Directed by Paolo Portoghesi, the very first Venice Architecture Biennale (1980) was a postmodern manifesto: the ornamented polychromous facades that lined the ‘Strada Novissima’, the main exhibition set up in the Arsenale, bid a gleeful farewell to modernism’s serial monotony and universalizing claims. Thirty-four years on, the 65 national pavilions included in the 14th edition of the biennale, directed by Rem Koolhaas, are guided by a curatorial premise – ‘Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014’ – which challenges its forerunner’s claims. A sub-theme under the main exhibition title of ‘Fundamentals’, ‘Absorbing Modernity’ invited the curators of the national pavilions to pinpoint key episodes in their country’s modernization process. Each has it’s own individual stories to tell – ongoing narratives that unfold through videos, photographs or models, and highlight modernism’s lingering effects.
Evidence of respective national characteristics is most notably supplied by the Golden Lion-winning Korean pavilion (operated by South Korea), which compellingly surveys the opposite paths taken by architectural modernism in the two Koreas. Against the capitalist and economic imperatives that have fuelled the urban sprawl of Seoul, the carefully planned city of Pyongyang vaunts sweeping views over gigantic monuments designed to manifest the North Korean regime’s aims and ideals. Meanwhile, documentation of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two countries alludes to the impossibility of sealing the frontier between them: ecological systems (species migration, micro-organisms, air and water pollution) testify to the porosity of the DMZ, as do companies operating on both sides of the border, while a series of projects in the pavilion visualize its transformation into an international airport, among other non-political uses – or even its dissolution. As documenta 12 director Roger Buergel once suggested, the immodesty of modernity’s visions (in the case of North Korea, its giant monuments) is reflected in the violence of its effects (the presence of the highly militarized – despite its title – DMZ).
Modernity generated very different kinds of tension elsewhere. On show in the Polish pavilion is a reconstruction of the canopy above the burial crypt of the father of Polish independence, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who was central to the country’s economic and social modernization in the decades prior to his death in 1935. Consisting of a modernist roof slab devoid of historical references placed atop classical columns, the reconstructed canopy reflects the conflictual relationship between modernization and tradition.
One of the key episodes of modernity evoked in the French pavilion is the fate of the massive peripheral housing schemes built after World War II to provide the inhabitants of city slums with decent living conditions and a new way of life. Despite these high-minded intentions, the housing estates, in France as elsewhere, degenerated into concrete jungles inhabited by the socially excluded – an issue that remains unresolved today.
Histories of colonialism and of post-colonialism have also played their part in the absorption of modernity. Photographs in the Mozambican pavilion show how the colonial era engendered a localized form of modernism that diverged from the international model, while the country’s vernacular architecture testifies to modernist influences that waned after independence in 1975. The diversity of modernism in the different nations is echoed by the eclecticism of the doors, balconies and stairs displayed in the ‘Elements of Architecture’ exhibition in the Central Pavilion, curated by Koolhaas himself. Regrettably, this exhibition has little to say on the theme of architectural modernism: not only does it include displays on the pre-modern history of these elements, but its survey of doors and fireplaces has less to do with architecture than it does with interior design. Far more relevant is the South African pavilion. Evaluating the legacy of apartheid, it contrasts the domination of Western modernist forms in government buildings with the near total exclusion of the African population from the practice of architecture as such.
No less critical of the phenomenon of modernization is the Ukrainian pavilion. Updating the Kiev-born Kazimir Malevich’s early paintings of agricultural labourers, it presents statues of contemporary workers wearing gas masks, engaged in cleaning up a technological disaster. Meanwhile, the work of post-war modernist architect Jaap Bakema on show in the Dutch pavilion promoted the idea of an egalitarian ‘open society’ that would counter the mechanization of modern city life.
Most intriguing of all, however, are the displays exploring the different ways in which modern know-how and technologies were transmitted from one country to the next. Focusing on collaborations between central European countries, the collateral event ‘Lifting the Curtain’ – an exhibition held in the Officina delle Zattere – underscores the importance of international meetings such as the Warsaw Confrontations of the 1970s. Teams from different socialist and, on occasion, capitalist, countries attended these conferences and presented their designs for architectural projects taking place in Warsaw, inaugurating an innovative form of collective brainstorming. Other collaborations were even more far-reaching. The large concrete panel in the Chilean pavilion was manufactured in 1972 in a factory donated by the Soviet Union to Salvador Allende’s short-lived left-wing government. Not only does it encapsulate the political upheavals of its time, but it also harks back to the lengthy chain of panels that preceded it: originating in post-war France and subsequently adapted by the Soviet Union and Cuba before being introduced in Chile, these panels cut across national and ideological barriers, symbolizing the onward march of modernity worldwide.
Against the current surfeit of art works exploring modernist ruins and failed utopias, ‘Absorbing Modernity’ offers a richer and more diverse view of what still remains a complex and far-reaching process. But the exhibition also provides a new perspective on architectural exhibition-making. In her text ‘Curating and Architecture: Notes from the Research’ (2008), theorist Andrea Phillips wrote that exhibitions of architecture seem to be largely limited to the uncritical display of built form. Grappling as it does with the contradictions and ambiguities of modernity, the 2014 Venice Biennale is an object lesson in how to avoid this pitfall.