How did we get here and where do we go?: ‘Elements’ at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014

Alison Crawshaw

Reviews / 04.09.2014
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The battered elevator cab that rescued the miners from the Copiapó mine in Chile, 2010. Installation view, ‘Elements of Architecture’, Central Pavilion,‘Fundamentals’, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice, 2014. All photographs: Francesco Galli. All images courtesy the Venice Biennale

Rem Koolhaas is familiar with the context of the Venice Architecture Biennale, having participated in the first, ‘The Presence of the Past’, in 1980, and in every one since then. This year as director he strategically shifted the structure of the exhibition and has created a show without architects. Rather than invite other practitioners to show their projects in the traditional sense, he approached the curation of the main exhibition as a two-year historical research project called ‘Elements of Architecture’.1 Presented in the Central Pavilion, ‘Elements of Architecture’ describes the evolution of architecture through its essential components – ‘the fundamentals of our buildings, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime’. Fifteen ‘elements’ are explored: floor, door, wall, ceiling, toilet, façade, balcony, window, corridor, fireplace, roof, stair, elevator, ramp and escalator, and each one is given its own room. The show clearly draws from Koolhaas’s architectural practice, which is embedded in speculative research. His manifold buildings and masterplans are derived from historical analysis that they seek to transcend. The Prada Epicenter in New York, completed in 2001 by his partnership OMA, for example, was developed alongside an eight hundred page publication, the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, which provocatively posits that shopping is the last remaining form of public activity.2 The Prada store responds by integrating a performance space, gallery and new public access cut through the SoHo city block where it is located. ‘Elements of Architecture’ doesn’t tell us where we should go, as some expected it might, but rather advocates the pursuit of profound, even obsessive, expertise, in order to address what Koolhaas describes as architecture’s current impasse.3

The introduction to the exhibition includes a library of historical texts by authors such as Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Leon Battista Alberti, Yingzao Fashi, Gottfried Semper, Eugène Emmanuel and Viollet Le Duc that have also discussed architecture in terms of building parts, be that the proportion of a column in the case of Vitruvius’ De Architectura (1BCE), or the preeminence of the hearth in Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture (1851). Extracts from these treatises adorn the wall in a glow-in-the-dark typeface, illuminating the room, prophesising on beauty, utility and solidity. ‘Elements’, however, avoids the doctrinaire. The article ‘The’ was dropped from the title of the show as it implied that the selection of elements was definitive and the show resists an introverted architectural syntax in that it does not offer instruction on the relation of the floor to the wall to the window and so forth. Instead the exhibition focuses on the relation of these elements to the world, seeking to understand heterogeneous forces, from economics to mythology, through the components of buildings.

Photographs and models of the edifice’s fourteen-door security system show false floors, shooting holes, retractable footbridges, murder holes for boiling oil and more, layered in the beguiling and creative pursuit of an impossible dream – total security.

Enter the gallery that presents the story of the door and the fifteenth-century Austrian monarchy’s fear of the Ottoman Empire is glimpsed in the eccentric fortification of a castle above the Zollfeld Valley. Photographs and models of the edifice’s fourteen-door security system show false floors, shooting holes, retractable footbridges, murder holes for boiling oil and more, layered in the beguiling and creative pursuit of an impossible dream – total security. Today, this same preoccupation finds form, the exhibition argues, in the conveyor belts and scans of twenty-layer airport security. The two examples are presented next to each other as serendipitous recurrences in non-linear history where everything changes but everything stays the same. ‘Just as science has shown that all of us carry “inner” Neanderthal genes, each element too carries long strands of junk DNA that dates from time immemorial’4 says Koolhaas. As well as illustrating the persistence of our concern for safety, the presentation also shows how the mass and topography of the mountain-top fortification have given way to an impoverished spatial experience, where one files through lightweight and synthetic equipment.

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Brooking National Collection. Installation view, ‘Elements of Architecture’, Central Pavilion, ‘Fundamentals’, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice, 2014

In other parts of the exhibition too, Koolhaas is critical of the state of contemporary architecture. In the entrance hall, a false ceiling is hung beneath Galileo Chini’s exuberant dome, built in the early 1900s and now partially hidden nearly seven metres above. The suspended ceiling, typical of contemporary office buildings, is cut in section to reveal an inaccessible void of service ducts, ‘so deep that it begins to compete with the architecture’ and ‘a domain over which architects have lost all control’, according to Koolhaas.5 The installation sets today’s stringent demands for environmental control against the symbolic plane overhead. In an adjacent gallery, the archive of Friedrich Mielke, the one-legged founder of the science of scalology (i.e. stairs), is on display. Having spent sixty years measuring and theorising stairs, his archive includes the twenty-six books he authored and numerous architectural models, drawings and photographs. His studies of elaborate staircases are presented in stark contrast to a full-scale mock-up of an exceedingly plain flight of steps that complies with current building regulations. As with the overbearing service void in the ceiling installation, this juxtaposition conveys the impact of current overzealous regulation, implying that in contemporary architecture concerns of safety and sustainability have taken precedence over all other design criteria to the detriment of our built environment.

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Installation view, ‘Elements of Architecture’, Central Pavilion,‘Fundamentals’, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice, 2014

Beyond these aspersions, however, hopeful undertones run through the exhibition that call for a creative re-engagement with the ‘elements’ of architecture. The elevator, ramp and escalator were added to the list of ‘elements’ over the course of the research project. Often overlooked within architectural scholarship as twentieth-century mechanisms, they are reframed within an extended history presented in an illustrated timeline. The origins of the elevator are traced back to similar equipment used in the mines of ancient Greece – the depths of which compare to the height of Manhattan skyscrapers – and the sensation of claustrophobia that must have been felt within below ground shafts is evoked by the presence of the actual battered elevator cab that rescued the miners from the Copiapó mine in Chile in 2010. Thus we are presented with an element whose evolution has been prompted by exigency, by disaster, by impetus far beyond a designer’s aesthetic whim and without which the vertiginous growth of our cities would be inconceivable.

In a number of the galleries, the ‘elements’ are explored through the eyes of obsessive individuals who have immersed themselves in the design of a particular one. The architect Claude Parent imagines daily life lived on a series of domestic ramps of up to fifty percent incline and in 1952 built a house for himself in Neuilly-sur-Seine with steeply sloped interiors that are reconstructed for the exhibition. Presented as the apotheosis of the corridor is the fifteen-mile network of underground passages that William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck built beneath his estate at Welbeck Abbey in the nineteenth century. The network, comprising libraries, a billiard room and a vast ballroom, is documented in film and large format photographs in the exhibition. Others focus their attention on collecting, such as Friedrich Mielke of scalology, described previously, and Charles Brooking, founder of the Brooking National Collection, an archive of over 500,000 windows. Their rarefied stockpiles of samples are interspersed throughout the exhibition. Crafted, material, variegated, a kind of rich archi-porn, these collections are often of the parts of the element that you can touch, such as door handles or balustrades, and in their tactility sit counter to the shift towards the digital of which Koolhaas seems wary.

‘Elements of Architecture’ is neither a manifesto or a ‘How To’ guide. In places, nostalgic for the past, it laments the demise of architecture, which it situates in a shift from the solid, symbolic to the lightweight, technological and from the transgressive to the risk-averse. In others, the reappearance of themes across the show and through time, is non-linear and resists such gloomy and simplistic portend. Koolhaas has spoken of a kind of ‘systematic forgetting’ hiding ‘at the core of the information age’, that may be nothing less than its ‘secret agenda’.6 In this exhibition he has created a resource that challenges this tendency and, in the absence of answers, suggests that architecture remain motivated by the fanatics through whose rigorous research and calculation new spatial paradigms have emerged.

Footnotes
  1. ‘“Elements of Architecture” is the result of a two-year research studio with the Harvard Graduate School of Design and collaborations with a host of experts from industry and academia’ and is on display in the Central Pavilion as part of ‘Fundamentals’, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, directed by Rem Koolhaas, Venice, 7 June–23 November 2014. See http://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/exhibition/14iae/

  2. See Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, R. Koolhaas and Sze Tsung Leong (ed.), Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping / Harvard Design School Project on the City 2, Cologne: Taschen, 2002.

  3. Koolhaas explains that together the three components of ‘Fundamentals’ perform an ‘audit’ of architecture, asking: ‘What do we have? How did we get here? What can we do, and where do we go from here?’ suggesting we have reached a moment where reassessment is necessary. R.Koolhaas, Fundamentals: 14th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (exh. cat), Venice: Marsilio, 2014, p.17.

  4. R. Koolhaas, Fundamentals: 14th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (exh. cat), Venice: Marsilio, 2014, p.193.

  5. R. Koolhaas speaking on the press tour for ‘Fundamentals’, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice, 5 June 2014.

  6. Hans Ulrich Obrist referencing a conversation with R. Koolhaas at the introduction to the event ‘Memory Marathon’, Serpentine Gallery, London, Friday 12 October–Sunday 14 October 2012.