The Venice Architecture Biennale, first staged in 1980 and recurring every two years, has grown to become the world’s largest and most influential gathering of architectural thought leaders. The event has come to be seen as providing a global snapshot of contemporary practice and as a weather vane of emergent currents. Yet for Rem Koolhaas, the curator of this year’s Biennale, which opened June 7, these characteristics are precisely the ones that he has sought to disavow.

Titled “Fundamentals,” and billed as being “a Biennale about architecture, not architects,” Koolhaas set out a curatorial agenda of enormous ambition, built around a series of paradoxes.

“Because I wanted to understand where we are at today,” Koolhaas said while prefacing the awards announcements, “I wanted to organize a Biennale that did not talk about the present. Because I wanted to unleash the individual energies of each participating country, I all asked them to do the same thing. Because I wanted to talk about the state of the world, we focused on Italy as an exemplary country. Because I wanted to talk about architecture, I dismantled architecture into its smallest parts.”

The result is an event that not only questions the state of contemporary architecture, but also questions the Biennale’s format itself.

The show is composed of three components, each posed as responding to an urgent contemporary question. The enormous length of the Arsenale, usually dedicated to a globe-trotting curatorial itinerary, is here given over to “Monditalia,” a progressive scan of the built landscapes of the Italian Peninsula in all their diversity and rich complexity, interwoven with a changing program of cinema and live theater and dance. The approach succeeds beautifully in embedding architecture within a wider cultural matrix, asserting the potency of local places in an age of global mobility and displacements.

Meanwhile, the Central Pavilion offers “Elements,” a sprawling and obsessive research project on the building blocks of architecture — floors, walls, doors, windows, stairs, even elevators and toilets — showing how their evolution toward standardization, comfort and safety has stripped away much of their capacity to instill qualities of beauty, collectivity and meaning.

Finally, and most ambitiously of all, Koolhaas has charged the curators of the national pavilions with a common task: to trace how the world’s national cultures have “absorbed modernity” over the past 100 years. Koolhaas sees this as a wrenching, traumatic process, noting that “national cultures have absorbed modernity in the sense that a boxer absorbs body blows.” The implicit goal here is to draw a line under it all, proclaim the end of an era and invite the emergence of a new one.

This agenda has resulted in an enormous effort of research and knowledge production, and this alone will ensure that this Biennale will endure as a major milestone in the emergence of a 21st-century architectural consciousness. However this has also meant that the experiential qualities of the artifacts on display are often secondary to their supporting text. At its weakest, this tendency results in a tedious “books on walls” approach to exhibition-making, in which the spatial emotions and affects yielding the most memorable exhibition experiences are abandoned in favor of an indiscriminate dumping of information.

The difficulties of balancing research with embodied experience besets this Biennale, and is most pronounced in the “Elements” section. Rooms that would be typically filled with the spatial gymnastics of virtuoso architects are here given over to the display of facade systems, innumerable door handles and industrial machines testing window parts. One suspects that the trade-show banality of these displays is part of the point — at one point in the press briefings, Koolhaas alarmingly asserted that his entire career could be seen as “a crusade to legitimize mediocrity” — but when you walk into a room filled with toilets arranged in an evolutionary tree, even the trademark Koolhaasian irony begins to flag. Elements achieves its most eloquent moment in the entrance hall, where a glorious domed ceiling replete with frescos is rudely interrupted by a modern suspended ceiling with all its servicing entrails open to view — an emblem of the defeat of architecture’s symbolic aspiration by technologies of comfort.

As befits the brief, the Japan Pavilion this year is a research-heavy presentation, a “treasure house” of studies, experiments and inspirations excavated from the dusty attic of Japan’s modern architectural history. Commissioned by longtime Koolhaas associate Kayoko Ota and curated by Waseda University architectural historian Norihito Nakatani, with support by translator-critic Hiroo Yamagata, architect Keigo Kobayashi, and research associate Jin Motohashi, the focus is on the 1970s. That decade saw the collapse of the techno-utopian modernist ambitions of the 1960s that had culminated in the 1970 Osaka Expo, to be replaced by diverse explorations by individual architects of alternative responses to Japan’s modernization.

The exhibition shows how this generation of architects rejected the sterile rationality and state-oriented agendas of their predecessors to explore the overlooked, ordinary or hidden layers of the city, as exemplified by the activities of Terunobu Fujimori, Takeyoshi Hori and Genpei Akasegawa’s “Street Observation Academy.” Others, such as Hiroshi Hara, undertook research into traditional communities in Africa and Asia to reveal spatial and mythic structures that could enrich architecture; while Osamu Ishiyama promoted the use of cheap everyday materials such as corrugated metal to enable users to easily shape their own houses. While some of these architects have achieved global renown, many of these explorations have been largely forgotten — Keigo Kobayashi’s exhibition design literally unpacks these artifacts from their crates to give the sense of picking through a store house of poignant relics from an alternative past.

When the contents of the Japan Pavilion is viewed alongside that of its neighbors (in particular the prize-winning Korean Pavilion and the delightfully acerbic Russian Pavilion), it is not the uniformity of modernity but its great multiplicity that is strikingly revealed, both beyond and within national boundaries. Japan has always offered an alternative modernity to the Western gaze; in this Biennale, it offers an alternative modernity for itself, one that could yet offer resources for its alternative future.

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