The exhibition in the central pavilion is curated by Rem Koolhas himself. It is developed by AMO(OMA) and realised in association with Harvard Graduate School of design amongst other experts from industry and academia. The idea for the exhibition comes from the curator’s interest in the singular elements and their history. The idea is to somewhat use the chance to update architectural history and theory and the way we think about architecture.
The exhibition breaks architecture into some of its primary, and familiar, elements by looking at their history, production and evolution over time. The elements that are chosen are fifteen in total; the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the facade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator and the ramp.
There is a wealth of exhibition spaces in the central pavilion, showcasing each element in various format and media; drawings, models, prototypes and film.
At the press conference, during the preview of the Biennale, Koolhaas explained his interest in, and elaborated on why the basic elements were chosen as a theme. He mentioned how the elements have different meaning in cultures and how history has been affected by them. Taking the staircase as an example. There are social implications connected to the staircase as an element that have to do with the ceremonial or hierarchies in different cultures. The human relationship with it has also changed over time, and it seems that mankind is getting increasingly reluctant to go up steep stairs, that affects the evolution of the element and stairs have a tendency to flatten. Through the elements you can read that over the last fifteen years, the humans, once a robust adventurous species, now have become addicted to comfort and we hate challenge, thus elements become more comfortable rather than adventurous.
The exhibition consists of different spaces, each focusing on an element. It starts with the “ceiling” space, showcasing a ceiling construction that highlights the technical installations that are hidden in the ceiling. Koolhaas explains the intention at the press conference. The installation is meant to comment on the course that architecture has taken, that over time buildings have become more like pieces of complex machinery, than architecture and in a way “taken over” by engineers and contractors,
In the exhibition the technical influence, with its digital tools and production, is seen in the evolution of the singular elements. After the simplification of the elements over time, the question arises if the articulation, historic meaning and aesthetic quality of the elements have been lost in standardization, and are instead replaced by utilitarian objects.
As you move through the exhibition spaces the narrative behind the different elements, presented at the press conference, isn’t as clear as one would hope. Perhaps it is the curator’s analytical approach in which the element is in focus which leads to an unclear narrative. This leaves an overall impression of a disjointed exhibition. The process of choosing the elements is also left out, leaving you questioning why exactly these elements were chosen.
An article by Reinhold Martin “Fundamental #131; Real Estate as Infrastructure as Architecture” (see link below) questions the selection of the elements. The author specifically mentions the absence of “land” in the list of Koolhaas’ elements. This very absence of land was questioned at the press conference and vaguely answered by Koolhaas himself. He explained his view of how the market controls and influences land and real estate, and that the market is present at the exhibition, due to it’s influence on the development and evolution of each individual element. The theme of land as an element however, being so big that it deserves a biennale of its own.
Looking past the critique, the intention and method presented at the exhibition is clear. By using an analytical approach and focus on elements rather than a building as a whole, will hopefully inspire us to piece the elements together in new ways – creating ground for new ideas to emerge from.
Written by Vignir Freyr Helgasson
1“Fundamental #13; Real Estate as Infrastructure as Architecture” http://places.designobserver.com/feature/real-estate-and-the-responsibility-of-architects/38450/