The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.
The astonishing beauty of thought as Hannah Arendt describes it when she talks about the possibilities of active life (vita activa) in different realms of activity may apply for the 34 years of Rem Koolhaas’s presence at the Venetian Mostra. From the Strada novissima of 1980 to Fundamentals, his brainchild exhibition, Koolhaas’s manifestation of the wind of thought has fundamentally affected the development of the global architectural discourse.
The author of these lines has had the privilege to attend all the Biennales so far, in a variety of capacities, and has had the privilege to work in the Netherlands for the last 25 years under the strong influence and shelter of Rem Koolhaas’s cloak, to paraphrase Dostoevsky’s words: We have all come out of Gogol’s cloak. This is why we all had been awaiting Fundamentals with great interest – to get the fundamental, if not the definitive, definition of Rem’s cloak.
Rem Koolhaas and the Biennale president Paolo Baratta came up with an ambitious entertainment program for the global audience in Venice for the summer/autumn 2014 season. Baratta gave Koolhaas two years plus a delay until summer to make the architectural exhibition the backbone of the entire program – to be fleshed out with other exhibitions, film, dance, music, and plays. This idea of blending a variety of art forms under the same program, in which the architectural exhibition would be the central event, is a merger of Baratta’s perception of the Venice Biennale as a cultural product of a dying city and of Koolhaas’s idea of publicly displaying architecture through research practice. Fundamentals consisted of three exhibitions that together illuminate the past, present and future of our discipline, namely: Absorbing Modernity: 1924–2014 (national pavilions), Elements of Architecture (Central Pavilion), and Monditalia (Arsenale).
At the opening, Baratta said to the press: With Rem Koolhaas our aim is to create an exceptional, research-centered Architecture Biennale. It will be significantly innovative, as Rem has conceived a project that involves the entire Biennale, which fully exploits its potential. After Baratta, Koolhaas also addressed the press with the following words: Architecture, not architects… After several architecture Biennales dedicated to the celebration of the contemporary, Fundamentals will look at histories, try to reconstruct how architecture finds itself in its current situation, and speculate on its future Elements of Architecture will pay close attention to the fundamentals of our buildings, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime: 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… By looking at the evolution of architectural elements shared by all cultures, the exhibition will expand the architectural discourse beyond its normal parameters, and include a broad public in an exploration of the familiar, the erased, and the visionary dimensions of architecture.
In one of his last lectures at the Berlage Institute Rem Koolhaas talked about exhibition projects carried out by his studio amo. He showed a photo from the opening of the Content exhibition in the Berlin Neue Natioanlgalerie by Mies van der Rohe and said: I am a public intellectual. Koolhaas’s intellectual journey began in the post−1968 Netherlands in which he wrote for newspapers and films. He then studied architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London with Elia Zengelis, at the Cornell University with Mathias Ungers, and at Eisenman’s New York Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, where he worked on the Delirious New York. He is now the director of oma and amo, Harvard professor, and one of the most influential contemporary architects in the world. The thin red line that connects the dots along this road is his incessant questioning of every single canon of modern architecture and society. His approach to reality is above all intellectual, anarchistic and surreal, and he produces meaning by fundamentally changing the structure and the rules of behavior in architecture. Rem has always rubbed the norms, standards, generally accepted beliefs and values the wrong way. No wonder then that his Biennale has rubbed a number of critics the wrong way. The first to publicly declare the end of Koolhaas and his age was no other than Peter Eisenman in his interview with Valentina Ciuffi for the web magazine DeZeen. This is what Eisenman said: Rem Koolhaas presents the Biennale as la fine [the end]: ‘The end of my career, the end of my hegemony, the end of my mythology, the end of everything, the end of architecture. Because we don’t have architects [in the biennale]. We have performance, we have film, we have video; we have everything but architecture. Any language is grammar. So, if architecture is to be considered a language, ‘elements’ don’t matter. So for me what’s missing [from the show], purposely missing, is the grammatic. […] Koolhaas doesn’t believe in grammar. This criticism has but one basic flaw: it attributes the entire Biennale setup to a single person, as if this person were a demi-god who does not have the privilege to error – even more paradoxically – who is supposed to be saying and showing only what certain critics would like to hear or see.
Even though most of the criticism aims at Rem Koolhaas the man and the author, only a few of the critics really know that Rem’s work is primarily based on collective effort to generate specific intelligence. Hence the view of the three Biennale exhibitions as Rem’s own, as the children of his own research, which is far from truth.
I am convinced that, despite the criticism, Fundamentals will stand out as a milestone in the history of the Venetian Biennale and architecture. Not because architecture has lost grammar, or because Rem declared the end of all things, but because he has turned a new page in the discussion of the influence of architecture on the construction of social reality.
Elements of architecture
Speaking about the Biennale’s backbone, Elements, Rem Koolhaas stressed the following: Under near-microscopic attention, the apparently mundane elements of architecture are revealed as unstable compounds of cultural preferences, forgotten symbolism, technological advances, mutations spawned by intensifying global exchange, climatic considerations, fluctuating thresholds of comfort, mythical desires, political calculations, regulatory requirements, neoliberal economics, new digital regimes, and, somewhere in the mix, the ideas of the architect ….. Now, people who cannot see that Elements were the first to tackle a host of influences on architectural production beyond grammar in a way that taps into infinite possibilities of rethinking architecture, well, these people are simply myopic. This shortsighted criticism of Koolhaas, including the criticism of Eiseman and his followers, can be attributed to understanding architecture as an independent discipline. When Rem’s 15 research teams produce Elements, and when the designer Irma Boom summarizes that effort in 15 booklets, they by no means speak about old or new, pillars, toilets, stairs, or facades, but they trigger ideas, to use Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s words in his disclaimer on the Facade: This is not an academic paper, but a historical speculation, a technological fiction not suitable as an exhaustive source, but as a trigger of ideas in which we firmly believe. It is not thoroughly researched nor peer-reviewed. It is partial, opinionated, and inexact. But we hope it will fertilize many minds, spin off different forms of scholarship, and originate a new form of thinking about facades. It is, in short, a standard type of architectural writing, aimed at the construction of a new reality, rather than the faithful reproduction of a pre-existing one.
In his exhibition display, and especially in every chapter of his booklet on facades, Zaera-Polo gives historical references to and contemporary examples of facades in unique way, and discusses material, technological, semiological, political, social, environmental, ideological, esthetic, and futurological aspects of facadism.
The second of the fifteen booklets on the elements that deserves attention is the Stair. It is in fact Stefan Truby’s homage to Friedrich Mielke, a 93-year-old German architect who has spent all of his working life studying stairs. Since 1957 when he defended his doctoral thesis on staircases in Podsdamer residences, he has published two books, five guidebooks, and 20 issues of Scalalogy, a series of volumes dedicated to the study of stairs. Elements include a fantastic interview with Mielke and a brief Venice Statement that ends with a definition of scalalogy: Scalalogy differentiates itself in spirit from the purely technical surveying methods employed by Stair Research. Scalalogy creates the philosophical superstructure to cover all profane accomplishments. If you have studied the exhibition carefully and read the 15 volumes (floor, wall, ceiling, door, roof, window, façade, balcony, corridor, fireplace, toilet, stair, escalator, elevator, and ramp) with equal attention, you will – just as Friedrich Mielke suggests – find yourself in a conceptual superstructure that investigates architecture’s profane accomplishments.
While for Elements Koolhaas mostly relied on his own human resources, including the oma/amo employees, Harvard students, and earlier collaborators, Monditalia was an open invitation to architects, critics, and curators to come up with projects related to the past, present, and the future of Italy. This is what he said about Monditalia at the press conference: In a moment of crucial political transformation, we decided to look at Italy as a ‘fundamental’ country, completely unique but showing certain features – particularly the coexistence of immense riches, creativity, competences, and potential combined with political turbulence – that also make it a prototype of the current moment.
The intention with Monditalia was to make a historical scan of Italy through 41 architectural research projects, 82 films, and a series of dance and theatre performances. Its structure and ambition, however, was not only to go beyond the temporal, technical, or financial boundaries imposed on the exhibition, but also beyond the possibilities of perception of the audience. If Elements were, by and large, intended for architectural subculture, Monditalia counted on general public interested in a variety of art forms. The force that was supposed to glue these interests together comes from the concept of Italy as a fundamental country for the understanding of the relationship between the recent neoliberal chaos and the possibility to fully unlock a country’s potential. Many of the 41 research projects were able to show their own specific values and importance, but had hard time establishing a relationship with the film projections and dance performances. Only when an audio guide for Elements and Monditalia became available one month after the exhibition opening did the visitors get access to short and didactic explanations from curator’s mouth about the setup. For example, explanations of the stops in Monditalia clarify the relationship with the classics of Italian cinematography such as Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, or Lina Wertmüller.
Of special interest for the Croatian architectural culture is the participation of two young researchers whose project won the competition for Monditalia, namely architect Ana Dana Beroš and art historian Luka Skansi. Ana Dana investigated illegal immigration from North Africa to the Italian Lampedusa Island in an installation she has entitled Intermundia. In it she defines illegal immigration to the European fortress as the State of Urgency, illustrating it with humongous book and inscrutable box. Intermundia is the third stop of Monditalia and it invites visitors, one at a time, to experience the box-like space and the audio-visual effects that accompany it. The sound effects are original and have been recorded at the ship graveyard of Lampedusa, a place where many of the African immigrant boats have ended their journey to Italy. After spending a short spell in the pitch dark of the boat’s bowels, so to speak, the lights turn on to show a graffito on a black wall saying I am an African. Just like the sounds, the graffito has been taken to Venice from its original location. Ana Dana has found an intelligent way to communicate to her audience the many layers of her investigation into migration driven by existential necessity by exposing them to an immediate, even if brief, experience and by giving them an insight into the global social problem through her conceptually and visually well-structured installation.
Luka Skansi presented his research on Italian industrial architecture from the boom period of the 1950s and 1960s entitled The Remnants of the Miracle. Over the last two years, Skansi has focused on researching and documenting the pearls of modern Italian industrial architecture that fell into oblivion. A generation of designers and engineers, most notably Pier Luigi Nervi, built an array of factory buildings, warehouses, and business towers that belong to an interesting heritage, but also give room for their reinterpretation in a post-Fordian sense. As Skansi’s multimedia presentation follows the birth, growth, and finally the death of several economic sectors in Italy, it seems to prepare us for a new miracle that would restore these buildings to life.
Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014
National pavilion exhibitions around the title Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014 are the result of yet another of Koolhaas’s attempts to attain a higher level of consistency and correlation between the Biennale exhibitions. This is how he describes it: Participating countries will engage a single theme – Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014 – and will show, each in their own way, the process of the erasure of national characteristics in favor of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language and a single repertoire of typologies. But the transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognize, involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions, and hidden ways of remaining ‘national.’ In a time of ubiquitous google research and the flattening of cultural memory, it is crucial for the future of architecture to resurrect and expose these narratives.
Stephan Petermann, Koolhaas’s associate at amo/oma in charge of the initial research team for the Fundamentals and of the set up for Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014 invited me to a meeting in Rotterdam in the early summer of 2013 to discuss if I could help with research of the Mies van der Rohe Archive in Chicago. Rem joined the meeting, and after a discussion about Mies’s contribution to the elementary development of Modernism, focused on the setup of national pavilion exhibitions. I observed that the period between 1914 and 2014 to be covered by the exhibition also included 70 years of Yugoslavia. Koolhaas replied that he was most interested in modernization of Yugoslavia during socialism, and in the export of Yugoslav architecture to the non-aligned African and Asian countries. We discussed the conundrum about the succession of the Yugoslav pavilion in Giardini that still has not been resolved and agreed that I should look into the hypothetical possibility of organizing a joint exhibition of the succeeding countries. This hypothetical possibility should not have necessarily corresponded to utopia, because we had an outstanding success with the Unfinished Modernisations curated by Maroje Mrduljaš and Vladimir Kulić, which gave hope for continued collaboration on Absorbing Modernity. However, the selection of national curators took too long, Mrduljaš and Kulić did not enter any of the national teams of the succeeding countries, and this put an end to the hypothetical possibility to organize a historical exhibition that would receive full support by the Biennale’s chair.
Instead, architecture of the old and new Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1990 was presented through six separate national exhibitions. The Serbo-Croatian team working on the Serbian presentation picked an unfinished project by the Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter from 1961 – the Museum of Revolution of the Yugoslav Nations and Minorities. The Macedonian exhibition focused on the influence of Japanese Metabolism on Macedonian architecture. Curators from Kosovo decided to ignore Yugoslav Modernism, treating it as an aspect of the repressive regime, and focused on the local vernacular. This is probably why they failed to show the most interesting blend of the two discourses, the National Library by master Andrija Mutnjaković. The Slovene exhibition looked into space travel based on the ideas of Herman Potočnik Noordung, whereas the Montenegrin team analyzed the abandoned socialist buildings designed by the Slovene architect Marko Mušič, Bosnian architect Zlatko Ugljen, and Montenegrin architect Vukota Tupa Vukotić.
The Croatian contribution to Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014 was entitled Fitting Abstraction. Its authors Karin Šerman, Igor Ekštajn, Nataša Jakšic, Zrinka Barišic Marenic, Melita Čavlovic, Mojca Smode Cvitanović, and Marina Smokvina concluded that Modernity in local Croatian architecture does not dissolve or compromise earlier national architecture, but, thanks to a series of historical events, it is the main bearer of the national cultural memory and identity.
Responses to Koolhaas’s invitation to look into the history of national architectures over the past 100 years are quite interesting. The great majority of commissioners/curators opted for a phenomenological approach, while a minority preferred a chronological and encyclopedic one. Most tried to present and explain a certain phenomenon, concept, practice or a theme taken from another culture, which influenced or overlapped with one’s national architecture. The Swiss exhibition, for example, looked into the relationship between the English architect and teacher Cedric Price and the Swiss sociologist Lucius Burckhardt, whereas the Scandinavian countries focused on the export of modern Western architecture to the south, most notably African and Asian countries, and the us presented the influence of its designers on other countries, including Croatia, (Hotel President at Babin Kuk Resort in Dubrovnik, designed by Edward Durell Stone).
The Croatian team belongs to the minority who sought to provide a comprehensive, almost encyclopedic presentation of a variety of concepts and the results of absorbing modernity by diverse national geographies. Karin Šerman, the commissioner and curator, explained their attempt as follows: Abstraction is a central formal and conceptual determinant of modernism in architecture. Our thesis is that in current circumstances and for a variety of historical reasons, Modernity – even though deeply characterized by abstraction – turns out to be the legitimate bearer of national architectural identity. In other words, that the abstraction itself is in a way rhetorical and representative. Her deputy, Igor Ekštajn, added that Koolhaas’s invitation – which is as cynical and provocative as explicitly genuine, more dedicated to the archives on architecture than design genius, focused on history rather than modernity, intended for nerds rather than bloggers – provokes a variety of responses.
The Croatian response to Koolhaas is genuinely nerdish and deserves an A+ for the effort, but also requires a serious review of the fundamental premises from which their assignment had sprung. The one thing this review should address is the very notion of abstraction. As we all know, abstraction is the process of isolating what is relevant in something, whereas an abstract work is the one that does not represent a being, object, situation, or event. Architectural or geometric abstractions, as it were, are concepts that have greatly contributed to the construction of Stonehenge, Egyptian pyramids, Palladio’s villas, or the Rietveld Schröder House. In these, abstraction is in a way rhetorical and representative. Attributing abstract thinking to a national architecture with the argument that abstraction is the legitimate bearer of national architectural identity may ring intriguing to incorrigible adorers of the Croatian architecture and culture, but can in no way create a serious conceptual platform for global exchange.
In global terms, Koolhaas has successfully closed another chapter as he usually does, and started a new one by replying to the question how has architecture reached where it is now and what can be its future. To answer these questions in near future we will need an outstanding manifestation of the wind of thought that reaches beyond the Arendt’s sense of the term.
When the great Venetian show lowered the curtain, 228,000 people had already seen it. According to magazine Domus and the University of Milan, who have analyzed over 60,000 posts in English commenting on the performance of the Koolhaas’s and national teams over the six months of the exhibition, the vox populi architectonici on social networks is 58.8% neutral, 35% positive, and 6.2% negative. Elements received 83.2% positive comments vs. 16.8% negative, if we exclude the neutral, and Monditalia 75.7% positive vs. 24.3% negative. Domus concludes the article as follows:
This is the social ranking of the 2014 Biennale, based on personal and sometimes idiosyncratic opinions, naturally. As a whole, however, it speaks of a successful Biennale, with a great deal of light and the odd small shadow.
* The title of the article is also the title of the last film by Federico Fellini with a story that takes place in 1914