Whose house? Koolhaas puts on a show at Venice Architecture Biennale

From a full-scale bungalow to Arctic landscapes, this year’s fantastically engaging exhibition, under the direction of the Dutch starchitect, shows how countries have been reinvented since 1914

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:00

Rem Koolhaas knows how to put on a show. The Dutch starchitect designed what is probably the world’s most preposterous building, the loopy China Central Television headquarters, in Beijing. And as director of the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale he is reaching out to the public in a fantastically engaging way.

Running this year for six months – twice as long as previous biennales – the huge festival features dance, film, music and theatre as well as architecture. As a result Koolhaas and his team are not merely architects communicating with other architects at an effete intellectual level, which was often the case in the past.

This reflects his background as a journalist, screenwriter, author and polemicist; a 1978 book was titled Delirious New York. A man for all seasons, he also runs his own think tank, AMO (part of his firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture), focusing on politics, sociology, fashion, media and publishing.

Koolhaas wanted the record number of countries taking part – 65 this year – to address the theme of absorbing modernity.

“Every nation has been forced to modernise itself,” he said. But they all had “complete freedom” in responding to the theme, because he wanted to “create an orchestra of voices”.

And what an orchestra it is. Spread through Arsenale, where the Venetian Republic built its powerful fleet, as well as the permanent national pavilions in the Giardini della Biennale and numerous exhibitions and “collateral events” dotted throughout the watery city, it’s the architectural equivalent of the Cannes film festival.

Big names are notably absent this year. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means more space for others, such as de Blacam and Meagher Architects, which is showing three villas (in Ibiza, Inis Meán and Dublin) as part of a big exhibition at Palazzo Bembo, near the Rialto Bridge.

Countries were not required to cover the sweep of modernity from 1914 to 2014; they could pick a seminal building or period to represent a turning point.

The Germans, for example, came up with the brilliant idea of rebuilding the bungalow built in Bonn in 1964 for Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. Designed by Erhard’s architect friend Sep Ruf, the flat-roofed house has been re-created at full size in Venice, like something from the Ideal Homes Exhibition – although without any furniture, apart from a cut-out white leather sofa. Outside is Helmut Kohl’s bulletproof Mercedes-Benz, with a copy of the Die Zeit newspaper on the back seat.

Across the way the French pavilion gets to the heart of the matter with a commended exhibition, Modernité, Menace ou Promesse? Its centrepiece is a colourful 1:10 scale model of Villa Arpel, the kitsch house and very busy garden that featured in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. The exhibit features excerpts from the movie.

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