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A tour of Venice's national pavilions

Alastair Donald, project director of the British Pavilion, visits some of the other national pavilions at the Venice Biennale

This latest edition of the Venice architecture biennale is conceived as a major ‘exhibition-research’ project. With the subject matter for national participations ranging from domestic interiors (Belgium) to the problems of space travel (Slovenia); from democratically legitimated Places of Power (Austria) to state-enforced population dispersal (Israel), this is a biennale that evidently resists the uniformity that might have resulted from each pavilion responding to the singular theme Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014.

So does the biennale achieve Koolhaas’s ambition of accounting for how architecture finds itself in its current situation? Admittedly, it didn’t auger well when Minsuk Cho, commissioner and curator of the fascinating (and Golden Lion winning) Korean Pavilion, asserted the impossibility of generating a cohesive grasp of the idea of architecture. But despite such pessimism, the geographically and chronologically wide-ranging exhibitions at this biennale do offer fascinating insights into many of the important dynamics playing out in the past century of modernity, suggesting questions that should be wrestled with as we work out where to go from here. 

French Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

French Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

A good place to start is the French pavilion exhibition, ambivalently entitled Modernity: promise or threat? Incorporating sub-themes such as ‘economy of scale or monotony?’, curator Jean-Luis Cohen neatly captures both the heightened ambitions of early 20th century Modernism and also the tensions and contradictions thrown up by the Modern age.

A film projected simultaneously in each room recalls the aspiration in France to create a ‘constructional temperament’ that would quite literally define the nation – it would be ‘cast in concrete’ or constructed via the lightweight building systems of Jean Prouvé. But even as architects embraced the notion of building innovatively ‘in the spirit of the day’, the exhibition illuminates the emerging anxieties over modernity and questions arising over the very possibility of progress.

The central room, for example, features an alluring model of the high-tech, ultra-modern Villa Arpel. Against a backdrop of Jacques Tati’s satire Mon Oncle in which the villa was the protagonist, the promise of a contented domestic life is juxtaposed to apprehension over an ultra-designed form of modernity, seemingly bereft of human sensibilities. Given Mon Oncle was released in 1958, Cohen seems to suggests how short-lived was post-war enthusiasm for technological advance and the planned society.

French Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

French Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

It’s not exactly a revelation that some experimental modern housing did not work. However, this exhibition is beautifully executed and often carefully qualified. When the material takes an altogether darker turn to focus on Cité de La Muette, the isolated 1930s Drancy housing scheme later used as an internment camp, Cohen astutely rejects any deterministic interpretation of events. Yet by the time Jean-Luc Godard makes an appearance as the narrator in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, it’s clear that by the 1960s, modernity is no longer questioned merely as the circumstance that gave birth to the Parisian banlieues, but more broadly stands accused as the condition that foreshadowed Hiroshima, Auschwitz and Vietnam. 

One subplot of the French pavilion, hinted at but never explored, is the role of former colonies as laboratories of modern construction techniques. The Nordic pavilion Forms of Freedom: African Independence and Nordic Models traces the role of modern Nordic architecture as an integral part of aid to East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a period when international development policy emerged against a backdrop of Cold War competition for spheres of influence, national independence struggles, and Western fears over the destabilising consequences of weak pre-industrial states.

Nordic Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Nordic Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

The upshot was that during the 1960s and 1970s the likes of Norwegian architect Karl Henrik Nøstvik were able to plan and build remarkably ambitious projects such as the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, a project which was even into the 1990s East Africa’s tallest building, and which remains a symbol of independent Kenya.

Forms of Freedom revolves around two concepts. ‘Building Freedom’ focuses on the architectural nation-building driven by the ambitious masterplans that directed the construction of new towns and cities, and the prototypes and prefabricated systems employed in state-led projects such as school building programmes. ‘Finding Freedom’, on the other hand, signifies the relatively free zones that emerged in countries such as Tanzania and Zambia where experimental ideas could still be pursued as architectural solutions on a par with the international avant-garde.

Nordic Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Nordic Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

In fostering relationships in Africa, no doubt the Nordic countries benefited from being relatively unencumbered by the type of murky colonial past associated with other Western countries. But more importantly, in the 1960s all western countries remained attached to the idea of urbanisation and modernization as a positive force for transformation - what the curators term ‘a mutual belief in progress’. Today, when many architects and critics have taken to celebrating small-scale informal development or upgrading slums, the likes of Nøstvik’s Triple Tower - which in the mid 1970s was destined to become the tallest building in the world - is a shining reminder of the heightened ambitions of the then avant-garde.

In fact, the Triple Tower was never built - a reflection, according to the Nordic curators, of the impact of 1973 energy crisis on the price and availability raw materials. Undoubtedly the events of 1973 did have a practical impact. But, as demonstrated by Norihito Nakatani in the insightful Japanese Pavilion exhibition In the Real World, even before the energy crisis, a different crisis – one of belief in the benefits of growth, modernisation and more broadly modernity - had taken hold in the Western-influenced world.  For example, even prior to the 1970 Osaka Expo, Toyo Ito departed the office of Kiyonori Kikutake declaring that the Metabolist’s dreams of a city of the future that had once proved so entrancing were now, in his eyes, shattered.      

Japanese Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Japanese Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Via a dense assortment of models, drawings, graphics and artefacts, Nakatani deftly investigates the post 1970 response to the ‘impasse of modernisation’. It wasn’t that Japanese architects suddenly abandoned experimentation. In fact Nakatani revisits a number of independent responses that unfolded new fields of architecture which operated at a variety of scales from small houses to the major Umeda Sky City project, the latter with its twin towers bridged with sky gardens.

Instead, what In the Real World reveals is the collapsing belief throughout the developed world in the perpetual forward movement of societies and crumbling confidence in the potential advantage of embracing such flux. Appalled by how ardently Japanese architecture hoped for the death of old buildings, instead, in Japan and elsewhere, a widespread desire to rediscover one’s roots and traditions emerged - as evidenced by the notion of the Tokyo based ‘Architectural Detective Agency’ who sought to ‘retrieve the neglected’ and discover the ‘real’ city. Some detectives exited the city altogether, surveying non-western regions for insights from vernacular forms in rural villages that could help resist the flux of modernity. 

Japanese Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Japanese Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

The Canadian pavilion, Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, brings the story of modernity up-to-date, hinting at how trends that emerged in the 1960s have become central to the contemporary imagination.  

Nunavut is Canada’s newest, largest, and most northerly territory, home to just 33,000 people who live in 25 communities spread across some two million square kilometres. According to the curators, following the age of polar exploration in the 20th century, modern architecture ‘encroached’ on this remote region in the name of trade, sovereignty or management of aboriginal affairs. As a result the relations of the traditionally semi-nomadic Inuit people with Canada are fraught with acts of ‘neglect, resistance, and negotiation’.

Despite the fact that in a territory with no roads these highly dispersed communities have now become accessible through air travel, and that Nunavut settlements have progressed from ‘igloos to internet’ in the space of just 40 years, there is little sense in Arctic Adaptations that modernity is something to aspire to. Whatever the outlook of a nomadic people, it is striking that many of us in the West who have benefitted from more than 200 years of modernisation now laud indigenous populations for, in the words of the curators, their ability to offer ‘resistance to Modernism’s universalising agenda’ and to display ‘resilience’ in ‘confrontation with modernity’.

A sense of the need to develop resistance and resilience in the face of modernity is a common sentiment today. Talking about ‘Absorbing Modernity’, biennale curator Rem Koolhaas reflected that ‘we didn’t necessarily mean ‘absorbing’ as a happy thing… it is more like the way a boxer absorbs a blow from his enemy.’ The use ‘absorbing’ seems to suggest that the relationship of architecture and planning to modernity is a relatively passive one – they merely absorb or reflect forces assumed to be outside our control. This is a striking change to the worldview often evident at the start of Koolhaas’s century. Then, many architects saw themselves as visionary creators of the future. As the introductory text to the French pavilion declares, since 1914, through the contributions of its architects and engineers ‘France has less “absorbed” modernity than shaped it’. It’s one of the few positive assertions of agency within the biennale.

British Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

British Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Having worked for the last 18 months to help realise A Clockwork Jerusalem in the British Pavilion, one of the most gratifying results of the exhibition curated by FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians is that they offer an antidote to passivity, instead challenging the viewer to grapple with an important set of questions about how we can and should shape the future. This is an impressive biennale with many fascinating national pavilions. The exhibitions make important contributions to helping us interpret the world. The next step is to recover a sense that we can change it. 

Alastair Donald is project director of the British Pavilion for the British Council and director, Critical Subjects Architecture Summer School.

 

 

 

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