Take a look at the skyline of any developing or redeveloping city centre anywhere in the world. What you see is a vast, fluorescent-lit and air-conditioned backdrop of extravagant new office towers, apartment blocks, hotels and galleries, with – increasingly – these various functions housed in single “multi-use” buildings designed to grab the attention like giant posters of pouting fashion models.
Equally, and within the shadows of these ‘look-at-me’ skyscrapers and other bombastic buildings, you will find acres of banal new developments, most looking as if they have been produced by a secret global building factory turning out apologies for modern architecture as fast as you can say ‘real estate’.
“Over the past few years”, says Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, “our choices of curators and themes have been based on the awareness of the gap between the ‘spectacularisation’ of architecture on the one hand, and the waning capacity of society to express its demands and its needs on the other. Architects are called upon to create awe-inspiring buildings [while] the “ordinary” is going astray, towards banality if not squalor: a modernity lived bad[ly]”.
The 14th Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened on 7 June, has been curated by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, whose Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), founded in Rotterdam in 1975, is a powerhouse for both new ideas and many remarkable buildings, from Porto’s meteorite-like Casa da Música to the structural bravura of the powerful China Central Television Building in Beijing. Koolhaas’s team has spent two years researching and curating the latest Venice Biennale. If you want to understand how modern architecture has come to be what it is around the world over the past century, the exhibition halls of Venice’s Arsenale and Giardini delle Biennale are the places to be over the next six months.
What Koolhaas aims to show us is how the world embraced Modernism. And, as 65 countries are represented in the latest Architecture Biennale, there are many stories to tell – even if the final chapters read as if they were written by a single author. Global design appears to have superceded every last local national, regional or city style.
Cleverly, and unexpectedly, Koolhaas and his team of architects, historians and curators have chosen to tell this big story neither through a conventional presentation of models, photographs and drawings of famous, influential or otherwise memorable buildings, nor through the lives and works of celebrated Modern architects. Instead, the principal exhibition at Venice, Elements of Architecture, is a painstaking study of the ways in which building components and details have changed over millennia as architecture has been transformed from a practical art form expressing beliefs, desires and cultures into a universal assembly of machine-age elements: from huge, sealed office window`s to banks of escalators and elevators where once there were beautiful staircases.
Koolhaas asks visitors to look at windows, walls and even WCs to watch this historic transformation in action. “But, it’s only a long beginning”, he tells me. “Architectural theory, architectural historians haven’t yet caught up with this process of change.” Now, says the architect, “we live in an era of constant data flowing into buildings.” The idea, of course, is that we will be able to control our architectural surroundings – offices, hotels, hospitals, homes – in ever greater detail, although as Koolhaas warns, with a knowing grin, “one day your home might betray you.”
Koolhaas, though believes that we are not doomed to live in a globalised world of banal, digitised and automated buildings shaped from universal components. “Architects”, he says, “can re-think building types”, so that we can, at least, expect some degree of variety and architectural surprise into the future. What, though, you can also find at this fascinating and polemical Architecture Biennale are ways in which modern architecture might yet reconnect with and re-interpret local cultures around the world and, in doing so, produce “fusion” buildings much like young New Zealand chefs have done over the past twenty years, mixing Asian and Kiwi cuisines and turning them into something fresh and enticing.
I mention New Zealand because this is the first time the country has shown at the Venice Biennale, and it has a story to tell about how architects can connect old, new, local and global cultures and elements and produce something new and special. In their show at Venice, New Zealand’s architects and curators will focus on, among other designs, the beautiful Futuna Chapel at Karori, Wellington, dating from 1961, designed by the architect John Scott and the sculptor Jim Allen and built by the brothers of the Society of Mary.
Nick Bevin, a Wellington architect and chair of the Friends of Futuna Charitable Trust, took me to see this deeply moving chapel a fortnight before the opening of the Venice Biennale. Bevin and fellow Trust members talk of this striking concrete, timber and Perspex chapel in the same breath as they do Le Corbusier’s world-famous French pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp (1954) and Matisse’s painterly La Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence (1951). The genius of the chapel, abandoned by the Society of Mary in 2000, is that it fuses ideas, and even elements, from Le Corbusier with structural ideas and symbolism drawn from Maori culture. So, here is a chapel – open to all faiths and people of no faith – resounding with subtle echoes of traditional Maori meeting halls and architectural scores drawn from Ronchamp and Vence.
The interior is beautifully lit by the sun illuminating magnificent coloured Perpsex windows – cheaper than glass at the time; this was not an expensive building – while its roof structure is a mixture of Maori, medieval and modern elements. Today, the chapel stands alone in a tide of resolutely banal new developers’ housing, a reminder of just how precious and rare such intelligent architecture is. Even in its elements – modern as well as time-honoured building materials – the Futuna Chapel shows how a new architecture could have developed, and still might develop, in parts of the world not yet given over head, heart and soul to all-consuming globalism.
This has been done before and elsewhere. Look, for example, at Alvar Aalto’s modestly brilliant Saynatsalo town hall (1951), capturing the atmosphere and the elements of Finnish lakes and forests in its design and setting. Look, too, at Renzo Piano’s romantic and gently compelling Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre near Noumea in New Caledonia (1998) celebrating the culture of the indigenous Kanak people as well as expressing modern Genoese and international technical and environmental know-how.
If though, Futuna is a revelation – both for real, and as represented the by the NZ team in Venice – Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 Architecture Biennale is a warning shot across all our bows, whether we live in Lagos or London, New York or New Caledonia, to be truly careful for what we appear to wish for, an intensely materialistic global way of life, that is, leading to Baratta’s “modernism lived badly” and Koolhaas’s homes that, one day may might well betray us all.
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