The transcript below is a record of our discussion of the Venice Biennale 2014, held in one of the courtyards of the former Tolentini convents, now the home to the school of architecture in Venice – IUAV.

Sigrún Sumarliðadóttir (SS)

Giambattista Zaccariotto (GZ)

Mark Smyth (MS)

Vignir Freyr Helgason (VFH)

GZ –We are gathered here In the courtyard of school of Architecture in Venice, the Tolentini for a conversation about the Biennale, which has been the subject of our visit to Venice and the investigation of the past 5 days.

SS – 5 long days, walking though the city, and the exhibitions of the Giardini and Arsenale…


Arsenale area


British Pavilion (with a very dashing Peter Cook)

MS – …and exploring the Fundamentals theme.

Let’s start by discussing the theme itself, ‘Fundamentals; Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014’ & Koolhaas’ own contribution ‘Elements of Architecture’. One of the things he mentioned during the press conference was that this Biennale was about looking back and looking forward… an attempt to bring about a temporary hiatus from contemporary practice – the present.

Do we think that he achieved this goal?

SS – One of the best methods of looking at the current situation is by looking back and forward and not talking about current projects. It is impossible to understand the present without some understanding of the often-complicated scenarios of the past.

I think it’s interesting to take Monditalia and Elements… and sort of compare their differences.





It is all within the Fundamentals theme, but Monditalia is exploring one country as a case study. Elements is more generic – the rulebooks, the basics.

VFH – It’s a non-contextual take on the theme, taking them (the elements) out of their context – the built environment – and examining them individually.

GZ – It would be interesting to remind ourselves of the main statements and then try to find the coherence. Remembering what was displayed, what we saw… and there are a number of interesting themes, but also some contradictions.

VFH – You can see from the different national pavilions that some take the elemental route, within the “Absorbing Modernity…” theme. Some installations were on the borderline between Architecture and Art. Which has perhaps created a more interesting Architecture Biennale than before…


Kosovo Pavilion

SS – In a way, by taking the focus off the new projects and emerging trends, it allowed for other ways of telling about what we do as architects. It’s not just the Starchitect’s newest project or some private entity, but a wider look of what we really do, asking the question: what is it all for? So in a way it’s really brilliant.

MS – It was quite clear that some of the pavilions rather missed the point; U.S.A. And Canada for example…

VFH – They did an archive without narrative, without a focus.


United States Pavilion

MS – Austria is displaying, hundreds of scale models representing parliaments of the world, which said nothing about modernity.

SS – I thought it was interesting to see the different buildings of power in the various nations, although I also thought it lacked some insight into their intention with it.

VFH – There is not a clear intention or conclusion.


Austrian Pavilion

GZ – It would be interesting to clarify what “Absorbing Modernity” means

MS – I think it’s a way of encouraging the profession to critically appraise the modernism of their country. Because a lot of the countries have no recorded history, no record of the last 100 years in architecture – in many cases it is not considered interesting. But you have nothing to build upon unless you look back on what’s happened. You can’t erase the collective memory.

SS – There is a sort of on-going distaste for modernism, from the general public more than architects. Not the famous buildings of Mies van der Rohe and others but the big, nameless blocks – the rest of it. The more ordinary architecture of modernism. Nobody wants to live there, they have become ghettoised, for example the drabantby in Norway/Scandinavia.

One of the results is that this everyday modernism hasn’t been looked at critically or really examined as a part of our history. What has it lead to? Rather than just looking at it… where did it take Architecture. It’s products are part of our present, whether knowingly or not, it influences contemporary production.

GZ – The question is; ‘Is modernity still ongoing?’ Is the historical period completely closed?

I think this is also something implicitly displayed by the Biennale. This question is also about the project of modernity. If this theme is making possible a narrative between different countries about how modernity has been absorbed into the daily practice of architects.

For me there are two main points. Firstly, modernity is not one project that has been somehow articulated in different contexts. By taking this topic to investigate the future, also implies an attempt to understand if the project of modernity is still alive, still fertile in certain contexts.

Also, why modernity? Maybe because modernity has been the most recent condition where the Architects have been the extension of a collective vision.

MS: The Architect was active not passive…

GZ – …so by looking into contexts where modernity is still active or has left traces that are still relevant then it may be possible to find the foundations to create a new active position for the Architect.

SS – It is a little bit simplistic to look at modernity as if the project is over – because history isn’t really that simple, everything blends, it goes on. It’s also different in every country, and parts of it are still on-going and parts of it are in the past. Now I think were not sure what to call this modernity. From the first, modernism began as the rejection of what came before. Now we realise that there is no specific break with the past. We understand the past is here, the past sort of blends into today and into tomorrow. It’s all connected. You can’t take things apart. You can do it as a study – to understand things better because things are so complex. But the reality is complex.

MS – You can’t work in isolation from history – it is impossible.

VFH – That was Koolhaas’s intention with the Elements of Architecture. To try to break buildings into smaller entities so you can examine them closer and understand them a bit better; to produce a closer study, and opens up for the opportunity to look at it archivally and understanding the element’s development over time.

SS – The interesting thing with the elements, is that each element has it’s own history. Even though it takes the element out of context, it tells its own story about social conditions, a way of life, a way of using structures and style.


Doorhandles – Elements

MS – By looking at each element individually, it hoped to reveal the social and cultural process behind Architecture – often invisible in the complete building and its surroundings.

SS – Elements and Monditalia compliment each other very well. In elements, for example, with the toilets! You see how they change, so you see that architecture absorbs life and makes an object out of it. The element changes although it’s always a toilet, it’s always a hole in the ground. (MS; YES… for shit!)

SS – The element changes and tells a story about society. Whereas in Monditalia you are told the story of a particular society and from there you can understand the Architecture and its elements.

MS – Perhaps now we could talk a little about the national pavilions. I thought the Japanese pavilion was interesting. It was treated as a storehouse of the modernism of their region and it’s actually quite interesting to consider the whole of the Biennale in that way. It’s a fantastic storehouse, a wealth of information for Architects to draw upon, which in itself shows that the profession is extremely interested in its own history. Perhaps this project of modernism, of rejecting the past, is indeed over and the national contributions show quite clearly that this rejection of history and context broke down very quickly. You see very specific and regional features in each pavilion.


Japanese Pavilion

SS – It’s a statement; you can’t reject or escape from the past because then you have nothing… But in a way modernism’s pioneers tried to – but even they didn’t escape. And it’s impossible to ignore that a lot of modern projects are based on classical proportion and language.

VFH – It was interesting how Denmark dismissed a lot of its history and introduced a new intention, a poetic approach, with the introduction of nature as an important element in Architecture. They had a very different take than a lot of the others. Playing on senses.

SS – I almost feel like they went alongside the theme and not really in it, although their theme is really central in the discussion – aesthetics and the meaning and importance of aesthetics. But I think they didn’t really go deep enough into the Absorbing Modernity.

MS – Let’s discuss Koolhaas’ ‘Elements of Architecture’, what did you think of his selection and is his method successful?

GZ – As a tool for reading the changes I think it’s a decent method. Those elements are the more permanent within any kind of construction, so maybe it’s interesting to look at them, because of their permanency. What is not very clear are the criteria of selecting these elements. For instance, why not dedicate a room to the column, to the arch rather than the door for example. It looked for me quite arbitrary. Many of our peers are commenting that it looks a bit like an exhibition of technologies or a tradeshow – a very common event in the profession. So perhaps the narrative wasn’t very clear.

SS – It would have been very interesting if they’d documented it, the process of how you they chose these elements. Because i’m quite sure there was a big discussion about which ones you take.

MS – I would agree with that personally, Elements of Architecture is probably my least favourite part of this year’s Biennale. The best of the national pavilions, and Monditalia are more interesting and thought provoking that what was on show in the Elements exhibition. I thought it was a good complement to what was happening elsewhere, and while the idea is excellent I don’t feel it had real substance or bite on its own.

SS – MondItalia needs Elements. They need each other – to make a whole within the Fundamentals theme, but in itself Elements became a little bit thin.

MS – It was actually rather traditional in terms of the way it was presented. It felt a bit like a museum exhibition. Which could have been quite strong, but in some areas there was no real explanation. For example in the Stair section there was a lot of nice models and some brief text, but I found it difficult to read the collection as a whole, rather than simply a collection of interesting objects.

SS – I’m not sure if it was missing or just hard to find.

GZ – It’s also nothing new because a manual for architecture is something you buy and study in the first year of architecture.

VFH – Neufert, Deplazes…

GZ – Yes, there has been many manuals, and each have a kind of ideological stand. If you buy the Neufert, it has a certain selection and you can of course trace implicitly; you can get to the same conclusion as the Central Pavilion (Elements in Architecture) – but of course the selection there has been taken by Neufert, who was the director of the exhibition in this book. It has been done in many other books, for example in the Manuale dell’Architecto (by Mario Ridolfi), its like a Neufert because it has a story of these technological changes. Done in fact for the formation of an architect as an extension of a collective vision ‘What is architecture in Italy after the War?’ It could have been in there as well. Also the different manuals could have been part of the exhibition. And in fact in the end, Koolhaas is doing his own manual because the 15 books divided exactly with the same principles as any traditional manual.

MS – Which leads us on very nicely to discuss what we think of this approach from Koolhaas – the whether he likes it or not ‘Starchitect’ – using the biennale as a research project.

SS – Koolhaas takes the focus of the architects and puts it on to architecture, apart from himself.

MS – But there is no getting away from the fact that he is among their ranks, and that we probably wouldn’t have had the funding, or the breadth of interest in this Biennale without his leadership. This is not a criticism, but it is reality. He is using this as a 6-month research ‘machine’ which is going to produce a lot of archival information, a lot of books, a lot of discussion in the profession. I don’t think this has happened in the recent past and hopefully it’s really going to shake things up. How do we feel about this approach? Given that – although it will contribute to the wider architectural debate – it is very much one man, or rather one offices’ research – When we think of OMA we all think of Rem Koolhaas.


Radical Pedagogies conference

MS – Perhaps it’s worth mentioning the extended duration of this Biennale. This year it will last 6 months. What does that mean for the value of the Biennale?

SS – But also the fact that there is the funding to stay for 6 months, which means there is more interest, perhaps, than in previous years. It has a lot to do with Rem Koolhaas himself.

GZ – The method is quite clear and it is not new, for example there is a thesis about tracing the history of modernity, across the last hundred years in urbanism. By reading all the manuals or handbooks of urbanists from the early 19th C to the very late 19th C and by reading the different manuals which means also collecting the principles of how to organise parts of a city and so on. They tried to understand, to make a sort of history of ideas of the city and about the construction of the city. In this case it frames and limits architecture to the object – it is about elements of the building. This is also a bit limiting I think.

MS – Landscape & context have been left out.

GZ – There is no relationship between space as a larger domain than the building.

SS – That was what we read about in the AR, where the critic questioned ‘ Where is the Ground’? http://places.designobserver.com/feature/real-estate-and-the-responsibility-of-architects/38450/

GZ – While ‘Absorbing Modernity’ could have been also an interesting opportunity to show how certain technological parts of building cities – for example sewage and water systems – they had a huge influence in guiding the function and the appearance and the spatial features both of parts of the city and its architecture as well. So this is a bit missing from the ‘Absorbing Modernity’ theme.

VFH – By introducing this element or theme he opens up for the national pavilions to include that in their own exhibition – it is not only ‘Absorbing Mobernity’ but also ‘Elements of Architecture’ . The Chilean pavilion did this quite well by focusing on an element from the Soviet Union introduced in their own context.


Chile Pavilion


French Pavilion

MS – Which interestingly enough came up in the French Pavilion too, the Camus system.

VFH – By looking at that element in that context it shows the history of the area – it’s really quite interesting.

SS – It’s emblematic of Modernism – because apart from rejecting history, prefabrication was also key in creating a global language of architecture. What the Chilean pavilion did was look at both how the international movement affected the built environment of Chile, and how the local situation left its mark on the movement’s production.

VFH – It’s interesting how that global element became nationalised – how they made it their own, and moulded it to their own agenda – in one case by introducing the Virgin Mary into the formwork!

GZ – Another little discovery was that the modernity in Venice completely omitted, Scarpa, his neglected Venezuela pavilion was there, the little ticket office at the entrance, the courtyard in the Central pavilion– those are true pieces of a discourse on modernity. Maybe it’s an intention of leaving out the big names…


Old ticket office to Biennale – Carlo Scarpa

MS – I thought that was also very interesting, as in Koolhaas’ opening remarks Koolhaas spoke about countries and the profession not living up to their potential, due to cultural and social forces. The Venezuelan Pavilion could be used as a metaphor for the whole Biennale; It’s interesting that a pavilion with perhaps one of the most striking modernist interiors is completely shut-up and falling apart. Maybe it adds something to the exhibition, due to the fact it has been left out. It says a lot already – although it was unintentional.


Venezuela Pavilion – Carlo Scarpa

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Venezuela Pavilion – Carlo Scarpa

SS – In the press conference he also said that we don’t look at the current production we don’t look at the big names and he said something about in the last hundred years from all the national pavilions there is not a single name. Its architecture without architects… But I didn’t really see it that way. Look at the Dutch pavilion presenting Bakema, for example.


Dutch Pavilion

MS – And the Swiss; with Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt.

SS – I didn’t really quite get what he was saying about that. It was more like a statement…

MS – It was a statement he wanted la biennale to make – which it didn’t make.

SS – In fact at the last Biennale OMA had an exhibition of Modernist Public buildings that had been designed by unidentified collectives or architects working for the municipality (Venice Biennale 2012: Public Works, Architecture by Civil Servants / OMA).

MS – For example the Southbank Centre

SS – No famous names, but rather teams of architects working for the city. The exhibition emphasised the quality of the production of these unidentified architects. And again this theme of ‘architecture without architects’ – but I think this is also the emphasis of this – everyday spaces rather than objects – and the work of many instead of individuals.

GZ – In fact, it is not quite clear at all to me why they picked that author rather than the other, for instance when we talk about modernity as an attempt to create better conditions for all in terms of making a house and providing houses for all with decent standards of living. This is like the Fundamentals of the project of modernity. Which goes back to Rousseau; liberate from ignorance and make choices based on rationality…

There are authors, like for instance Constant Niewenhuys, the author of New Babylon. He’s an interesting Dutch artist who was key in the education of Koolhaas and about this discourse we are talking about; modernity – I don’t understand the relevance of some of the authors.

VFH – One of the more successful national pavilions was the Croatian pavilion, with the theme of Fitting Abstraction. What they say is that modernism is not necessarily an elimination of national characteristics but rather an act of an engaged agent in construction of culture, and architectural identities. They explored their own history of architecture to explore different themes within typologies – maybe themes that are not so easy to identify. Which, I found to be very rich and also contextual at the same time.


Croatia Pavilion

SS – They were looking at the traditional or the national (its almost like a bad word!) in modernist architecture in Croatia, and identifying elements of history through modernism.

MS – I think we should conclude by talking about this issue of passivity in the profession.

One of the key points in Koolhaas’ opening remarks was that countires and cities are not reaching their full potential and it seems that the only way that this could change or improve is if architects and other professionals involved in the built environment engage with the money men – we must be active participants!

SS – Yes, but I also think that it’s really difficult to answer the question, ‘What do Architects do now?’

MS – In fact Koolhaas completely avoids any such conclusion – this biennale is in fact a rather passive commentary on where he thinks we are as a profession. Perhaps he is unaware of the work of the many architects who are trying to tackle this question head on, much of which was on show at the last biennale, currated by David Chipperfield.


SS – We all work in the private sector, and we know that it’s extremely difficult to have your say because the power and overall control of projects has been taken from us – or rather surrendered by the profession over the past years. I’m not saying that we can’t do anything of course but there is a need for a study into how this situation has come about, which could perhaps lead to some worthwhile conclusions. Koolhaas was talking about the changes brought about in the 1980’s and the result of Reagan and Thatcher’s liberal agenda. Through privatization and the lack of a collective vision, the market has taken power.

MS – From the collective to the individual…

SS – In so doing, any collective or state-initiated vision of the future of society has been lost and it has become individualistic…

MS – …visions of private companies and private individuals.

VFH – Architecture has been industrialised in a way

SS – It has become a commodity.

MS – Architects provide a service, we are just part of the chain.

VFH – We’re not overlooking the production anymore.

GZ – In particular regarding this change of the role of the Architects, you (MS) were stating that there is a shift in the role of the architect from a sort of extension of the collective vision to an extension of the individual, or the private corporation. The architects work is truly sustained and limited by these individual visions… this is a major change.

SS – Do we think this is the reason that he chose the Fundamentals theme?

MS – I’m not so sure Koolhaas is concerned with providing an answer to this problem. You can sense his rather pessimistic outlook – and while at points he comes close to reaching some vital conclusions, my impression is that this biennale is more about looking back than looking forward.


Edited by Mark Smyth


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