Land of Hope and Glory

This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale breaks with two mechanisms that defined its presence over the last fifteen to twenty years. First is the setting of a grand, though conveniently abstract theme that suggests a connection between current development and the state of architecture. The ethics of architecture (or of the architect?), the architect as seismograph, architecture is for people, that kind of stuff. These past themes suggested a critical position of the curator on duty, but hardly succeeded in influencing the debate, let alone affairs. At best they added flavor to the core element of the Biennale: a presentation of who matters in architecture. And that brings us to the second mechanism: no matter the main curatorial theme, every pavilion was totally at liberty to present their best architecture and architects. Some pavilions succeeded in selling an idea more than products and some (rarely) attempted to raise an issue, but the ‘who’s doing what’ element was dominant.

An exception in this series was Ricky Burdett’s research-based attempt to shift attention to the global city, stop architecture from navel-gazing, and call for an engagement with greater urgencies, in 2006. Not really early warning, but a useful intervention at the time, making some issues intelligible for a broader audience. It didn’t prevent most national pavilions to do what they generally do: show some young developments inside its national borders or present an established voice.

This Biennale has very little of that. By setting a theme that is based on curiosity more than conviction, posing questions rather than making a point, it opens perspectives on a variety of themes. For the Elements of Architecture, one could argue about quality of individual presentations, about consistency in the way material is presented (and whether that matters), and comprehensiveness of the selected elements, but that is evaluating results, not idea and approach.

On that level there were harsh criticisms: people said that this Biennale is not about architecture, that it is about one man’s deficiencies, that we’re looking at a giant ego show. That may not be the most interesting and productive way to look at what’s being presented. No matter the autobiographic origins of the two subthemes Elements of Architecture and Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, both set relevant topics and produce a wealth of material. There is no denying for instance that architecture is highly influenced by a building industry that transformed from making to producing in over a century. The recent development of reuse only adds complexity to this; it doesn’t change the fundamental that architecture has become the art of combining and connecting. So to use the Biennale to pose a question and start researching as an open-ended project is innovative and powerful.

Where the Elements asked architecture to look at its own fundamentals, the  ‘absorbing modernity’ theme formed the other end of the spectrum (with Monditalia in the Arsenale as an extensive case study). That theme was proposed to the national pavilions and absorbed by them with remarkable enthusiasm. To move away from the hottest or most topical, dig into one’s own history and reflect on defining moments and developments seemed an attractive option.  It produced some very interesting presentations and overall helped to create a more complex and layered story of what twentieth century revolutions brought about. For instance, that ‘modernity’ as a spreading disease, touching ever-larger parts of the globe, was received quite differently, and that the mix of generic and specific produced different cocktails. Modernism (as most pavilions took the theme) had serious trouble from the start to incorporate cultural and local specificity as it seemed to water down its main assumptions and goals. So to be presented with what countries and nations contributed to modernism or how they transformed formulas and forces to their needs and capacities is refreshing to see.

But what do we see when we reverse the perspective, not look at how modernity or modern architecture landed in different contexts, but look at how architecture contributed to defining state and nation. There have been moments in the recent past when nation-building was not really an issue. It was a program alright, but not a contested one. It simply was a consequence of what was being done, a program and way to go about things based on wide consensus. And that includes the destruction of (state) identities that had fallen from grace. The struggles expressed by strikes and demonstrations in the 70s through to the 90s were targeting inequality (pay) and foreign policy (war) mainly, not the nation as project. The current tribalization of societies around the world does pose questions to architecture, however. The assumption that in the longer run we’re moving to ever more homogeneity, that cultural, religious, and political differences will be absorbed by this global melting pot of connectivity and economic interrelations is being challenged by recent developments. At present it looks more like the global economic system itself needs these tensions and contradictions to function; that ‘smooth’ space is not a real option. On a more pedestrian level this relates to architecture directly. If the state as representation of the nation is eroding – its powers seeping away to local and regional levels and to larger conglomerates like the EU – and the nation is no longer an unambiguous project in its territorial claims – splintering into rivaling groups each claiming to represent ‘the nation’ or refusing to be part of the larger entity – architecture’s role is at stake. Should it fall back on the partisan option and become good or bad depending on the political inspiration underpinning the project? Can it provide credibility to (or for) minorities, can it (again) help build a nation? Answers to that question presented in this issue vary from quite pessimistic (architecture can, but only in a synthetic and questionable way), to pragmatic (architecture does anyway, no matter what architects say or think), to reluctant optimism: its role won’t be major, but something should be possible at least. Let’s sleep on it.

Volume #41: How to Build a NationThis editorial by Volume editor-in-chief Arjen Oosterman was published in Volume’s 41st issue, ‘How to Build a Nation’.

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