Adrian Forty views the national pavilions’ exploration of modernity through the looking glass of prefabicated panels
Looking for themes at the Venice Biennale is a game for all ages. My choice is the prefabricated panel, that icon of Modernist construction, the technique that was supposed finally to drag building into the industrial age. If you’re looking for one element into which all the hopes of modernity were compressed, the flat panel is as good a choice as any, and the ways it has been diversified across the world give plenty of opportunity to compare different nations’ responses to modernity.
There are panels all over the place, but three pavilions stand out. France has a range of full-size metallic panels designed by Jean Prouvé, the maverick inspiration to the post-war generation. Shown lecturing on film, he’s one of the good guys, the benign face of French modernity, against which the curator Jean-Louis Cohen has set the dark face of modernity, compromised, menacing. Central to this dialectic is the precast concrete panel and two large replicas of Raymond Camus’s panels hang in the pavilion. The Camus system was exported widely, and – most consequentially - to Russia.
The story of France’s unique gift to the world is taken up by the Chilean pavilion, where there’s a full size concrete panel, manufactured from the plant that the Russians gave to their Chilean allies; but this is not any old panel – it is the exact one that was signed by President Allende as it came off the production line.
It’s a brilliant commentary on the diffusion of modernity
Not content with this archaeological find, the curators have tracked down some of the original workers from the panel factory, brought them to Venice, and replicated a living room from one of the apartments built with the system. Chile’s pavilion was deservedly awarded the Silver Lion – it’s a brilliant commentary on the diffusion of modernity.
And then there’s the Russian pavilion, a simulated trade show marketing the legacies of Russian twentieth century architecture. It has all the glamour and tackiness of trade shows: stands staffed by earnest salesmen and girls selected for their looks offer marketised versions of Constructivist and Suprematist architecture, customised dachas, and services to replace obsolete historical monuments, packed in next to more discreetly positioned booths where financial solutions can be arranged.
In amongst these is Prefab Corp, offering totally integrated building services; an unsmiling, suited Russian salesman presents the company as the largest fully integrated construction company in the world, providing all services from design, to construction, interior design, property management, demolition, and ultimate recycling of the components to produce yet more panel apartments. Their record, he says, is unbeatable: 60 years’ experience, 50 billion square metres of residential space delivered, manufactured happiness. And the key to this is the precast concrete panel, backed by a vast industrial capacity, no less than 318 plants in full production. It captures all the dissonances of panelisation, all the irresistible unsavoriness of modernity.