A shiny tangle of pumps and pipes spills out above a suspended polystyrene ceiling in the central pavilion of the Venice Biennale, 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.”
Such 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. Together with his office, OMA, he has worked on this show for almost four years – twice the usual time – and it will be on show for six months, double the normal length of the Architecture Biennale. Accompanied by a 15-volume catalogue of more than 2,000 pages, it has been a mammoth undertaking: smashing open the last 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.”
Taking things back to basics, he has eschewed the club of celebrity “starchitects” – of which he is both doyen and denier – 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 last 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.”
In the next room he pitches the radical French architect Claude Parent, “master of the oblique”, who spent the 1970s designing steeply sloping interiors, against Tim Nugent, a US second world war veteran who campaigned for the universal implementation of accessibility ramps. Born within a year of each other, these men embody two diametric tendencies of the epoch – one would foreshadow the swoops and slopes of the Zaha Hadid kind, the other would usher in the defining dogma of our risk-averse building regulations.
“I was keen to show that architecture is not just a creative process, but an endless labour of calculation and research,” says Koolhaas, who has drawn out the sometimes dubious “science” behind the lonely crusades of his various fanatics, displayed with wry detachment.
One of the most popular rooms, dedicated to the toilet, presents a scatological family tree, from the Roman stone latrine modelled on a chariot to the latest Japanese robo-loo, complete with warming seat, music, lighting and deodorising – ordered in advance by smartphone. Alongside this lineup of lavs are the graphic diagrams of toilet-obsessive Alexander Kira, whose meticulous work on the ergonomics of “evacuation” in the 1970s still failed to revolutionise our most fundamental of bodily functions.
Elsewhere, a wall of beautifully carved window frames from the 18th-century, loaned from English collector Charles Brooking’s 500,000-piece archive, is set against the whirring machines of a Belgian window factory, putting aluminium frames through their paces in the middle of the gallery. The crafted world of decorative fixtures and fittings has been swallowed in the pursuit of a seamless edge. As Koolhaas puts it: “The window has surrendered to the curtain wall.”
His survey of architecture’s struggle with, embrace of and capitulation to the inevitable tide of modernity extends into the national pavilions of the surrounding Giardini, co-ordinated under a guiding theme for the first time: Absorbing Modernity, 1914–2014.
“We didn’t necessarily mean ‘absorbing’ as a happy thing,” says Koolhaas. “It is more like the way a boxer absorbs a blow from his enemy.” For once, the rag-bag of national contributions reads as a relatively coherent whole, charting how the forces of modernism have been channelled, inflected and resisted. There are stories of colonial triumph and and local dissent, revealing how a seemingly “international style” was in fact steered by distinctly national priorities.
The British pavilion, curated by the recently disbanded London practice FAT, with Dutch architectural historians Crimson, takes a stroll through the origins of postwar planning, whisking the history of such places as Milton Keynes and Thamesmead into a heady cocktail of William Blake and Stanley Kubrick, unpicking a particularly English dream of pastoral romance and sci-fi utopianism. It brings a welcome dose of mythology, adding a richer angle to the didactic nature of OMA’s own show, which at times veers too close to being a museum of building crafts.
The clarity of what Koolhaas has marshalled in the Giardini is thrown into relief by the muddle of work on show in the Arsenale, the 300m-long rope factory that generally hosts the curatorial centrepiece. As if in riposte to the perennial local clamours for Italian content, he has given over the entire space to a slice through contemporary Italy, Monditalia, filling the space with a dense collage of projects from over 40 young practitioners.
Curated by his energetic Italian colleague Ippolito Pestellini, it is an ambitious attempt to bring the concurrent festivals of dance, theatre, film and music together with architecture for the first time, installing several experimental stages as welcome points of respite between the architectural displays, along with screens showing clips from 82 films. There are some fascinating nuggets, from a project charting the moving glacial border in the Alps to others tracing the importance of nightclubs as hubs of radical thought in the 1970s. But the endless march of little plinths and booths makes it feel like a student show, the preoccupations of each individual inquiry flattened by the melee.
“It is a portrait of the country in its current moment,” says Pestellini, “full of complexities and dense layers of politics and religion, exploring the association between treasure and trash.” While it rewards close observation in places, it also provides powerful evidence for Koolhaas’s own thesis: that this century has too often seen architects relinquish control by ignoring buildings and drifting off in a mist of poetic irrelevance.