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Ellis Woodman on Elements of Architecture at Venice Biennale

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Rem Koolhaas’ Elements of Architecture can be read as a statement of the architect’s subservience to conditions beyond control, says Ellis Woodman

When Rem Koolhaas was approached to direct the 14th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, he agreed on the basis of two conditions: that he would have twice the usual one year period in which to prepare and that the exhibition would feature no contemporary architecture.  

His interest was rather to focus on architecture’s history – with particular emphasis on the past 100 years – with the aim of framing a discussion about the way the discipline might now develop. The two exhibitions that he has staged share a characteristically systematic approach but adopt contrasting scopes of enquiry.

Its concern with classification has something of the Ladybird guide to Architecture about it

The Central Pavilion of the Giardini has been given over to a show entitled Elements of Architecture which takes as its subject the essential elements of architecture. An introductory room presents a mesmerising film, compiled – very much in the manner of the artist, Christian Marclay – out of clips plundered from a vast range of movies.  Figure after figure opens a door into a darkened room, throws open a window or steps onto a balcony. The encyclopaedic method sets a tone that subsequent rooms follow. Each is devoted to the investigation of a different architectural device. The room on the window includes a selection of the 500,000 salvaged examples that form the UK’s Brooking Collection while alongside a robot tests a contemporary aluminium framed product through repeated openings and closings. Another room houses a close array of full scale mock-ups of walls, ranging from that of an adobe hut to a newly launched sliding glass door system. There is more than a little of the atmosphere of the Building Centre in evidence and, in the relentless concern with classification something of the Ladybird guide to Architecture too.

This is a show packed with anecdote

Of course, this being Koolhaas, the familiar format serves as a foil for some notably transgressive material too. In the room devoted to the development of the toilet we are treated to a highly explicit artist’s film which purports to be footage shot by police as part of a crackdown on gay cottaging in the New York of the 1960’s. Not exactly text book stuff. This is a show packed with anecdote and its contents is perhaps ultimately best appreciated by way of the 15 substantial catalogues that Koolhaas has produced in collaboration with his students at the Harvard graduate school of design – one for each of the exhibition’s rooms.

Certainly, it is an exhibition that makes little attempt at visual seduction. The decision to exclude the work of other architects has doubtless limited opportunities to secure external funding and the limitations of the low budget are, for better or worse, clear to see.

The one room that does offer a genuine aesthetic experience comes at the end.  The work of Wolfgang Tilmans, A book for Architects is not actually a book at all but rather a multi-screen slide show compiled from images of mainly anonymous buildings taken by the photographer in locations across the world over the past decade. Projected at varying dimensions and spacings, the images flit past in quick succession, hinting at visual connections between one another. Tilman’s work counterpoints the didactic tone that characterises the rest of the exhibition while encapsulating its central concern with the essentially common technical and social conditions to which all architectural production is tied. As such, Elements of Architecture might be taken as a statement of the architect’s subservience to conditions beyond his control: the water in which all architects – even those of Koolhaas’s status - are ultimately required to swim.


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