agenda, this time Koolhaas’s specific plans aim at realising a global overview by the national participants who present their own exhibitions in their Pavilions on the Biennale’s extensive Arsenale and Giardini site and related events and talks. Last time 55 countries participated – including for the first time Angola, Kuwait, Republic of Kosovo and Peru – and there were 18 collateral events throughout Venice.

Koolhaas (born in Rotterdam, 1944), who received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Architecture Biennale in 2010 and the Pritzker Prize in 2000, founded OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) in 1975, the year the Architecture Biennale began, together with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp. OMA is a leading international partnership practicing architecture, urbanism, and cultural analysis. OMA’s buildings and masterplans globally strive for intelligent forms and the reinvention of possibilities for content and everyday use. The AMO research studio is OMA’s counterpart, operating in areas beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture, including media, politics, sociology, renewable energy, technology, fashion, curating, publishing, and graphic design.

No sooner had speculation about the themes of the 14th Architecture Biennale Koolhaas would choose hotted up in the first days of January than on 25th of the month, than the Biennale announced the title and the theme of the event: Fundamentals, which ‘will be a Biennale about architecture, not architects’, said Koolhaas. After many Biennales dedicated to celebrating the contemporary, this one will focus on ‘histories – on the inevitable elements of all architecture used by architects, anywhere, anytime (the door, the floor, the ceiling etc.) and on the evolution of national architectures in the last 100 years…to generate a fresh understanding of the richness of architecture’s fundamental repertoire, apparently so exhausted today.’

‘In 1914, it made sense to talk about a ‘Chinese’ architecture, a ‘Swiss’ architecture, an ‘Indian’ architecture’, he continued. ‘100 years later, under the influence of wars, diverse political regimes, different states of development, national and international architectural movements, individual talents, friendships, random personal trajectories and technological developments, architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity.’

For the first time in many years the Director of the Architecture event in Venice has been appointed with a longer lead time than typically. A logistical advantage will be gained in hauling the opening date forward to June avoiding a mid-summer completion, and the Biennale is set to announce the submission procedures and deadlines shortly on its website.

Koolhaas said he hoped to use the extra time to ‘introduce a degree of coordination and coherence among the National Pavilions. Ideally, we would want the represented countries to engage a single theme – Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014 – and to show, each in their own way, the process of the erasure of national characteristics in favour of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language in a single repertoire of typologies. The First World War – the beginning of modern globalization – serves as a starting point for the range of narratives. The transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognise, involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions and imperceptible ways of remaining ‘national’, he said, elaborating on his curatorial brief which asks for critical confrontation with deterritorialisation and its opposite.

‘In a time of ubiqitous Google research and the flattening of cultural memory’, he went on, ‘it is crucial for the future of architecture to resurrect and expose these narratives. By telling the history of the last 100 years cumulatively, the exhibitions in the National Pavilions will generate a global overview of architecture’s evolution into a single, modern aesthetic, and at the same time uncover within globalization the survival of unique national features and mentalities that continue to exist and flourish even as international collaboration and exchange intensify.’

Baratta explained that the Biennale’s invitation to Rem Koolhaas should be seen in the context of ‘an awareness of the gap between the ‘spectacularization’ of architecture on the one hand, and the waning capacity of society to express its demands and needs on the other hand.’

Koolhaas invests seemingly endless energy in critique, and has identified a great number of thought-provoking and provocative areas he has ambitions to redecipher and redefine. This attempt to frame issues of identity and difference in the architectural history of the 20th century – calling to mind William Faukner’s statement, ‘You must always know the past, for there is no real Was, there is only Is’, will test his mettle. The excellent exhibition on public sector architects staged by OMA was one of the high points at the last Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Chipperfield, and Koolhaas has recently done original research on the Japanese Metabolists, producing a recent book of exhaustive critical accounts realized with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Taschen, 2011).

At a lecture at RIBA, London on 20 November 2012, marking his acceptance of the Charles Jencks Award for Theory in Practice, he said that storytelling was ‘the most beautiful gift that could be applied to any condition, to use the past and project into the future’, and briefly spoke about preservation, an issue central to OMA’s work on the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (exhibited in an earlier Biennale), saying ‘it will no longer be a retrospective issue but a prospective one’, as well as about his as yet unpublished book on Lagos, the African capital, in which he said ‘life took place between a mix of self-organisation, crisis and modernism’.

He cited the countryside as a fourth chosen area of critique – not only does 98% of the world live there, but the ‘focus on the city has made us oblivious (to) a place where life, including artificial food, is increasingly organized, as an extension of the digital, with the tracking of the smallest part’. He talked about investigating an interdependency between hyper-Cartesian rationality of the countryside and the whimsicality of its opposite ‘we now pursue in cities.’ The topic has a resonance in Italy, with many cities like Milan considering the viability of their peri-urban and rural regions (a theme that the 2015 Milan EXPO will foreground). This is not purely a theoretical gambit: for Koolhaas, sustainability ‘is embedded in everything we do, a crucial and inevitable key issue’. While on this occasion he did not directly refer to history and cultural memory beyond his reference to preservation, he did point out that ‘architecture is more defined by its scale than any other issue, and I am at least as interested in small scale, so we can deal with very personal issues and conditions’, saying that his ‘nostalgia was to be connected with good things’.

His stellar reputation and the extended exhibition period should help to push up the attendance figures in 2014 to their highest ever level. Given the strength of his theme (reminiscent in some ways of  the suggestive title given to the 1996 Triennale di Milano, Identity and Difference, if not the contemporary focus of that event in which 32 nations participated) and gimlet-eyed reach, this is unlikely to be an abstract Venice Architecture Biennale. It is one that calls upon participants to apply rigour in deeply scrutinising their cultures, hopefully enabling a fresh overview of singular voices. With OMA’s demonstrably ample ability to curate original exhibitions, and with more lead-in time, this promises to be one of its most ambitious explorations since the event began as a bi-annual affair in the mid-1970s. A story that needs telling by as many countries as possible on a single platform, using the past to project into the future with greater self-awareness.

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