Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2014 Venice International Architecture Festival - Rem Koolhaas Resets the World

The Sky Over Nine Columns by Heinz Mack - Photo: Cat Bauer Venice Blog
The Sky Over Nine Columns by Heinz Mack - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Giorgio Orsoni, the Mayor of Venice, was arrested for corruption on June 4th, the same morning I was arrested by the golden grandeur of The Sky Over Nine Columns by Heinz Mack on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, one day before the preview of the 14th Venice International Architecture Festival.

The divine beauty of the monumental columns was an enlightened contrast to the dark forces that constantly seek to debase Venice, the most beautiful city in the modern world. When asked to comment about the mayor's arrest during the opening press conference, Rem Koolhaas, the Director of the Architecture Exhibition, said, "It is an incident that fits perfectly in the overall picture."

Winner GOLDEN LION for Nat. Participation  - Republic of Korea Pavilion. Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia
This year, for the first time, the 65 nations that participated were asked to focus on a common theme: Absorbing Modernity 1914 - 2014. Koolhaas said that he wanted to take the liberty to look at subjects that are not normally examined. Each nation had complete freedom within the theme. As the research progressed, it became clear that every single nation had been destroyed and rebuilt at least once, and that absorbing modernity was more like absorbing the blows of an opponent.

South Africa Pavilion. Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia
I've grown to love the architecture exhibition -- over the years it has developed into something wondrous. As a lay person living in Venice who knows next to nothing about architecture, it is fascinating to take a glimpse into that world.

Every other year, when the architects descend upon Venice, they breathe fresh, creative life into the city: businesses stay open late, hotels and restaurants are packed with interesting and exciting energy, the streets are filled with zippy conversations -- even the vaporetto driver popped open the front window and started singing as he zoomed across the lagoon.

From yachts to backpackers, wizened wise ones to the mini-skirted chic, the joint is jumping with openings, cocktails and parties. It is a stark contrast to the armies of zombies dumped off by the monstrous cruise ships who follow mindlessly behind a guide holding a contrivance-on-a-stick.

Winner SILVER LION for National Participation - Chile Pavilion. Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia
How to create an architecture exhibition that appeals to both the professional and the general public has always been a challenge. It's not like film, music, theater or dance, mediums where an audience is used to being entertained. By incorporating those elements of La Biennale -- theater, film, music and dance -- plus focusing on research and a common theme, Koolhaas and La Biennale have found a genius solution to create an exhibition that appeals to all.

Special Mention: Canada Pavilion Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15
Koolhaas made an interesting remark during the press conference -- that the nations found working together on the same theme a "relief," and that it became an orchestra of different voices.

After wandering around the exhibition, I began to understand what he meant. Each nation found a way to tell their own story about the events that had occurred in the past 100 years that shaped them into what they are today, and which is reflected in the architecture -- dreams that were never completed, compromises that were built, and the occasional creation that fulfilled the original idea.

Subjects that have been taboo for decades were openly addressed. The heavy hand of war and politics upon existing cultures that, in turn, affect architecture was emphasized. I was struck by how much influence governments and their policies had upon architecture, something I've never really thought about before.

Special Mention - France Pavilion. Modernity: promise or menace?  Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia
The Russians were hilarious, all decked out in hot pink, mimicking an international trade show called "Fair Enough," with sales people and stalls that showcased 20 different Russian companies, such as a travel agency that organizes international tours which focus on the influence of Russia around the globe, or a company that specializes in contemporary "neo-Russian" architecture.

I loved the "Dacha Co-op," a company that believes "that all people deserve storage space that they can live in that's customizable to their own tastes and located in a relaxing atmosphere outside the city." In other words, a tiny second home.

I spoke to an architect from New York, and she said she thought Russia was the best exhibition she'd seen; in fact, everyone seemed to appreciate the sense of humor -- because, really, with Russia's critical situation in the world today, a little humor goes a long way. The jury seemed to agree, and gave Russia a Special Mention "for showcasing the contemporary language of commercialization of architecture."

Special Mention - Russian Pavilion Fair Enough: Russia’s past our Present
As as American, I was riveted by the US pavilion, OfficeUS. Its mission is to "critically reflect on the production of US architectural firms abroad, while simultaneously projecting a new model for global architectural practice open to all of us."

The pavilion is set up like an office, in fact, is an operating office, its walls lined with hundreds of folders in chronological order detailing US projects abroad during the last 100 years. The curators say it is “an active, global, experimental architecture office that researches, studies, and remakes projects from an onsite archive of 1,000 buildings and the 200 U.S. based architecture offices engaged in their construction.”

US Pavilion. Image © Nico Saieh
I was born in 1955, so I opened a folder and began to read an article from the January 1955 edition of Architectural Forum, a publication now defunct (1892-1974):

"The year 1955 finds the US building industry hard at work in almost every country of the free world. Our architects and planners are creating whole new towns from teeming India to tiny El Salvador. Our engineers and contractors are building new dams and power plants in Turkey and Afghanistan, new refineries in Sumatra and Ceylon, new highways in Columbia, new hospitals in Iran and Peru. We have opened gleaming new embassies and consulates in a dozen capitals, big luxury hotels in a dozen more. 

What is the significance of this tremendous activity?

First, it means we are building up the basic welfare of other nations, creating climates unfavorable to communism, readying countries for industrialization and democratic independence, making them prosperous enough to buy more of our products.

Second, our industry and commerce are expanding in search of new sources of raw materials, new markets for finished products. To serve increased travel and trade, hotels and stores are springing up along the new commercial routes.

Third, we are helping build defenses for ourselves and our allies.

And fourth, we are keeping up strong governmental and public relations through our official missions: new embassies, consulates, libraries, information services."

WHOA.  I could not believe that I was reading about a scheme in a publication written nearly 60 years ago that clearly and precisely outlined what the United States was doing abroad -- it seems like it would have "Confidential" marked all over it today. The sections called ECONOMIC AID and POINT FOUR were especially pertinent to current affairs in Afghanistan:

"By late 1948, thanks to the Marshall Plan, Europe fairly crawled with members of the US construction industry. Architects went abroad to advise on the planning of industrial plants and housing to give the benefit of their experience in expanding the US wartime industrial machine.

... In some instances, the various US aid programs overlap. For example, in Afghanistan, a $75 million project calling for construction of two dams was largely funded with Export-Import loans while Point Four financial assistance to the same country has been showing previously nomadic Afghans how to use the 400,000 newly irrigated acres that dams will create. 

This project, begun in 1947 by Morrison-Knudsen, is just winding up and is typical of the kind of situations that US firms find themselves in when they work on aid project. Examples: 1) M.K. used 60 local workers for every US national employed and had some unusual problems to contend with as a result. For instance, the Afghan version of the coffee break consists of two prayer periods each day on company time in addition to three prayer sessions on the workers' own time. 2) The transportation difficulties were enormous and getting 17,000 tons of equipment into the middle of this backward Asian nation accounted for about 25% of the project's cost. 3) Despite Point Four work in Afghanistan, M.K, found it necessary to start its own model farm in one area just to show local farmers how to use the new land -- certainly an unusual venture for a construction crew."

Which particular businesses were booming abroad?

"...In the field of manufacturing and assembly plants, General Motors is probably the leader of all US investors abroad with its 27 plants in 17 nations and its $191 million expansion plan for Europe alone. Other fields marked by other blue-chip investors: Pan American (through Intercontinental Hotels) with its 15 foreign hotels, Readers Digest with its publishing plants in 14 countries, E.B. Squibb (today Bristol-Myers Squibb) with 17 factories around the world and (my personal favorite) Coca Cola with its ubiquitous bottling plants."

HOW BIG THE FUTURE? pretty much sums up the Foreign Policy of the United States of America back in 1955 -- not much seems to have changed:

"Although the scope of our private operations abroad seems large, it is actually small when measured against the undeveloped state of most of the world and the prewar investments made by Britain when she occupied our present position as leader of the Western Alliance."

The curators say, “We are setting a stage for the architects and visitors to address and respond to the most pressing architectural anxieties of the last one hundred years," and I found their attitude refreshing. Looking at the policies of the United States abroad in terms of history really gave me a new perspective on why our country is in the position that it is in today.

Sonnets in Babylon by Daniel Libeskind - Venice Comune
Despite the mayor's arrest, the opening of the Venice Pavilion, Sonnets in Babylon by Daniel Libeskind went smoothly. Libeskind is a Polish Jewish architect and artist, who holds both US and Israel citizenship, and is the master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan.

"Some never-before-exhibited drawings by Libeskind, created by hand from pen and sepia-toned washes of coffee, comprise the principal element of the pavilion." Libeskind said his exhibition was dedicated to the citizens of Venice, "the most fantastic city in the world," and emphasized that "cities are made out of people."

Fundamentals, the Venice Biennale 14th International Architecture Festival directed by the brilliant Rem Koolhaas runs from June 7 to November 23, 2014. Click here for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Giorgio Orsoni, the Mayor of Venice, was arrested for corruption on June 4th, the same morning I was arrested by the golden grandeur of The Sky Over Nine Columns by Heinz Mack on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, one day before the preview of the 14th Venice International Architecture Festival.