Photos Luc Boegly, Maxime Delvaux, Matteo Vercelloni
Text Matteo Vercelloni

“Architects: Idiots all. Always forget to put stairs in houses.” The famous definition of architects by Gustave Flaubert in his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas published as an appendix to the novel Bouvard et Pécuchet, written from 1874 to 1880 and never finished, doesn’t seem to apply to this radical tribute to Koolhaas-think of the Architecture Biennale in progress in Venice. The staircase, in fact, together with the roof and the floor, the corridor and the facade, the window and the ceiling, the door and the ramp, elevator and escalator, toilet and fireplace, wall and balcony, represents the ‘heart’ of the exhibition in the central pavilion at the Giardini. A series of elements taken as ‘fundamental ingredients’ of any construction, “used by any architect, in any place at any time” and announced here by the Chinese gate from the late Qing dynasty (19th century), impeccably reconstructed as an archetype of reference by Xiegu Construction at the entrance to the Giardini, facing the lagoon. These are Fundamentals offered in a vision that combines late-positivist cataloguing with the flavor of investigation that is part of that “analytical psychohistory” that Koolhaas made popular in 1978 with his ‘fundamental’ essay Delirious New York, a masterful historical-design portrait of the city. Through parallels and comparisons, for example, with respect to the Venetian collection of windows, part of the archives of Charles Brooking, deployed to form a composite wall as in a 19th-century museum, we can point to the innovative value of the research project ‘WindowScape: Window Behaviourology’ (published in a book of the same title by PageOne) on the same theme, conducted by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto Laboratory of the Tokyo Institute of Technology and offered to the event of INTERNI this April in Milan, with the installation by Atelier Bow-Wow. Here the window, studied over time and in the different parts of the world, is connected to the idea of space and the threshold created between inside and outside, approached in an architectural and spatial key, far from any cataloguing or typological anthology, a gap the small catalogues devoted to each element of the Venetian exhibition attempt to bridge with historical and sociological discussion that the show in itself does not reveal. The voyage through the ‘elements of architecture’ produced in two years of work with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, introduced by an evocative film collage by David Rapp leading to a series of dedicated rooms, is flanked by the section Monditalia at the Corderie dell’Arsenale. Here, after having passed through the spectacular iridescent portal balanced between the Fellini of “8 1/2” and the lights of country festivals, “in a moment of crucial political transformation we have chosen to look at Italy as a ‘fundamental’ country, unique but also emblematic of a global situation in which many countries are balanced between chaos and the full realization of their potential.” Koolhaas, together with Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, an OMA partner and curator of the installations in the spaces of the Corderie, portrays our country in a zigzag voyage through specific cases, accompanied by an impressive large curtain reproducing the Tabula Peutingeriana, the map of imperial Italy of the 5th century (actually the reproduction comes from a copy made in the 12th-13th century of an original since destroyed). The 41 cases, along with clips from 82 films, form a metahistorical summa of an overall image that nevertheless seems to be a bit muddled, interrupted by positive moments of theatrical performance that seem to suggest the importance of the role of people and their lives in the architectural project and the general development of the city. After a mysterious pause amidst the shadows of the dreamy Thai installation designed by the studio OBA guided by Smith Obayawat, the first release from this voyage of suggestions, film testimony and emblematic cases narrated in different ways, at the end of the Corderie one encounters the Morocco pavilion, created by Tarik Oualalou for the Fondation pour L’Art, Le Design et l’Architecture. Under a ceiling composed of projections of the buildings of Moroccan cities, scale models show historical dwelling typologies and experiments for living in the desert; the Sahara as a possible space, directly evoked by the sandy floor of the installation. Outside, a marble column, silent and powerful, stretching towards the internal harbor, seems to have just arrived from far away. A work by the Albanian artist Adrian Paci, the column is the heart of that country’s contribution. This is truly the ‘fundamental’ element of any work of architecture, a column of the Corinthian order (we would have opted for Doric, but after all, this is Venice) that has landed at the Arsenal, part of a performance shown in a film, where the marble block departs from China and is sculpted by hand, in the open air, inside the metal boat during the long voyage to Europe. A way of narrating not just an architectural archetype, but also the labor that goes into its making. The Italian Pavilion curated by Cino Zucchi is on the theme of the graft, reassessing urban fabric as a resource for discussion and dialogue, where The New as Metamorphosis, Milan: Laboratory of the Modern and Italy: a contemporary landscape are organized in a clear, convincing installation lit by Artemide, extending outside with the metal gate Archimbuto (probably to become a permanent feature) and into the garden with the ‘Ribbon of the Virgins,’ a sinuous bench custom made by De Castelli with Lavazza. Zucchi approaches the history of Milan, his city, without complexes; as Savinio put it, listening to the heart of the city, its stories and its protagonists, “where a proud modernity is capable at the same time of adapting to the context, of making it its own and transfiguring it inside a new urban vision. The Milanese metropolis is therefore considered a case study of extreme interest, capable of revealing the particular character of Italian architectural culture of the last century.” A culture also seen in the selection of projects of the contemporary landscape, where in an ‘anonymous’ way each architecture is presented with a single image (the project credits can be seen only in the brochure), to emphasize in a subjective way the voyage in images proposed by the installation and the montage by Studio Azzurro of films from all over Italy. The hypotheses of possible futures for after EXPO Milano 2015 were less convincing, perhaps a bit too much like scholastic exercises, failing to narrate the true design experiences now in progress, such as the operation of the Cluster pavilions, a valid new exhibition model created by EXPO and the Milan Polytechnic with various universities around the world. This edition of the Biennale and its guru-curator Rem Koolhaas deserve praise for having avoided the path (seen to some extent in recent editions) of putting architects into the role of artists, with installations that end up not belonging to either field. The theme Absorbing Modernity has prompted each country to narrate its stories in terms of elements, cases, documents and comparisons (as in the South Korean pavilion, Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula curated by Cho Min-Suk, formerly of OMA and considered a promising talent on the international scene, winner of the Leone d’Oro for the best national contribution). The composite panorama offers many themes of great interest, such as that of prefabrication, illustrated by Chile (Leone d’Argento) with the exhibition Monolith Controversies on the precasting of cement panels for residential structures, and the French pavilion curated by Jean-Louis Cohen (special mention) featuring “Modernity: promise or menace?”, where the model of the hypermodern automated ‘Villa Arpel,’ the protagonist together with Jacques Tati of the film Mon Oncle (1958), is taken as a metaphor and threat of a modernism that is then approach in its specific components: from the experimental metal panel of Jean Prouvé to the heavy prefabrication that wavers between “economy of scale and monotony.” Russia proposes a sort of architecture fair with conceptual stands on real architects and real examples, ironically mixing history and contemporary developments, with stimuli such as (to cite just a few) Lissitzky and VKhUTEMAS (Constructivist avant-gardes); Chernikhov Creative Solutions or Shaping Inspiration. In the latter, abstract ‘architectural forms’ (based on interpretation of the period of the architectural avant-gardes in Russia) are lined up as models on the display shelves as if they were merchandise in a shop. Interiors are addressed in some interesting installations, like the sensorial rooms of Denmark; the bungalow of the Chancellor in Bonn reconstructed in the German pavilion, as a domestic representation of political power; the offices of the United States catalogued like an archive available to visitor-critics (no synthesis is offered by systemic interpretation); the two vertical microarchitectures of Finland, one built with the traditional techniques of wooden architecture of that country, the other, a twin, in bamboo, made by the Shenzhen Biennial in China, just to name a few. Nevertheless it is Belgium, already with a focus on interiors in recent editions, that stands out for the intensity of its research on living spaces. “Intérieurs. Notes et Figures” curated by Sébastien Martinez Bart, Bernard Dubois, Sarah Levy, Judith Wielander, approaches the theme of domestic interiors through a special campaign of photographs on the living spaces of that country. “Interiors are a fundamental notion of architectural conception […] A vision opposed to modern thinking as a phenomenon of absorption; the consideration of a heritage of interiors reveals a vernacular architecture that prompts reflection on how modernity itself gets absorbed [by the quotidian, by everyday life].” The catalogue, summing up the field research with the photographs of the interiors concealed behind modernist facades, is flanked in the Venetian installation by an abstract stylization of the elements encountered; white and minimal typological displays in relation to the photograph-document of reference.