A century of 'painful process' at Venice Architecture Biennale 2014

  • Frame Up
  • Tuesday, 10 Jun 2014

Architects from around the world, including Malaysia, gather for the Venice Architecture Biennale festival, looking at how ideas of modernity have influenced architecture over the past century.

Dutch star architect Rem Koolhaas, the curator of the giant event which is held every two years, said this year's “provocative” edition was all about how different countries have adapted to modernity in design over the past 100 years.

“Modernisation is a very often painful process,” said Koolhaas, a winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize who is known for his unconventional designs and city living theory. “Somehow every nation in the last 100 years has been forced to modernise itself, and forced to adapt to a condition that is currently dictating the direction of the world,” he said.

Koolhas stressed that the festival was about architecture rather than big-name architects. “It is really ironic : not a single pavilion talks about Mies, Le Corbusier, or any one else. So in that sense, it is perhaps a lesson of the importance of architecture but a lesson of modesty for the big names,” he said.

The Biennale this year will be a blockbuster edition. Koolhaas has been preparing it for the past two years with a team of 187 people and it will last six months instead of the usual three, running from June 7 until Nov 23. Eleven countries including Ivory Coast, Kenya and Turkey are taking part for the first time in the Biennale that Koolhaas said was intended to be more about “research” than presenting a finished product to the public.

Willfully provocative

Some of the exhibits at the Biennale — entitled Fundamentals — are willfully provocative, like the boring office ceiling with exposed pipework at the beginning of the exhibition, which is suspended under a dome that illustrates the soaring ambitions of architects in the past. Koolhaas said this was intended to show that architects now are often confined to superficial changes instead of getting involved in the structures of buildings.

Another part of the exhibition brings together replicas of spectacular doorways from different parts of the world, ending up with a gray airport security scanner. There is also a toilet room featuring a range from the hi-tech Japanese facility to a Roman latrine and different sections with a bewildering variety of walls and windows.

What lies beneath: A 'false ceiling' with its hidden concatenation of pipes and vents — a totally modern architectural invention — installed under a Renaissance-era dome, presents itself as a visual metaphor for the Venice Architectural Biennale 2014, which seeks to explore the impact of modernity on the narrative of architecture. Below, a light installation at the entrance to the Monditalia exhibit space at the Biennale. 
Another part of the show is devoted to Tim Nugent, a World War II veteran from the United States who pioneered an international campaign for access ramps for disabled people. The Australian pavilion includes a design for treetop homes for environmental activists, while the British part is devoted to the post-war boom in urban planning and features a concrete cow brought from the new town of Milton Keynes.

French architect and historian Jean-Louis Cohen at France’s pavilion entitled his show: Modernity: Promise or threat? He said state planning and technical innovation in France had proved a “fruitful” if challenging combination. “Modern architecture embodied the threat of an existence dominated by machines and repetitive production,” he said.

More about ideas than showpieces

The show is made up of three interlocking exhibitions. At the core is Elements of Architecture, an exhibit that came out of a two-year project that looks at "the fundamentals of our buildings, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime" put together by Koolhaas himself with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, along with numerous other collaborators and contributors. 

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 features 65 pavilions from around the globe, that when viewed as one, illustrate how countries show "each in their own way, a radical splintering of modernities in a century where the homogenising process of globalisation appeared to be the master narrative," according to Koolhaas.

Emilio Rivoira and Juan Fontana talk about their design for the Argentina pavilion, Ideal Real, which summarises a national architectural debate which has been ongoing for the last 100 years.

Israel’s Urburb exhibition features printers which draw scenarios depicting modernism in Israel, by drawing them on sand before erasing them.

Chile’s exhibition Monolith Controversies features a panel given to the nation by Russia in 1972, signed in concrete by President Allende and later co-opted by his usurper Pinochet.

Latvia’s Pavilion exhibit is titled Unwritten and focuses on the questions the country’s post-war modernist architecture faces and how it will be integrated into Latvia’s future.

Lastly, Monditalia, which is a six-month workshop that aims to paint an architectural portrait of Italy, "established by 82 films, 41 architectural projects, and a merger of architecture with the Biennale’s dance, music, theatre, and film sections."

 — AFP/RelaxNews

Sufficiency, from Malaysia

The Malaysian pavilion, shown above in a digital illustration, is a series of collapsible pet cages displaying 23 pieces by established and emerging architects. The works displayed are meditations on the concept of Sufficiency, which is the Malaysian curators' response to the Biennale's theme of Fundamentals

Malaysia's participation in the Biennale — organised by the Malaysian Association of Architects (PAM) with support from Malaysia External Trade Development Corp (MATRADE) — is a pavilion themed Sufficiency in the Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 segment of the Biennale. It features 23 pieces by established and emerging Malaysian architects curated by Dr Lim Teng Ngiom, Dr Tan Loke Mun and Sarly Adre Sarkum.

The Malaysian pavilion — designed by Dr Lim Teng Ngion — is presented in the form of a series of collapsible pet cages suspended from the ceiling and placed on the floor, with each cage containing the exhibition pieces. The pavilion also features a video feature of the Malaysian participants that can be seen below.