Can build something better than "not-modern" please?

Palazzo pissups and the weird death of modernism: the view from the bridges at this year's Venice architecture biennale

ceiling (1)
James Pallister

Every two years, architects from around the world flock to Venice to stay up to date with all that is essential to modern architectural discourse. That and the important business of a few days larking around on the water taxis that navigate the city’s canals and necking gallons of Irn Bru-like Aperol Spritz.

This year the main show is curated by Rem Koolhaas, the 69-year old Dutch architect, writer, critic and principal of Office for Metropolitan Architecture whose clients include the Chinese national government and the Rothschild Bank.  Ever the trickster and contrarian, Koolhaas opens his show with a suspended ceiling, cut-away to show its ducts and vents galore, and the partially excluded cheeky glint of a lovely fresco beyond. Why the enthusiasm for what is surely one of design’s most unlovely gifts to the modern interior?

Well, the gist of the show is that the individual elements of buildings have shaped us an our environments far more than any individual architect-auteurs can lay claim to. Consider the escalator, the lift, the lavatory and yes, the suspended ceiling: all of these have shaped our cities significantly. And so each room pores over the development of an individual element in obsessive detail. We have a gallery of crappers through the ages; a wall given over to doorhandles designed by famed designers of the twentieth century; and the stories behind the introduction of the disabled access ramp. Architects and architecture are sidelined in favour of looking at the stories behind the constituent parts.

In the national pavilions spread throughout the Giardini gardens, there’s some unity in subject matter: each country finds a way of exploring the way modern architecture shaped their nation between 1914 and 2014. The Irish revel in drawings of hydro electric power stations; the Brits reconnect the admirable humanist intent of post-war housing projects to the utopian works of William Blake, William Morris and —er — Cliff Richard. 

Grown men affect easy familiarity with late Renaissance architecture and tut at the gaucheness of the oligarch’s yachts parked up water-side that belong to the class of people who pay their wages

Taken together they deal throughly with ‘how we got here’ in their exploration of the last 100 years of building while ignoring the bigger question of ‘where do we go’. Koolhaas is a sharp chronicler of the place of modern architecture and its limited power in changing the world. He’s clearly troubled by the excesses of an aggressive capitalism that has flowered since the 1980s, changing architects from agents of cities or countries to agents of corporations. Yet a trinity of conditions press his energies into documenting a decline in the influence architecture can have rather than suggesting means of addressing it. He knows as much as any that architects are guns for hire; he’s painfully aware that modernism caused its fair share of problems by thinking it could save the world; and as he noted at the press conference, “he comes from a generation that is uncomfortable telling people what to do”. More’s the pity.

Meanwhile, the rituals of the group unfold across the watery city as they do every year. Grown men affect easy familiarity with late Renaissance architecture, lie through their teeth about the relative comfort of their “ever-so charming” lodgings in an expensive, space-deprived city and tut at the gaucheness of the oligarch’s yachts parked up water-side that belong to the class of people who pay their wages. Hours later they’ll be waving their arms in the air to 90s house at a palazzo pissup.

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