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Rem loves the smell of information in the morning

Venice Biennale 2014: Jay Merrick on Rem Koolhaas

You can imagine Rem Koolhaas, renowned for his obsession with data collection, spinning that famous one-liner from Apocalypse Now to suit his own ends. ‘I love the smell of information in the morning’.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film was based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and, in the experimental spirit of the Venice Biennale, of which Koolhaas is director this year, let’s do some spinning of our own, and superimpose the storyline over the Dutch architect and his plans for this landmark event in the architectural calendar.

In Conrad’s story, ship’s captain Charles Marlow explains a journey he made up the Congo River, deep into the country’s interior, to assess the condition of an important ivory trading outpost, the Inner Station, and its legendary master, Mr Kurtz. Conrad’s narrative exposes the way natural resources, and the souls of both natives and colonists, are ruthlessly exploited. Conrad also argues that 19th century Europeans possessed the same atavistic wildness as so-called primitive people, but mediated it through the prisms of imperialist ideas and systems.

For ivory, in Koolhaas’s case, we can substitute Information. For the destruction of souls, we could recall OMA’s 2012 Biennale installation, Public Works: Architecture By Civil Servants, which co‑curator Reinier de Graaf characterised as ‘a short-lived, fragile period of naïve optimism before the brutal rule of the market economy became the common denominator’.
And for rationalised primeval wildness, OMA’s Cronocaos installation at the 2010 Biennale was underlined by Koolhaas’s suggestion that there exists a ‘global rage to eliminate the evidence of the post-war period of architecture as a social project’ - even if it’s equally possible that the alleged global rage might have more to do with billions of people being prevented from being permanently colonised in the consumerist Congos of Primark or Prada.

Fundamentals, Koolhaas’s title for the 2014 Biennale, is shape-shifting: in part, a brusque reaction to the shape-defining ‘Common Ground’ ethos of David Chipperfield’s 2012 Biennale, which Koolhaas described at his launch event as a ‘thematic cacophony’. His research-intensive curation rejects the orderly architectural beauty pageant which, in various philosophical guises, has tended to be the norm.

Koolhaas (below) emphasises that there has been no triumph of modernity, just ‘modernity fatigue, which takes many forms’. His Biennale antidote to this malaise contains three ingredients in what may seem a peculiar collage: Modernism across the last century, seen through specifically national experiences; an architectural, cinematic, and interactive cultural panorama of ‘every part of Italy’; and an Elements section, directed by Koolhaas, which reconsiders the apparently ‘bland and banal’ basic units of architecture - an examination process he compares to ‘discerning unknown species through a microscope … a primitive fanaticism to explore these entities … reassuring us of our modernity’.

His choice of words is almost Conradian; and, for a moment, something like a colonial shadow falls across his Venetian expedition. One imagines, in sepia, the national pavilions in the Giardini like so many native huts, filled with ivory piles of exhibited research into the Modernist project; and we pause to watch the ghostly Roi des Belges, the Congo River steamer captained by Conrad in the 1890s, docking at the vaporetto stage in a white mist, disgorging expectant architectural pilgrims, who appear to be suffering from a variety of pernicious ennuis and fevers.

And Koolhaas, the director of the Biennale’s Inner Station - where will we find him? In the radical research clinic of the Central Pavilion, presumably, being as obsessive about the origins, mutations and mythical desires associated with various species of lavatories, windows, fireplaces and ramps as the fictional Kurtz (portrayed in Apocalypse Now by Marlon Brando, below) was about the compilation of his secret report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.

A purely literary or atmospheric link between Koolhaas and Conrad is not the issue. It is Koolhaas’s perpetual search for information about the pathologies of the past and the future that suggests the connection. Conrad was a magnificent questioner and doubter, a remorseless exfoliator of reasons, imaginings, and actions. We can say the same of Koolhaas, except that it is his processes, the rampantly compulsive collection of information, rather than his often vivid diagnoses, that is the most intriguing thing about him.
The aura of research and analysis that will define the 2014 Biennale has a flipside: the possibility of an inertia that sets in beyond a certain point of data density: images, words, graphs, diagrams, colour codes, graphics, apps, interactives, lose their meanings and relativities. Are we going to be caught in the gravity of revelations, or a series of black holes? When do apparently immutable, precisely gathered facts become an amorphous mulch of intellectually glossy fictions?

At the 2010 Biennale, Koolhaas referred to architects as ‘we who change the world’. Yet he admits that architects have been reduced to playing catch-up with global forces whose evolutions had become too complex for architects to understand, predict, or react to coherently. There is a grand tension between his fascination with these forces and his profound interest in architecture’s most purely polemical moments, such as design in the Russian revolutionary period, and the great post-war social projects. That tension is familiar to any culturally informed architect.

It’s interesting that, despite his craving for data, Koolhaas has become increasingly concerned about what he referred to at the Biennale launch event as ‘digital regimes’. And he added: ‘I seriously question if it’s safe and sane to surrender more and more of our information … if our current involvement with digital technology continues, our houses will betray us.’ Some would say that it has already betrayed architecture.

Meanwhile, OMA has about 4 million images on its database, with 1,500 more sucked into it every day. At the practice’s 2011 exhibition at London’s Barbican, a hand-written note from Koolhaas was pinned to one of the walls. It read: ‘It would be great if each of you would generate/be responsible for a permanent record of the [design] process so that not every presentation becomes a desperate improvisation.’

But is it not precisely this admirably desperate, research-driven improvisation that makes OMA’s approach to architecture so notable? Who else would create a facade for Prada made of aluminium panels deliberately crumpled by underwater explosions? Is this Koolhaas’s ‘modernity fatigue’, brilliant architectural originality, or a satirisation of the beau monde’s temples of consumption?

The director of the 2014 Biennale will not, alas, arrive at the Giardini aboard the Roi des Belges; and the ghost of Joseph Conrad will not wave to him from the boat’s rickety bridge. Nevertheless, Koolhaas fits that scenario. He is a protean, 21st century amalgam of Kurtz and Marlow; the former, a compulsive gatherer of valuable material from a place of complex, if not inscrutable mysteries; the latter,a man on a specific mission to the Inner Station. ‘Each station,’ says Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, ‘should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a centre for trade of course but also for humanising, improving, instructing.’ Will the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale be the equivalent of that kind of station? And will we all love the smell of Information in the morning?

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

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