A shiny tangle of pumps and pipes spills out above a suspended polystyrene ceiling in the central pavilion of the Venice Biennale (Biennial), the metallic guts of air conditioning and sprinkler systems sliced open for all to see. Above this cross-section of a contemporary office ceiling, which hovers claustrophobically close to your head, soars a majestic dome, frescoed with heroic scenes of the evolution of art.
“The ceiling used to be decorative, a symbolic plane, a place invested with intense iconography,” says Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch director of this year’s architecture extravaganza, standing beneath his exploded ceiling. “Now, it has become an entire factory of equipment that enables us to exist, a space so deep that it begins to compete with the architecture. It is a domain over which architects have lost all control, a zone surrendered to other professions.”
That is the message of Fundamentals, an exhibition that describes the evolution of architecture through its “essential elements” — from the door and floor to window and wall — and with it, the progressive eradication of the discipline of architecture itself. It is a story of mutation from things that were once heavy and hefty, thick with the meaning of their making, to a world of skins and screens, flimsy surfaces made “smart” with the slippery magic of technology.
“Architecture today is little more than cardboard,” says Koolhaas, walking into a room where the plaster walls have been chipped away to reveal layers of Venetian brickwork, in front of which projects the plasterboard veneer of a new gallery wall, its perfect white surface held on slender metal brackets. “Our influence has been reduced to a territory that is just 2cm thick.”
Now in his 70th year, Koolhaas is bristling with more impatience than ever. He has worked on this show for almost four years — twice the usual time — and it will run for six months, double the normal length of the Architecture Biennale. With a 15-volume catalogue of more than 2,000 pages, it has been a mammoth undertaking: smashing open the past 100 years of architecture and ripping out its innards for forensic analysis.
“I started out writing about the impact that inventions like the escalator, elevator and false ceiling had on architecture,” says Koolhaas, referring to his seminal 1978 book, Delirious New York, which traced the evolution of the Manhattan skyscraper through such innovations. “I wanted to continue that inquiry, and stay away from the usual biennale format of displaying recent work by well-known architects.”
‘STARCHITECTS’ NEED NOT APPLY
Taking things back to basics, he has eschewed the club of celebrity “starchitects” to focus on the specific stories of bits of buildings. His team has assembled a captivating chronicle, laced with wit and punchy polemic, told through a menagerie of oddballs and eccentrics, with jewels mined from the more unlikely seams of architectural history.
Devoting a room to each element, the pavilion is an extended cabinet of curiosities, a John Soane museum on steroids, brimming with archives, salvaged fragments and full-scale reconstructions. There is the collection of model staircases made by the one-legged German professor Friedrich Mielke, founder of the science of scalology (staircase studies), who has devoted the past 60 years to measuring stairs across Europe. “It shows that the more we have progressed, the flatter our staircases have become,” says Koolhaas. “We are turning into very weak, unathletic people.”