How wonderful to have an international architecture exhibition with the theme of ‘Absorbing Modernity’ in a city where architectural modernity is almost completely absent.
The only actual architecture at the Biennale comprises the buildings that house it: the pavilions at the Giardini, the magnificent Arsenale, the various palazzi and shop fronts of the collateral events. So there is an exhilirating contrast between the images of modernity — the photographs and videos, the digital simulations, the scale models of modernist and modern buildings — and the tangibility of the architecture of Venice, almost none of which is modern.
Of course, the pavilions at the Giardini are ‘modern’, almost all of them fitting into the curator’s 1914 – 2014 timeframe for modernity, but when you leave the Giardini at the end of the day, you are back in the ‘not-modern’, you are back in Venice. In 2014 the Australian pavilion was so modern, it was still being built, shrouded in semi-transparent construction curtains so that its form could not easily be made out, but it promised to be the modern-ist pavilion in the whole Giardini. I understand that part of the Giardini is still sinking, so fingers crossed.*
Fundamentals, the Rem Koolhaas curated 14th biennale of architecture actually comprises three elements: Absorbing Modernity 1914 – 2014, a history of modernisation; Elements of architecture, an exhibition of new research into those universally familiar elements of architecture; Monditalia, on the state of Italy as ‘an emblematic condition for a global situation’ between chaos and achieving potential.
Elements of architecture is in the main pavilion at Giardini, Monditalia is in Arsenale, and Absorbing Modernity occupies the national pavilions and many of the collateral events. To visit the collateral events, you need to find your way around Venice. After two weeks, I could walk from one end of the city to the other without a map. Knowing just where I was going sometimes, other times, stumbling across something I should’ve been going to, anyway.
I am familiar with the art biennales but this is the first architecture biennale I have been to so I’ll make no attempt to make comparisons. Exhibitions this size will always include the carefully considered and presented alongside the unreflective or the simply ‘clever’. I found this biennale intensely engaging. It was particularly so with the pavilions addressing Absorbing Modernity, so I’ll start there.
The Brazilian pavilion (Modernity as Tradition) had a certain air of self-congratulation: Brazil had been there (almost) from the beginning, it said. There was ample evidence of that, too, work from the fifties and sixties that I remember being wowed by at architecture school. (Oscar Niemeyer and his ‘organic’ roofs.) The response from Europe was sober: serious reflection on the failures of modernity and modernism in the exhibits from France and Britain, for example, and stark documentation of failure from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc: Serbia, Montenegro and the Czech Republic. Romania was a stand-out.
I find it impossible not to feel a deep sense of sadness about modernity. There, at the beginning, the dream of a new age; then afterwards, the sobering reality, an inescapable sense of failure…
*It’s up and open now. Not as big, bold and bad as the architects intended, and not so prone to sink. I suspect it will settle over time.