Ellis Woodman on the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale
Longer preparation time and a collective brief for the national pavilions has led to a strong range of contributions at this year’s Venice Biennale, says Ellis Woodman
A key reason why Koolhaas insisted on a longer than usual preparation time was so that he could work with the commissioners of the national pavilions to establish a collective brief under the banner headline ‘Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014’. That initiative has proved enormously productive, generating as consistently strong a range of contributions as I have seen in a decade of biennale visits.
Britain’s contribution, A Clockwork Jerusalem, ranks among the best. The show’s curators Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout have focussed on the UK’s post-war experience, with particular emphasis on its programme of new towns. However, their approach to this material has studiously disregarded the reality of the built artefacts in favour of an exploration of the fantasies that they have attracted. In part, it is an exhibition about a long and peculiarly British history of reformist thought - dominated by such figures as John Ruskin, William Morris, Charles Booth and Ebenezer Howard - and how it shaped the imaginations of the architects and planners tasked with post-war reconstruction. But it also looks at the way those efforts were subsequently reimagined through popular culture, whether in the writings of J.G Ballard, Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange or the videos and photo-shoots of Joy Division and Cliff Richard. While including an extraordinarily diverse range of material, Jacob and Vanstiphout have made an exacting edit and produced a spare, strange and quite beautifully dream-like experience.
The Germans have dramatised the tensions of the post-war years in more direct fashion by reconstructing Helmut Kohl’s post-Miesian patio house inside their Nazi-era pavilion: a one-liner but brilliantly executed. Meanwhile Japan makes a strong showing with an exhibition devoted to the post-Metabolist generation of the 1970’s, which included some spectacularly challenging early houses by the likes of Toyo Ito and Terunobu Fujimori. Bahrain and the United States have both made shows that might be dismissed as books on a wall, but the books are at least fascinating: in the first case, a survey of Architecture in the Arab World from 1914-2014; in the second, a catalogue of projects undertaken by American architects outside the US during that period.
My personal favourite was the French Pavilion, which has been curated, with particularly terrific use of film, by Jean-Louis Cohen. Centred on a model of the Villa Arpel - the preposterous modernist house from Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle - it examines the shifting popular reception of modern architecture in France from the thirties to the sixties. The section devoted to the pioneering housing estate, La Cité de la Muette at Drancy which subsequently become an internment camp for Jews captured the contradictions at the heart of that story to horrifying effect.
However, the altogether deserving winner of the Golden Lion was Korea for an exhibition that sets out to discuss the architecture of the whole Korean peninsula as one phenomenon. Given that the Seoul-based curators were denied access to North Korea this inevitably proved challenging but they have deftly presented a narrative that identifies the shared cultural - and even educational - inheritance of architects working on either side of the border. The show’s strong implication is that the requirements placed on architects working in the service of a socialist dictatorship or a capitalist democracy are not so very different - an idea that it is to be hoped can be tested by a more direct collaboration between the architects of North and South Korea before long.