The Central Pavilion, if nothing else, is not to be missed, writes Paul Finch
To get the grumble out of the way first: how can this government prattle on about the importance of design, our world-leading architects, the great work being done by UK Trade & Investment, etc - and then send no one to the opening of the British Council pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale? This was a miserable snub and seemed all of a piece with the abolition of CABE and the refusal to make any formal response to the Farrell Review of UK architecture, despite having commissioned it in the first place. What is their problem?
On to happier matters. The UK pavilion, curated as a form of swansong by FAT founder Sam Jacob with Crimson’s Wouter Vanstiphout, is well-designed, coherent and provocative. The show, ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’, responds to the theme set for this year’s Biennale by Rem Koolhaas - the way that different countries and regions responded to the onset of Modernism. The duo chose to focus mainly on the new towns and major housing schemes of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. By the middle of the latter decade, the wrecking ball was beginning to flatten some of the optimistic architecture generated with such social purpose and good intentions. In a sense, the pavilion is showing the first part of a two-part story, the next bit being: why did it all go wrong? The catalogue includes a wonderfully sour essay by Owen Hatherley, which could be the trigger for a follow-up show on the highs and lows of the great era of concrete construction.
That sub-plot forms the basis of an almost complementary show in the French pavilion next door; ‘Modernism: Promise or Menace?’ Both, as it turned out. The story of how the first major ‘ensemble’ concrete megastructure housing project, built in Drancy outside Paris in the 1930s, subsequently became a staging post for the sending of 60,000 Jews to the concentration camps is chillingly told in a brilliant documentary.
Other film clips include Jean Prouvé lecturing and drawing: the king of lightweight who could not resist the onset of heavy concrete systems; and Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle, with the Modernist nightmare house where everything automatic goes wrong.
Concrete features in a small but very nicely designed Chilean pavilion. Curator Pedro Alonso kicks off with a typical domestic interior, rather kitsch, as an anteroom to the big-volume space, which features all manner of system concrete slabs and how they were introduced to the country over a prolonged period.
An unexpected concrete detail appears in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, where Koolhaas has taken his ‘Fundamentals’ theme to focus on basic building elements, showing how they have evolved and transformed. The windows section contains fascinating historical examples from the Brooking National Collection - including a concrete-framed slit window from Owen Luder’s demolished Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth! Koolhaas is a brilliant action-journalist and impresario. He has created a trade show that everyone wants to visit, a reminder to the organisers of the usual dreary events that architectural imagination can transform them. In this case, for example, hundreds of spliced film clips show different building elements as they have appeared in popular culture.
By contrast, Rem’s show in the Arsenale is mainly about the role of Italy as a fulcrum for ideas and imagination, much of it portrayed in more film clips, but supplemented by a series of live performance art shows that engage eye and mind in a quite different way.
Architecture students as well as architects should see this show, just for the Central Pavilion, if nothing else. Not to be missed.
This Biennale should be attended by all architecture students