The Venice Biennale, which opened in June and runs until late November, is probably in terms of floor-area coverage, and probably also in dollars expended, the largest architecture show on Earth. Indeed, maybe the greatest too. Every other year, this exhibition takes over most of this legendary city’s Arsenale, a historic complex of shipyards and armories, and the adjacent Napoleonic-era public gardens known as the Giardini—an area about one-fifth the size of Monaco. Legions of curators representing their countries stage exhibits in the national pavilions, some little haiku-buildings themselves, built over the years by well-known architects including Gerrit Rietveld (the Dutch pavilion), Sverre Fehn (Norway, a Pritzker Prize winner), and Josef Hoffmann (Austria, one of the leaders of Secessionism). Other pavilions are temporary: art-and-architecture-addled squatters in tents or vast, crumbling rooms.
This year sixty-five countries are participating. In addition to the usual suspects there are battalions of others, or “Others”—Armenia, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Montenegro, Paraguay. And there’s more: in recent years the Biennale’s tentacles slithered ever farther into the city in “collateral exhibitions” in splendid palazzi from Cannaregio to Giudecca. The result: Venice is a riot of architectural models, installations, photographs, mock-ups of architectural elements and details, digital fly-throughs of buildings, films, and—everywhere— graphically scintillating text.
This year’s Biennale promised to be especially interesting, and likely provocative, because its curator is the laconically charismatic Rem Koolhaas. He is surely the most influential architect of his generation. Since he has taught for decades at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he is able to marshal the energies and orchestrate the efforts of past and present students from around the globe who are his more-or-less fawning acolytes.
When he accepted the position as curator of this year’s show, Koolhaas announced that he was determined to deliver a Now-for-Something-Completely-Different moment. In a venue structured to celebrate the best of the newest in architecture and architects, Koolhaas delivers a text-heavy message impaled on the tip of a poisoned arrow: contemporary architects are impotent. Far from heroic, the “starchitects” as well as the merely mortal practitioners are but cogs in a machine that they do not and cannot control. Architecture is thoroughly mediated—by history, by governments, by industries, by the flow of capital. The capacity of architecture and architects to advance, or even to influence significantly, the transformation of society is next to nil. In his curatorial brief, Koolhaas writes: “Architects’ reputations and expectations are largely based on their supposed uniqueness, but we actually assemble elements that have largely been defined by others, mass produced in series, offered in catalogues on the internet, and put together by increasingly indifferent labor. ... We may posture as geniuses, but we play our assigned role in the uberscript of modernization.”
This is analogous to maintaining that no author can be original, or influential, because all the words she uses have been used before. It’s just silly. If the formulation of Koolhaas’s project seems lifted from the back covers of pastel-colored books in the Cultural Studies sections of what used to be known as bookstores, that’s because, effectively, it was. During the panel discussions, invited salons, and private parties of the Biennale’s days-long opening, names of cultural theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Guy Debord, Jean-François Lyotard, Slavoj Žižek, and Manfredo Tafuri (the Frankfurt School’s architectural amanuensis) wafted through the hotter-by-the-day Venetian air.
Don’t stop reading, though, not yet. Koolhaas might have endeavored to exert control—indeed unprecedented control— over the Biennale’s message; and in his own sprawling exhibition, “Elements,” shown in the central pavilion, he succeeded in conveying how heavily architects rely on standard and prefabricated items for doors, windows, walls, and toilets. But in the sixty-five national pavilions, a different insurgency played out.
Determined to avoid the Biennale’s tendency to devolve into architecture’s Fashion Week, Koolhaas insisted that curators explore how in the past century their countries had “absorbed modernity” in light of the twin phenomena of modernism and globalization. His initial curatorial brief regurgitated the soggy postmodern notion that despite modernism’s claims to mitigate capitalism’s social externalities by advancing a progressive social agenda, in practice it had served merely to perpetuate the global spread of capital, steamrolling over the particularities of local cultures from center to periphery and “flattening” the built environment everywhere.
Most of the curators of the national pavilions embraced Koolhaas’s challenge to reconsider their countries' architectural history, and most ignored or deliberately undermined his polemical and ideological agenda—as Koolhaas himself had come to recognize by the show’s opening. As a result of this unanticipated and welcome rebellion, this year’s Biennale offers an unforgettably wide-ranging, if scattershot, survey of modern and contemporary architectural history that will forever demolish the popular notion of what modernism in architecture was.
It is ironic justice that Koolhaas’s very failure to control the message in the national pavilions is precisely what makes this year’s show the most illuminating and important exploration of architectural culture in recent history. The national pavilions from Albania to Uruguay swirl with architectural splendors and revelations. Who beyond its borders knew of the rich modernist tradition in Mozambique, with one foot in south European and especially Portuguese avant-garde trends and the other in Africa’s thatched huts? Or that Pier Luigi Nervi, the Italian engineer famous for elegant long-span bridges and stadia, designed a spectacular cathedral, abbey, and monastery for the Benedictine order in western Australia from 1958 to 1961? (Alas, it was never built.) How many have recognized the importance of South Korea’s deep modernist tradition, which produced dozens of buildings that are innovative, beautiful, and good?
That the Biennale offers countless felicitous and unexpected moments is reason enough to attend to it, but it is more important still: indeed, anyone interested in the phenomenon of modernism would be remiss to ignore the show. The national pavilions simultaneously upend all those tenacious, wrong-headed notions about modernism in architecture and its history and introduce the main themes of architectural practice today with unprecedented clarity.
Modernism in architecture, like modernism in literature and in art, is typically understood as a group of loosely connected avant-garde movements originating mainly in Europe in the 1920s. Representational vocabularies—in literature, realism; in art, representation and figuration; in architecture, neoclassicism and eclecticism—gave way to the search for essences, which generated explorations into the nature of expression, meaning, and subjective experience. Modernist writers, artists, and architects revisited questions about the fundamental elements and tools of their mediums. Writers, Joyce and Eliot, wrote about writing and the making of meaning. Artists, Picasso and Duchamp, pressed the limits of artistic process. Architects reconsidered and then changed the ways they deployed the tools of their trade: technology, geometry, structure, materials.
In architecture, though, this is commonly understood to have produced a more or less deplorable “international style” that made every office building, elementary school, town hall, and housing project into something resembling a taller or shorter flat-roofed factory. Modernism’s trajectory from the 1920s to the 1980s is held to be one in which misguided architects cluelessly ambled down this technology-smitten path to its inevitable dead end, when architecture, reinvigorated in part by the Historic Preservation movement, remade itself in an efflorescence of eclectic post-modernism. But where does contemporary architecture fit into this oft-incanted, erroneous account? It seems barely related to the movements preceding it, and dominated by a handful of celebrated architects who sit in fancy offices and orchestrate the dropping of their buildings like so many drone attacks on lands near and far. Modernism seems long gone.
The Biennale’s national pavilions offer a completely different and far more accurate account of recent architectural history. Whether we look at Italy, Finland, or Brazil, we find that modernism was never— not in its earliest days in Europe, not in the many countries around the globe to which it eventually spread—an arid, landless, technology-smitten movement that privileged steel frames and concrete connections over the particularities of local geographies, cultural traditions, and human needs. Instead, modernism in architecture was akin to classicism: a highly malleable practice that over time produced a wide range of family-resemblance-type styles. The modernist architect, for all the “abstraction" of his aesthetic, always worked within cultural, political, economic, and social constraints. From a fluid and changing body of basic aesthetic moves, the architect generated designs that signified his progressive orientation and recognition that modernization had and would continue to radically change every world it touched.
Brazil offers one sort of paradigm in the story. There, from the 1930s onward, modernism was all bound up with the country’s determination to earn First World stripes. Practitioners such as Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi, latinizing French and Italian modernist trends (Bo Bardi herself was Italian), developed a relaxed, informal idiom that both celebrated and fit right in with the country’s tropical and subtropical landscapes. Other national pavilions trace similarly local, particularistic accommodations and iterations: Canada, Japan, Latvia, Kenya.
The Biennale reveals that modernism was never a style. It was a cultural, political, and social practice: the practice of making buildings suited to certain exigencies of life in a rapidly changing and developing world. And since, by definition, the question of how and what it meant to “make something modern” changed over time and space—different in Finland than in Morocco—so also did the design of the buildings that emerged from it, which were strongly inflected by local geographic conditions, political and economic circumstances, and social norms and values.
Throughout modernism's history, its buildings could look different and be modern, because the practice of modernism is always situated in its place and its time. Situated modernism may be harder to imagine, at least in the form of an iconic stereotype, than the canonical modernism of flat roofs and steel beams, but it far more accurately accounts for the realities on the ground.
This also greatly clarifies—for the first time—the main contours of contemporary practice. A number of the national pavilions, including Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Japan, Morocco, and Spain, juxtapose recent projects by contemporary architects with historical ones. Buildings from the late 1950s to the 1980s, an era that has been far less intensively studied than earlier periods, are especially well represented in Venice. At the opening of the Biennale, a number of architects acknowledged the enormous influence that buildings from this period exert on their own practices. One New Yorker who has designed dozens of large and prominent buildings around the world wryly observed that the period from the late 1950s to the 1980s is “where everything we do starts.”
Situated modernism courses through earlier and contemporary buildings and projects in pavilion after pavilion: Kim Swoo Geun’s monumentally primitive Kyungdong Presbyterian Church (1981) resonates with the primitivism of the Danish Sigurd Lewerentz’s late churches; ATBAT-Afrique’s cell-like Nid d’Abeille collective housing in Casablanca is flipped horizontally in X-Tu Architects’ proposal for contemporary housing. In the Spanish pavilion, recent buildings such as Josep Llinas i Carmon’s l’Atlantida Cultural Center in Barcelona and AMID.Cero9’s Francisco Ginar de los Rio Foundation in Madrid uncannily illustrate designers’ ongoing debt to earlier Spanish situated modernist practitioners from Josep Antoni Coderch to Raphael Moneo. Stuart McIntosh’s Great Hall for the University of Queensland, from 1962, finds a funky update in M3 Architecture’s Lodge on the Lake competition entry for Canberra.
This year's Biennale reveals that neither modernism nor contemporary architectural practice is as it seems. The best architecture today may not be revolutionary, but then today more than ever the desirability of revolutions are in doubt. Situated modernism has for many years been and continues to dominate architectural practice with the opposite of flattening results. Situated modernism, like classicism, is a supple and seemingly inexhaustible practice that has always nurtured an infinity of vibrant personal and cultural expressions. The best of these, like their classical predecessors, will certainly and rightly last.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen, The New Republic’s architecture critic, is working on a book about the experience of the built environment.