PRINT September 2014


THE FOURTEENTH ITERATION of the Venice Architecture Biennale is an exhibition of superlatives. Having opened this past June and remaining on view through November, it will be the longest-running and most expansive, diverse, and interdisciplinary of any Architecture Biennale to date, with the involvement of a host of major curators and practitioners from the art world. Perhaps most significantly, its director, the provocateur Rem Koolhaas, has organized an exhibition of unprecedented ambition and focus—one that seeks not only to take stock of contemporary architecture but to shape the future of the field. Artforum invited scholar and critic SYLVIA LAVIN to reflect on the implications of this super-Biennale, which may resonate far beyond the boundaries of architecture.

View of “Elements of Architecture,” 2014. Central Pavilion, Venice. Ceiling display. Photo: Francesco Galli.

A DECADE AGO, reflecting back on Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 of 1972, Daniel Buren worried that this groundbreaking exhibition might have paved the way for the role of the curator to eclipse, even obviate, that of the artist: “Today it is possible to imagine that we are not far off from having a large-scale international exhibition directed by a great organizer-author who proposes the first exhibition without any artists at all!” Indeed, Szeemann had achieved an uncanny degree of authorial control over the show despite its unprecedented size and almost infinite variety of contributors. Rather than selecting a cross section of existing works, Szeemann commissioned many of the pieces on view to respond to his own chosen theme: “the relationship between images and reality,” as he put it. And to make that relation concrete, he juxtaposed these works with things not generally considered art,from advertising posters to postage stamps and paper currency, emphasizing material he described as “information” and “documentation.” Many prominent artists objected to this curatorial strategy, condemning it as both dictatorial and anticritical: Robert Smithson wrote in these pages that nothing less than “cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition,” calling Szeemann a “warden-curator.”

In the nearly half century since that pivotal event, Szeemann’s view has prevailed, and the powerful loss of distinction between art and information that made Documenta 5 such a disruptive event has led to ever-increasing equivalencies between art and non-art. These shifts have gone hand in hand with the rise of a new kind of creative agent and institutional authority: the curator who functions as a superproducer, a manager-artist whose medium is the exhibition and whose métier is Szeemann’s strange epistemological no-man’s-land between art, image, and reality.

Buren’s anxiety about the rise of the curator has not been matched in architecture. The discipline’s response, in fact, has been largely complacent—even as the curatorial turn seems to have reached its apotheosis in the much-anticipated Venice Architecture Biennale on view this summer, directed by Rem Koolhaas. Adding to the already significant range of his activities and his larger-than-life role in the field of global culture, Koolhaas posed himself as an organizer-author-warden-curator—overseeing an exhibition that he describes as an “exhibition about architecture not architects.” Like Szeemann, Koolhaas has rejected preexisting work as a category altogether: Scarcely a single contemporary building is included in the Biennale, which is the largest ever for architecture by far. Koolhaas has, in fact, gone even further, presenting none of his selected participants as architectural authors in practice or design; instead, they are all curators, too, organizing content in various sections of the exhibition.

If Szeemann is said to have invented the thematic exhibition, Koolhaas has produced its ne plus ultra. His theme is “Fundamentals”: architectural realities rather than mere imagery, the former being defined as the field’s moral obligations to the myriad social, economic, and political forces that shape architecture’s materializations and collective use. Koolhaas has tried to underscore this particular dimension of architectural reality by showcasing historical documents, material artifacts, and statistical data as if unmediated and simply “under a microscope.”

Although attenuated by a sprawling diaspora of exhibits and events across Venice, the Biennale proper comprises three sections: “Elements of Architecture,” located in the Central Pavilion and focused on components such as windows, doors, floors, and toilets, all presented as universal points of contact between architecture and the exigencies of postindustrial society and contemporary methods of construction; “Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014,” housed in the national pavilions, each addressing its own trajectory of modernism over the past hundred years and focusing on the social developments and historical events shaping that nation’s architecture; and “Monditalia,” an Arsenale-filling case study of specific episodes in the history of modern architecture in Italy, a project similar to that housed in the national pavilions but on a much larger scale and with a finer grain of focus. All of these displays, however disparate, reinforce Koolhaas’s overarchingly scientific rubric and informatic visual strategy.In its ideological clarity and managerial control, this Biennale is the most consistent and polemically focused since the first official Architecture Biennale in 1980, Paolo Portoghesi’s “The Presence of the Past.” That earlier show is often understood to have catalyzed the emergence of postmodern architecture—an architecture of images, representations, and the latest historicist styles rather than the material and social realities of concern to Koolhaas.

View of “Elements of Architecture,” 2014. Central Pavilion, Venice. Facade display. Photo: Italo Rondinella.

KOOLHAAS’S BIENNALE seems to be not only a deliberate riposte to Portoghesi’s exhibition of postmodernism on the rise but an effort to eradicate any lingering traces of the postmodern legacy, rejecting its vanguardism and eschewing drawings, models, and other explicitly representational architectural artifacts. Instead, Koolhaas aims to present architecture as emphatically real, through a virtually endless and totalizing stream of primary information and documentation—photographs, travel brochures, statistical data, mock-ups, etc. These exhibition materials define architecture almost exclusively in relation to political and economic forces, as an index of real-world conditions. Accordingly, much of the show is organized around the conceit of evidence: Windows, for example, are shown as isolated objects transformed into an array of scientific specimens. By repeatedly displaying such catalogues of similar devices, an overall visual rhetoric of architecture as a collection of facts emerges, which negates the distinction between architecture and the world and suppresses the subjective desires of the designer in favor of the logic of industrial production. In this way, Koolhaas subsumes the very possibility of a critical architectural practice—Indeed, of architectural agency itself—within a larger historical unfolding.

Yet the resistance put up by the likes of Smithson and Buren is surprisingly absent from Koolhaas’s Biennale. On one hand, the lack of dissent can be explained by the general acceptance of expanded curatorial authority and by the fact that architects, already accustomed to commissions and commissioners, are less troubled by the idea of working in response to a predetermined brief than are artists, particularly a brief with such a widely palatable politics. Koolhaas brings a distinctly postcolonial perspective to narratives of modernity and globalization that structure the national pavilions in particular. While this is certainly welcome, since the Architecture Biennale has generally neglected politics in the past, these days such an approach could scarcely be expected to produce controversy.

On the other hand, the degree to which Koolhaas was able to generate an exhibition of consensus may also derive from the different ways in which art and architecture understand their relationship to reality itself.When the Szeemann effect, as we might call it, moved art into the world, artists shifted their concerns toward the conditions of reality that shape architecture. Documenta 5 was in fact the first to include architects, but even more important, it included many Conceptual and installation artists, such as Edward Kienholz, Bruce Nauman, and Lawrence Weiner, who used an engagement with architecture to give their work social immediacy. Architecture promised a structure more firmly tethered to the everyday world—one that could make their art real. Making sculpture in the shape of small buildings and making paintings out of drywall, these artists worked to frame and emphasize architecture’s mooring in physical and social actuality in order to produce a rich range of new political and aesthetic effects.

Ultimately, however, they stopped short of actually producing architecture, since they did not go so far as to include toilets, heating systems, stairs—those elements defined by Koolhaas as fundamental to the discipline. Yet for all his attention to such components, Koolhaas does not produce architecture, either. And herein lies the profound irony that permeates the Biennale: While Documenta 5 showed art using architecture to produce new social realities and modes of spectatorship, “Fundamentals” shows architecture itself as inextricably tied to the real—but does not go so far as to produce architecturally transformative social and aesthetic actualities. The piles of documentary materials, endless streams of data, and dossiers of incontrovertible “facts” on view in Venice combine to generate a spectacle that not only indicates the persistence of postmodernism’s image-logic but—in its emphasis on deploying images of architecture to produce political narratives—shows architecture behaving more like art than anything that has been attempted at this scale before. Koolhaas’s Biennale may be about architecture, but it more importantly is a large and manifold project of contemporary aesthetic practice, the first architectural exhibition that must be considered not just a single work but a single work of art.

View of “Elements of Architecture,” 2014. Central Pavilion, Venice. Escalator display. Photo: Italo Rondinella.

ART AND ARCHITECTURE have been linked before, but space has been considered their shared medium; Germano Celant’s “Arte/Ambiente” at the 1976 Venice Biennale, for example, a milestone in the history of installation art, initiated a discourse of convergence between art and architecture based on the similar modes of experience they could generate for the embodied beholder. While Celant’s environments haunt this year’s Biennale—many of the individual exhibits rely heavily on glowing video monitors or wall-scaled graphics to produce ambient effects—Koolhaas definitively rejects the spatial and phenomenological emphasis of this tradition. Instead, the single most important idea clarified by Koolhaas’s Biennale is that “research” is now a primary medium of architecture, one shared extensively with art and, like any emergent medium, still establishing its logic and terms of critique.

Koolhaas in particular has mobilized a complex and multidisciplinary history of research in support of this process. Scanning for images became a primary investigatory technique following the postwar proliferation of photographic archives: This method was used to significant effect by Bernard Rudofsky, whose 1964 exhibition, “Architecture Without Architects,” is an inescapable point of reference here. More broadly, Koolhaas is indebted to Manfredo Tafuri (the dominant architectural theorist during Koolhaas’s student days), particularly his notion that historical research can function as a scientific antipode to the spectacular experiences generated by late capitalism. Tafuri’s turn to writing and history resonated with the integration of formal, historical, and cultural inquiry into architectural practice during the 1970s by figures such as Robert Venturi, Peter Eisenman, and Koolhaas himself. Of all the important texts written by these critic-architects, Koolhaas’s Delirious New York (1978) most strongly anticipated the key role that graphic design would play as visual interface between architecture and information. Finally, Koolhaas’s relationship to media and his methods of research are further entangled with the long history of Conceptual art and the “archival impulse” present in the work of so many contemporary artists, from Tacita Dean and Thomas Hirschhorn to Michael Rakowitz, Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer, and Matthew Buckingham.

Koolhaas’s idea of research, then, is as multifaceted as it is elastic. In the Central Pavilion, research functions less to develop deep or particular histories than as a relativizing device: In consistently showing more than one floor or corridor, and always presenting it in relation to norms of modern industrial construction, Koolhaas emphasizes each element as generic rather than designed. The displays become three-dimensional catalogues, which at their best conjure the deliberately unaesthetic and faintly amateurish atmosphere of a trade show or science fair, and at their worst a heavy-handed, pedantic didacticism—balconies on a balcony, corridors in a corridor. That a show so focused on curating might be insufficiently strategic in its own curation is confirmed in the entry of the Central Pavilion. Here is the only exception to the show’s rule of series, a single drop ceiling that looms before the viewer. Slicing a domed room in half, this “fundamental” element works on the level of a site-specific installation. Something between a mock-up and a sectional model, the sandwich of ducts, pipes, and acoustic tiles reveals the relentless logic of mechanical infrastructure that is always overhead and never seen, terrifyingly adept in its capacity to infiltrate and render mundane even the Central Pavilion’s ornate nineteenth-century frescoes and brickwork structure. Richly considered in its negotiation between new and old, the drop ceiling harnesses a full repertoire of technological and spatial architectural elements to perform, rather than represent, the effects of contemporary architecture. Indeed, it is the only fundamental that resists Koolhaas’s effort to strip elements of their imbrication with others, to wrest syntax from semantics, and to isolate signs from larger systems of signification. In other words, it is the only element that could not be shown as other than a complex, endlessly networked environment. It thereby disrupts the pavilion’s otherwise neutral display of research results by demonstrating architecture in action.

In the Arsenale, the presentation of research initially appears more consistent because it focuses on one country: Italy. But the content ranges from scholarly accounts of brief events in the history of twentieth-century Italian architecture (with a decided bias in favor of what Celant himself named the “radical architecture” of the late 1960s and the ’70s) to cultural and geographic narratives fabricated through the broad-brush procedure that architects call site analysis. Here the greatest commonality is an emphasis on contemporary techniques of information production, such as digital-visualization tools and data mining, rather than on information itself. The research in the national pavilions is similarly varied. While the compressed spaces of the Arsenale dictated two-dimensional graphic displays, however, the more generous square footage of the pavilions encouraged piles of things, collections of materials that are presented as archives, garage sales, and Wunderkammern, replete with thematized installation design—rolling flat files, flea-market tags, and artfully haphazard storage sheds. If the Arsenale favors multiple procedures, the national pavilions favor massive output.

View of “Elements of Architecture,” 2014. Central Pavilion, Venice. Balcony display. Photo: Francesco Galli.

Architects have long experimented with radical information design, of course. Charles and Ray Eames were the first to use information overload as an exhibition strategy, and Koolhaas’s amplification of their postwar-era techniques might at first seem appropriate to graphic presentation in a digital age. For all the show’s vast expanse, however, there is little “big data”: Information is often small and repeated, for example with the same fragments of text appearing variously as captions, as wallpaper, and in catalogues printed as both bound books and posters. In some cases, information is even smaller, amounting to a monumental trivialization of historical practice, as when entire Ph.D. dissertations are printed at microscopic size and tacked onto a wall. Research becomes image rather than an expansion of shared knowledge.

Other exhibits tend toward the extra large, presenting huge collections of admittedly fascinating objects but offering no means for the viewer to discriminate between one thing and another or to focus on anything in particular. The disconnect between this exhibition of architecture as information and the professions of information architecture, where a primary focus is developing protocols for access and organization in the face of the exponentially growing quantity of material to be archived, seems to be a symptom of a larger, as yet unresolved tension in mobilizing research as a medium. Indeed, the show’s emphasis on display techniques at the expense of actually displaying information underscores the undecidable nature of the Biennale’s research project: It promised to reveal material of enough value to not only require the close attention of a beholder but transform his or her political subjectivity, yet often delivers so many bits of inaccessible data that attention dissipates almost immediately, rendering the visitor more or less irrelevant.

Only in the Swiss pavilion has the relation between the viewer and the exhibition material been substantially transformed. Here, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist invited a somewhat mystifying collection of contemporary artists and architects to engage with the archives of architects Lucius Burckhardt and Cedric Price. Herzog & de Meuron and Obrist designed a storage unit that acts as the centerpiece of an ongoing performance choreographed by Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza, in which student actors bring archival materials to visitors and engage them in conversation at various mobile stations. Of course, the coupling of document and visitor is totally arbitrary, as is the link between Burckhardt and Price (except that they, along with the contemporary participants in the pavilion, all belong to the personal orbit of that superproducer extraordinaire, Obrist himself), and the documents themselves are facsimiles. This rococo concoction makes the original model of Price’s Fun Palace—sitting alone in the pavilion’s otherwise-empty main room—a poignant reminder of the absent real. In fact, Obrist’s carefree attitude toward the documents’ content and emphasis on their value as physical props makes evident a surprising nostalgia for the material history of information throughout the Biennale, a vestigial hope that archival matter might still have an auratic and transformative effect.

BUT IF RESEARCH is to realize any such transformation, surely its power will derive from the ways in which it is ultimately constituted as an aesthetic practice. Research cannot be reduced to the quality of its data but must also account for its sensible effects, whether these have the cadence of art or of architecture. The most consistent effect produced in Venice is the transformation of the gallery into a stage on which the viewer performs the contemporary motions of information access—scanning, churning, sifting. These almost-robotic and often-unrecognized performances do not juxtapose image and reality but rather underscore how easily all material bodies, including the viewer’s, are absorbed into the machinery of information production. Despite—or even because of—its interchangeable reams of paper and masses of texts and objects, the show follows the logic of a Google search, in which the underlying and invisible algorithms that manufacture the appearance of value for the viewer are more important than the information that actually pops up first. In 1972, Szeemann could take for granted that the embodied viewer was implicitly at the center of his triangulation of image, art, and reality; today, architecture cannot make this assumption. The field is at risk of mistaking its research for fact and therefore of committing a category error that could consign the viewer to an infinite purgatory of image processing.

In a symptomatic display of the exhibition’s art of research, a massive time-line mural appears on a wall of the Central Pavilion. It sketches a history of art and architecture biennials that culminates with Celant, Szeemann, and Koolhaas (a meeting of minds literally enacted just this past year, when Szeemann’s seminal 1969 exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” was restaged by Koolhaas and Celant at the Fondazione Prada in Venice’s Palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina). This may be the only place in the entire exhibition where a base desire is revealed beneath the seemingly endless Flickr stream of images, where the memory of historical actors confronts the incomplete contemporary subject, and where the robotic churning of information constantly required of the viewer is disrupted, if only for a moment. As in the rest of the show, the patent incompleteness of this history is not the issue. Its effect is to call attention to the ways in which Koolhaas’s status as an architect has expanded his capacity to interpolate himself into this genealogy.

Unlike Szeemann, who worked as an independent curator with a famously maniacal interest in each and every object in his exhibitions, Koolhaas operates at a significant remove from the specificities of display, occupying the epicenter of an enormous labor infrastructure that expertly exploits the interdependencies of architectural firms, academic institutions, and a vast transdisciplinary network of those who have been called discourse workers: researchers, information designers, diplomats, and policy experts. An impressive number of these are current or former employees of Koolhaas’s firm, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. Koolhaas, starting from the position of an architect, is able to expand his field of influence and mobilize vastly more capital than even the most powerful star artist or curator, and to claim to do so in the service of a broader (if utterly abstract) public. While the architecture of this organization is terrifying in its infinite capacity to absorb and expand, it has also allowed this Biennale to become the stage for a virtuosic artistic performance.

The 14th Venice Architecture Biennale is on view through Nov. 16, 2014.

Sylvia Lavin is the Director of critical studies, graduate programs, and the newly established curatorial project in the department of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Los Angeles.