Dezeen Magazine

Critics give verdicts on Rem's Venice Architecture Biennale "without any architecture in sight"

Venice Architecture Biennale 2014: leading international critics and curators have given Dezeen their verdicts on Fundamentals, the architecture biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas, variously describing it as "accomplished", "brilliant" and "taking the piss".

"There's something really brilliant about taking over the Central Pavilion and basing an exhibition on architecture without any architecture in sight," said Deyan Sudjic, director of London's Design Museum and the curator of the 2002 biennale. "Rem likes to break the rules and he's broken them very successfully."

The Central Pavilion houses the Elements exhibition, one of three components of the biennale and which focusses on the individual elements such as corridors, floors, balconies and even toilets that make up buildings, rather than buildings themselves (the image above shows a contemporary suspended ceiling hung beneath the painted entrance dome of the pavilion in the "Ceiling" part of the show).

Koolhaas himself admitted yesterday that the exhibition "is nothing to do with design," when he gave Dezeen and other journalists a tour of the show.

"It's fantastically personal," Sudjic told Dezeen. "I really recommend reading Rem's introduction in the brochure you get handed at the front door. He talks about how he owes his career to the balcony of his apartment in a walk-up social housing block where his parents conceived him."

"It's distilling architecture to its basic elements, which allows one to catalogue, obsessively collect and understand typologies," said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. "It's like starting from scratch, going back to Architecture 1.0."

"I don't know if anybody else could go back to windows and corridors and be taken super seriously," Antonelli added. "But I'm happy that it's him because I do believe that going back to windows and doors and other aspects of architecture that are considered mundane by most highfalutin architects and scholars is really important. He's the one that can do it, so all power to him."

Elements seems to be the standout show at the biennale, with Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote telling Dezeen: "I like Rem's Central Pavilion very much. I think it's an excellent effort to get away from the stars that all the recent Biennale curators have focussed on, by concentrating on the building components. I think it is a real success."

However Kieran Long, senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, was more sceptical of Elements.

"The one I have a real problem with is the Elements exhibition," said Long. "I don't believe the periodic table is a valid curatorial approach and when you get to a room full of toilets, you know Rem is taking the piss. He's just seeing how far he can push it."

There is a broad consensus this year that the national pavilions dotted around the Giardini are collectively much better than in previous years. These exhibitions are collectively titled Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014; Koolhaas put a lot of effort into establishing a brief and ensuring the pavilions adhered to it, according to Joseph Grima, former editor of Domus magazine and founder of design research studio Space Caviar.

"Possibly what [Koolhaas] cared the most about this year was the pavilions," Grima said. "He did a lot of work in making sure people stuck to the theme and investigated the same thing together, and I think that really paid off. The level of the pavilions this year is completely different from past years."

Antonelli agreed. "It seems that this year many of the pavilions are at a really high level, not only of production but also of content," she said. "In the past there have been years when some pavilions relied on one artist to do something spectacular but sometimes the pretext of the biennale was not really used for architectural commentary. It was more like spectacle."

Antonelli speculated that Koolhaas' profile and force of personality ensured that the pavilions stuck to the brief, which was to choose a moment in the nation's history when "the process of modernisation was at its most acute."

"This year I can see that the fact that it's Rem, and the fact that there was a question, really forced people to be on their best behaviour," she said. "So there are some spectacular pavilions that are spectacular in looks but also in depth. So the French pavilion is fantastic. The Japanese one is stunning. The British pavilion is great."

Heathcote thought the French pavilion was the highlight of the Giardini: "I thought it was fantastic," he said. "It's based around Jacques Tati's film Mon Oncle; it's a critique of Modernism at its heart; around the edges of the banlieue. It's a lovely contrast between the ideals and the failures of Modernism and it's a beautiful encapsulation of the theme. It's by far the best I think."

Long, however, bemoaned the lack of contemporary architecture in the national pavilions, saying the brief forced architects such as FAT, who curated the British pavilion, "to act as historians. I'd prefer it if they'd showed their work."

The third element of the biennale is Monditalia, the exhibition that occupies the vast Arsenale buildings and which explores Italy through a variety of media including dance, film and music.

"I think the Monditalia exhibition is incredibly successful as a way of marshalling the Arsenale," said Long, who was deputy curator of the 2012 Biennale, so knows first hand the struggle involved in marshalling multiple contributors to a huge exhibition.

"In a way it's a much better piece of exhibition design than we did with [curator] David Chipperfield, because David was inviting architects he saw as his peers and contemporaries," Long said. "And some of those people would call up David and say 'I want more space' and that's a hard job as a curator. None of those people are going to do that to Rem. And they haven't and therefore it's very ordered."

Long suspects that the mostly young contributors were too starstruck, or too scared, to go beyond the brief at the Arsenale.

"Monditalia in one way involves loads and loads of curators, loads and loads of young people, to do their kind of science-fair projects, to do a really encyclopaedic analysis of a very specific thing," he said. "And yet not a single one of them has questioned the brief, which is what architects usually do. When Rem sets the brief, architects sure as hell don't question it."

Rather than presenting architecture, the Arsenale exhibition features a series of backdrops for happenings such as choir performances and drama. "I really enjoyed the way they've made spaces," said Beatrice Galilee, curator of architecture and design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "It's not about observing the building or criticising the building; it's about architecture creating spaces for performances to happen. I really appreciate that as a curatorial methodology but also as a way of presenting architecture to the public, which is not something that's about famous names or big brands or big identities."

Galilee added: "It's a very accomplished, serious, well-researched and I'm really impressed."

"It's a very theatrical, cinematic experience when you walk through the space," said Grima. It's quite a powerful experience. [Koolhaas] quite cleverly reinvented the experience of the Arsenale, which tends to be one massive museum, with very homogeneous spaces that are all used the same way. He completely rethought that with all the stages and all the activities happening on them. You're really looking at architecture within the context of everyday life."

Grima noted the way that Koolhaas has upturned the usual way the various Biennale venues are used. "What is most interesting is how Rem reinvented some of the established orders of priority of these things," he said. "There was always a very clear hierarchy with the Arsenale being the most important thing; the Central Pavilion often being slightly lateral; and the pavilions being a free-for-all with everybody doing what they like."

Overall there is a sense that Koolhaas' has charmed, cajoled and intimidated his multifarious contributors into producing a more coherent, rigorous and orthodoxy-challenging show than any recent biennale.

"It's a whole biennale of not criticising Rem," said Long. "If you're a cynic you'd say Rem has staged managed it in such a way that he completely avoids any criticism of, or comparison with, him."

"I wouldn't say it's shaping up to be a triumph," said Heathcote. "I think it's good, I think it's solid. But there might be, ironically, despite what Rem was trying to do - which is to put ideas at the heart of it - I think in a funny way there is a lack of coherent ideas. It doesn't necessarily tell us where Modernity is. It's difficult to gauge the temperature of contemporary architecture from what's going on here."

Fundamentals, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, opens to the public on June 7 and continues until 23 November.

Follow our coverage of this year's Venice Architecture Biennale »