BY Agnieszka Gratza in Frieze | 11 JUL 14

14th Venice Architecture Biennale

A report on the German, Austrian and Swiss pavilions at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale

BY Agnieszka Gratza in Frieze | 11 JUL 14

In an unprecedented move, the director of this year’s Venice architecture biennale, Rem Koolhaas, proposed a single, admittedly capacious theme for all 65 national pavilions to grapple with: ‘Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014’. The thesis behind this – with the fraught concept of ‘modernity’ at its heart – seemed to be the contention that over the last century the distinctions between national architectural styles, once pronounced, have given way to a universal and generic modern aesthetic. While some commissioners proved willing to use their pavilions as a testing ground for this supposition, others chose to address it obliquely or not at all – if the German, Swiss and Austrian pavilions are anything to go by.

Of the three, the German contribution bore the closest relation to the theme. Zurich-based architects Alex Lehnerer and Savvas Ciricadis responded to Koolhaas’ suggestion by grafting modernist architect Sep Ruf’s glass ‘Kanzlerbungalow’ – built in 1964 as the German chancellor’s official residence in Bonn – onto the German Pavilion in Venice. The monumental neo-classical building, which dates to 1909, though renovated in 1938 at the behest of the Nazi government of the time, represents another, tainted face of modernity.

The pavilion literally absorbs the partial but life-size replica of the bungalow temporarily lodged inside it. This superimposition produces a ‘third’ entity, a curious crossbreed of the two buildings, as reflected in the name ‘Bungalow Germania’, the homely connotations of the one deflating the nationalist rhetoric and pretensions of the other. The horizontality and asymmetrical layout of the bungalow, made of glass, steel and brick, offset the vertical thrust and the rigid symmetry of the stone pavilion.

Beautifully uncluttered, the skeletal interior of the Kanzlerbungalow – with its succession of ‘rooms’ framed by glass-and-steel partitions, wooden ceilings, bare walls and a monumental brick fireplace dominating the main, atrium-like space – relates to the ‘elements of architecture’ theme staged in the central pavilion as part of Koolhaas’ Fundamentals exhibition. Assigned no clear function or order the rooms mirror the structure of the accompanying essay by Quinn Latimer, ‘Your Bungalow Is My Pavilion (This Room Is An Island)’, like so many thought units or bubbles, teasing out parallels between the two historically and geographically remote buildings.

The single-storey Swiss Pavilion, designed by Bruno Giacometti in 1952, could almost exemplify the modernist theme proposed by Koolhaas. But the catch-all title of ‘absorbing modernism’ was quietly side-stepped in favour of the pavilion’s own agenda – to investigate time-based display formats, centered on people rather than objects – articulated by art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann in a series of compelling mini-lectures styled as ‘vignettes’. These punctuated the breathless two-day Marathon coinciding with the biennale’s opening. Modelled on the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion’s own Marathon event series organized by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the event boasted a stellar line-up of speakers, in addition to the not inconsiderable number of artists and architects who had collaborated to the Swiss Pavilion’s presentation.

Titled A stroll through a fun Palace with reference to British architect Cedric Price’s best-known though unrealized project and the science of ‘strollology’ or walk-taking advocated by the Swiss sociologist and urban planner Lucius Burckhardt, the Swiss Pavilion pays homage to two revered figures whose playfully anarchical take on architecture, if anything, challenged the pretensions of modernism. Projects such as Price’s 1999 ‘A Lung for Midtown Manhattan’ – whose plans were presented to me by a student from the gta (Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture) at the ETH Zürich – emphasized the potential of non-built urban space.

For the duration of the International Architecture Exhibition, extended from three to six months in line with the sister art biennial, architecture students will be on call to communicate the ideas of Price and Burckhardt to visitors in a ‘living archive’ of sorts, conceived by Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza, jointly with architects Herzog & de Meuron, who designed the archive room and the trolleys on which the facsimiled materials were wheeled out and displayed. Students from the Vienna University of Technology have likewise been co-opted to compile information needed to develop the 3D models (on a scale of 1: 500) of the 196 national parliament buildings mounted on the walls of the Austrian Pavilion’s main room.

On the face of it, the focus of the Austrian contribution to the architecture biennale, called ‘Plenum. Places of Power’, is only tenuously linked to the general theme set by Rem Koolhaas for national pavilions. ‘Absorbing modernity’, according to the project description, is seen through the prism of ‘absorbing democracy’ – two processes that come together in parliamentary architecture. Some of the masterpieces of modernist architecture indeed happen to be parliamentary buildings, from Oscar Niemeyer’s National Congress Building in Brasília to Louis Khan’s Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban in Dhaka, Bangladesh (without it saying much about their peoples’ access to democracy).

Yet, despite having been built in the last 50 years, the bulk of the parliaments confronted in ‘Plenum. Places of Power’ speak the language of classicism and deploy its elements: columns, cupolas, porticos, and the like. The pavilion’s centerpiece has affinities with David Mulder’s and Max Cohen’s ‘Theatres of democracy’ section in Koolhaas’ Monditalia show spanning the length of the Arsenale, which traces the semi-circular architecture of contemporary assembly halls back to ancient Greek theatres and the theatre of Siracusa, Sicily in particular. Protruding from the walls and painted a matching white, the architectural models arranged into grids and facing each other like so many cenotaphs, recalled the national pavilions themselves. Beneath the national variations on the parliament theme, their pleasing uniformity seemed to bear out Koolhaas’ thesis.

Agnieszka Gratza is a writer and critic based in London.