The 14th Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is a tribute to building elements and invention, but it is also a meditation on modernity that morphs, in the "Monditalia" exhibit, into a singing and dancing performance piece. While some critics have raved about Koolhaas' holistic vision, others are a bit more circumspect. And visiting the exhibitions, it's not hard to see why opinions might diverge.

Elements of Architecture: Central Pavilion

The Biennale for 2014 includes entries from 65 countries. Ten of these, among them the UAE, Indonesia, Kenya, New Zealand and Turkey, are participating for the first time. The main pavilion was given the theme "Fundamentals" by Koolhaas, who was a journalist before studying architecture and is probably as well known as a theorist as he is an architect.

The main pavilion is like a giant workshop, with ceilings, doors (and handles), stairs, fireplace, roof, even toilets all considered as separate elements that have changed over time. This main exhibition was the result of a two-year research studio carried out with Koolhaas' students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and in collaboration with industry and academic experts.

Visitors can see a physical progression and array of specific components of buildings. So variations and developments of a wall are shown alongside each other, from basic mud to timber, brick and glass to modern technical materials that are interactive.

An exhibition on the hearth shows this basic element as a source of heat, light, cooking and congregation, and illustrates how these needs have been dispersed and met by separate systems over time. Modern developments appear clearly in, for example, the ceiling structure, which is presented in a historic version as a decorative dome in one space, and a drop ceiling filled with wires, vents and plumbing in another.

Dozens of other elements are all considered in similar fashion. Among the most intriguing are the escalator, which hasn't evolved a great deal in the last hundred years, and doorways, once ornate thresholds signifying wealth and status, now devices for airport security.

In fact, one section of the exhibition space was given over to the consideration of the architecture of airport security, how people are and might be moved through spaces, examined, held and dispatched. A study of the elevator revealed that, while there have been some attempts at making an elevator that can move horizontally, or even at an angle, sadly for fans of a real-life "Wonka-vator," the commercial versions have yet to materialize.

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014: The National Pavilions

For the first time at the Biennale, the national pavilions were asked to respond to a particular theme. The title was "Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014." Several of these pavilions focused on post-war developments in housing, with the French serving up a quirky homage to modernist-loving film-maker Jacques Tati with its "Modernity: Promise or Menace?" exhibition.

A model scene from Jacques Tati's modernist "Mon Oncle" in the French pavilion (Image: Andrea Avezzù, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia)

The English pavilion draws on the dystopian visions of A Clockwork Orange and those of the English Romantic poet William Blake in an exhibition titled "A Clockwork Jerusalem." The British exhibition, curated by Sam Jacob of FAT architecture and Wouter Vanstiphout, centers on a "mound," a large conical form painted hot pink and covered in turf that is meant to help signify the "flowering of British modernism" and also its collapse.

Awards for shows of unity, adaptation, and architectural patronage

The Golden Lion award for the best among the national pavilions went to Korea for an exhibition titled "A Crow’s Eye View" that displayed architectural developments in both the North and South. The offering contained an array of materials, from propaganda posters to models of building styles and topography that suggested historic and geographic connections, as well as hints of future unity. The judges praised the "diverse modes of representation that … expand the spatial and architectural narrative into a geopolitical reality." To paraphrase Hemingway, it’s nice to think so.

The Republic of Korea produced a show of some unity (Image: Andrea Avezzù, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia)

Chile was awarded the Silver Lion for its take on "the global circulation of modernity" by focusing on the prefabricated concrete wall. Answering both the brief of how we have "absorbed modernity" and the focus on elements, the Chilean project demonstrated how a particular development could and did have wide-ranging global implications in the modern world. Though, the jury commended higher ambitions, commenting that the Chilean display highlighted "elements of architecture in different ideological and political contexts."

Chile expressed the universality of prefabricated concrete walls (Image: Andrea Avezzù, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Among the Special Mentions, the Canadians won a prize for "Arctic Adaptations," a study, the jury says, "that shows how modernity adapts to unique climatic conditions and a local minority culture." All of which, not to take anything away from an important achievement, points to a habit of playing rather fast and loose with the term "modernity." If, as this described theme suggests, it means anything after 1914, then no wonder the escalator is still a marvel of engineering.

Another Special Mention went to the Russian pavilion, for its exhibition titled "Fair Enough: Russia’s Past, Our Present," which was hailed for "showcasing the contemporary language of commercialization of architecture." Different aspects of architecture were presented in booths set up to mimic a trade fair. The simulation was so effective it was easy to develop typical symptoms of what I would call "trade-fair fatigue" while looking through it.

Perhaps the biggest prize of the Biennale was a lifetime achievement award given to Phyllis Lambert, for her part "not as an architect, but as a client and custodian" of architecture. It was Lambert who convinced her father, Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Seagram company, to hire Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe to design in the 1950s, along with Philip Johnson, the Seagram Building, which would become one of the most emblematic works of modernist architecture.

Lambert went on to study and write about architecture as well as campaigning for better design in housing and urban planning. She has also been involved in the preservation of world monuments, promoting pioneering architects, and museum building and education. She also founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1979.

Monditalia: Song and dance in the Arsenale

In addition to the "Elements of Architecture" exhibit in the main pavilion and the "Absorbing Modernity" theme of the national pavilions, further national and themed exhibits are on display in the Arsenale building. This year focusing on Italy and titled "Monditalia," here, too a new aspect has been added to the Biennale with the inclusion of dance, music, theater and film.

Live dance performances take place around 41 architecture projects and screens projecting 82 films, all meant to convey a sense of Italy as a "fundamental" country "in a moment of crucial political change." There is a lot in this, perhaps too much to absorb as part of an architecture exhibition that is also meant to be about elements and modernity.

Notable small buildings

As a writer concerned with small buildings I had a bit more time for the few structures built at the Biennale. The first I came across was a project by a group of Hungarian architects called by its English translation "the Beard-Dryer," which was modeled on a typical mountain refuge. The team was erecting the simple timber structure in situ and inviting members of the public to participate. They had also constructed some hardy timber seating along the main path of the pavilion grounds.

A domed construction by a team from Kosovo titled "Visibility (Imposed Modernity)" was made entirely from traditional three-legged stools turned on their sides and attached at angles. The gaps created a pattern that from afar appears like some kind of woven timber or mesh, and has a satisfying tactile solidity that, like the "Beard-dryer," sits nicely at odds with the more theoretical leanings of the larger exhibition.

Farther along, another interesting piece of construction is a giant cylinder of shelves, which is the entry for Bahrain. The shelves hold thousands of copies of identical books on architecture in Arabic. The books are white paper, giving the impression of a delicate fabric element against the timber framework, but closer up it implies a sort of structure built of "knowledge." Inside the cylinder, a massive round table with head-phones at each seat suggests an architectural United Nations.

The Central Pavilion’s "Elements of Architecture" theme comes from Rem Koolhaas’ new book of the same name, which is out in July 2014. And while the idea that perhaps we need to reassess what buildings are made of and where our drive toward modernity had got us, I couldn't help feeling that all of this re-assessing and looking backward was missing out on offering some fundamental vision for the future.

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