In DESIGN

As eyes turn to the Venice Architecture Biennale once again, three critics: Hillary French, Maria Cristina Didero, and Merlin Fulcher, share their views on Selections’ favourite installations this year. Curated by Rem Koolhaas, this 14th edition aimed to emphasise the role of research in architecture, hinging around the central statement Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014

 


ELEMENTS

[central exhibition]

by Rem Koolhaas

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Hilary French: Elements puts the ingredients of construction under the microscope for a much closer look – a refreshing change from the current fashion for urbanism and master planning where context, often historical rather than physical or geographical, is considered to be more important and buildings are reduced to mere objects in a landscape. Some elements here are familiar to all, like windows or ironmongery, whereas some – like false ceilings – are only for the initiated, but we can all enjoy the all-important experiential qualities of architecture.

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Maria Cristina Didero: Rem Koolhaas has always been fond of accumulation: for his it is a state of mind that is superbly reflected in this Biennale in Venice. Proceeding with the addition of layers, here he has tried to mirror the history of architecture.

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Merlin Fulcher: Despite all it could have achieved Elements failed to deliver its purpose in my view. Rather than promoting thinking outside the box, Koolhaas created a confined, ugly arena where the weapons of homogeny are magnified to a daunting scale. Without passing direct judgment on these objects he fails to frame a debate. The result is to atomise architects and architecture when both need to work together most.

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TOWNSHIP OF DOMESTIC

PARTS: MADE IN TAIWAN
[taiwaneese pavilion]

by Jimenez Lai

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Hilary French: John Hejduk, whose teachings considered everything from a holistic perspective, would turn in his grave at this attempt to reduce everyday domestic activities to simple forms. We can all agree that architectural form is not just abstract shapes or functions but here the social and psychological dimensions of space seem to be ignored in favour of a jokey approach to reminiscences about past details and the well known canon of architecture.

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Maria Cristina Didero: The extravagant and joyful Taiwanese approach to architecture is reflected here: Jimenez Lai goes further and overcomes the basic sections of the typical house with an anthropological excursion that gives an interesting and fresh point of view to look at domestic life.

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Merlin Fulcher: This colourful and thought provoking installation is an eye-catching although flawed interpretation of the biennale’s deconstructivist theme. Despite offering an unusual insight into domestic traditions, Lai has avoided discussing the impact of modernism on Taiwanese manufacturing. Considering the critical role Taiwan plays in our global economy, an evaluation of its high-tech electronics factories and workplace labour relations might have offered more meaning.

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THE SKY OVER
NINE COLUMNS
[art installation]

by Heinz Mack

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Hilary French: From Trajan’s column onwards, monuments and victory columns embellished with bas relief and statuary are a common sight. There is no need to read this art piece of decorated columns as architectural. They may have a powerful sculptural presence enhanced by light reflected on the shimmering golden mosaic surfaces, but so close together without anything to support some must surely be superfluous?

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Maria Cristina Didero: It is a very impressive project, beautifully installed in a unique location of the laguna.

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Merlin Fulcher: Mack’s bold and visually arresting sculpture reminds us how contextual beauty can be realised using generic architectural elements. Such ubiquitous shapes made resonant through local decorative crafts provide a morale-boosting alternative to the future catalogued so fatalistically inside the main exhibition. Their unifying power is however blunted by their physical isolation and the feeling that when amongst the columns one is so terribly alone.

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TOWARDS BIOLOGY:
TIME SPACE EXISTENCE
[collateral exhibition]

by Ricardo Bofill

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Hilary French: Using La Fabrica, a 150-year old cement factory converted to their architectural studio as a case study, this exhibition deals with the fundamental aim of architectural design – the creation of a new space that makes evident a relationship between built form and the activities it houses. Masters of narrative, RBTA don’t dwell on the past or attempt to predict the future but speculate about the potential to arrive at a new reality.

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Maria Cristina Didero: This satellite project was superbly curated by Rene Rietmeyer and the Global Art Affairs Foundation resulting in an emotional installation that managed to immerse visitors and show how architecture is closely related to our everyday life.

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Merlin Fulcher: This immersive and panoramic video contains a stirring manifesto for an alternative architectural profession elevated above standard modernist valuations of space and time. Bofill describes a disused cement works transformed into a venue for the accumulation, experimentation and distribution of architectural knowledge. Such a vision recognises that the true fundamentals of human experience and architecture stand outside of time and that our biggest challenges will remain meaningful now and forever.

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A CLOCKWORK
JERUSALEM
[british pavilion]

by Sam Jacob of FAT & Wouter Vantisphout of Crimson

 

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Hilary French: As this exhibit suggests, nobody would disagree that there is a need to engage in some new thinking about the current British housing situation, and moreover that this could result in new forms of housing that would prove to be more sustainable than either Garden Cities or modernism’s British version of high-rise estates. But maybe architects and planners have been looking backwards for too long and focusing too much on town planning. Perhaps it is time to look closer – to consider the elements – at the individual houses then we might be able to achieve Howard’s “real reform”.

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Maria Cristina Didero: FAT’s curatorial approach to the subject is really summed up in the title: this project covers British modernity, from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem from the 18th
century to how it has been developed to country’s post-war period.

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Merlin Fulcher: This counter-reading of British modernism celebrates a brief period of romantic optimism which ultimately failed. Sam Jacob’s and Wouter Vantisphout’s selective narrative is heart-warming and well-timed but overlooks the hard reality of an architecture which started and remained unashamedly elitist and commercially driven. The story behind London’s financial towers is more bleak but would have at least exposed modernism’s greatest conceit for all to see.

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ARCTIC POPPY
ORANGERY
[antarctica pavilion]

by Alex Kozyr

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Hilary French: Along with ten new participating countries, is the debut of the Antarctica pavilion, initiated by Alexander Ponomarev and curated by Nadim Samman. An ambitious transnational project, it brings together a series of proposals for the sixth continent (and challenges the perhaps overly nationalistic structure of the Biennale’s Giardini). Beyond the necessities of the scientific explorations and institutional missions, Antarctopia, planned for 2015-16, offers the potential of a new cultural field. The Orangery (Alexey Kozy and Ilya Babak) a botanical and medical research centre and recreation zone marries the ambition of functional technology with poetic optimism using powerful solar collectors that mimic the arctic poppy, relentlessly tracking the sunlight by rotating on delicate stems.

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Maria Cristina Didero: As per the Moroccan pavilion that dealt with the problem of building in the desert, this project digs in to the possibilities of architecture in extreme conditions; Kozyr’s studio investigated this range with a stellar touch.

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Merlin Fulcher: This fanciful greenhouse for arctic poppies documented inside the transnational Antarctopia pavilion provides a unique stepping stone towards greater public understanding of the earth’s most inhospitable continent. Kozyr’s crystalline shelter for cultivating the South Pole’s most beautiful flower reminds us of the region’s delicate ecology currently safeguarded by international agreements prohibiting nuclear dumping and mineral extraction. The value of such intangible but influential power systems must be more widely recognised as we approach the first Antarctic Biennale and before competing nations tear this treasure apart.

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A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Discovery issue #27, on page 91.

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