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June 25, 2014

Postcard from the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale

By Janelle Zara | Arts + Culture

Postcard from the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale
Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

History lessons, almost as a rule, tend to be on the dry side—unless, of course, they’re dispensed by Rem Koolhaas, the Pritzker prize–winning Dutch architect and polemicist known for never following the rules. Under his direction, “Fundamentals,” the newest edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale (through November 23; labiennale.org), which opened June 7, looks at the past hundred years of architecture’s global evolution in ways that are provocative, inspiring and almost never boring.

The main event takes place in Venice’s historic Giardini, where Napoléon Bonaparte’s former garden now houses 30 national pavilions, architectural marvels in which the 65 participating countries set up their shows. As a departure from Biennales past, which have highlighted glitzy, unrelated showcases of recent starchitectural achievements, Koolhaas prompted the exhibitors to look inward at the effects of globalization on national identity. Here are a few of the most stimulating standouts to catch this year.

  • Russia welcomes visitors with Day-Glo versions of the classic jet-age flight attendant—women decked out in pink and purple standing at the entrance to “Fair Enough” (pictured above), a darkly satirical trade show selling off farcical pieces of Russia’s architectural history, like vacation packages, metro stations, artist El Lissitzky and more.
  • The United States pavilion, led by a team of New York architects, academics and designers, hosts “OfficeUS,” a functioning architecture firm complete with receptionist, desks, MakerBot 3-D printers and fellows busily researching the past and present of their industry to produce a weekly design relating to an issue in American history. The results will be published in a series of four books at the Biennale’s end. They are happy to talk but by appointment only.
  • Korea puts on the best show and was rewarded for it with this year’s Golden Lion award for best pavilion. “Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula” is a profound look at both the North and South and how differences in economy and ideology can manifest in buildings. Although photographs of Pyongyang and Seoul show two separate histories with various architectural styles, the two cities share a search for national identity in the midst of rapid urbanization and foreign influence.
  • In the center of the main event is Koolhaas’s own pavilion, called “Elements of Architecture,” an exhibition that zooms in on the overlooked essentials of erecting a building: the floor, the walls, the ceiling…the toilet. An entire gallery, in fact, questions our cultural transformation through the lens of the loo, from using the stone-carved ancient Roman commode to the electronic bidet, under a very compelling premise: “The toilet is the most fundamental zone of interaction—on the most intimate level—between humans and architecture,” reads the exhibition’s wall text.