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The Venice Biennale: Design that Speaks for the State

Among this Biennale’s national pavilions is the U.S’s OfficeUS, which traces the history of exporting American design.

By Thomas Vonier, FAIA

AIA-Slideshow

Rem Koolhaas, Chief Curator of the Venice Biennale

Rem Koolhaas, chief curator of the Venice Biennale, challenged participants to demonstrate Modernism’s legacy in their respective countries. All images courtesy of Thomas Vonier, FAIA.

The Palladian-Style U.S. Pavilion

The Palladian-style U.S. Pavilion, designed by Delano and Aldrich and completed in 1930, regularly features work from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

OfficeUS

OfficeUS focuses on how U.S. architects effectively exported Modernism, and houses a collection of portfolios, each documenting one of more than 700 buildings designed by American architects and built on foreign soil.

The Chilean Pavilion

The Chilean pavilion features models of prefabricated homes produced at the joint Soviet-Chilean KPD plant, a housing assembly facility that closed in 1981.

France’s Pavilion

France&rsquo;s pavilion features a large-scale model of the house and landscape in Jacques Tati&rsquo;s 1958 groundbreaking film <em>Mon Oncle</em>, about France&rsquo;s postwar infatuation with Modern architecture, technocratic ideals, and consumer culture.

The Chilean Pavilion

The Chilean pavilion features a modern version of <em>spolia</em>: a precast, concrete panel intended to be part of a housing complex and made at the joint Soviet-Chilean KPD plant, a prefabricated housing assembly facility that closed in 1981.


If the Venice Biennale is not the international architecture event of the season, with an aura of glamor, prestige, and importance surrounding its opening events, it will have to do until something better comes along. Every two years, it’s time to take in this international architecture showcase, featuring work that is (more and less) officially sanctioned by national governments. By design, the contributions say something about how each country sees—and wishes others to see—itself and its buildings.

This year’s Venice Biennale brings conceptions from more than 60 nations to the Giardini—a dusty, well-worn park on the fringes of tourist Venice—and in the adjacent grounds of the Arsenale. The show garners significant press attention, and during its six-month run, it attracts visitors from all over the globe. Many of them are architects, of course. But the show also gains a large public audience. (The Biennale organizers will not release attendance figures, but longtime observers say the place is always humming). This Biennale is a turnout of truly wonderful national shows, all inspired by the challenge from its chief curator, Rem Koolhaas: Show how the architecture of your country has absorbed Modernism over the past century, and how the fundamental elements of architecture have mutated, yet endured. There are as many takes on this theme as there are exhibits.

Chile gives center stage to a beat-up precast concrete panel, the product of a Soviet-style factory from the 1970s. Dozens of fine scale models show the many social housing variations achieved with these still-ubiquitous panels, even replicating a typical (modest) living room of an apartment from the era.

Austria pastes to the inside walls of its wonderful pavilion, by Josef Hoffman, white scale models (all scaled alike) of the world’s national capital buildings. The contrasts are stunning.

France features a large and delightful model of the modern dwelling and landscape that were at the center of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. (You can almost see the little dachshund skittering around on the driveway gravel). Then the French exhibit veers darkly into another side of Modernism: the conversion of a massive and avowedly Modern 1930s housing project in Drancy, to use as an internment camp for World War II deportees.

U.S. architects—and, not incidentally, the AIA—get a thoroughly wonderful showing. The OfficeUS pavilion is all about exporting American design, housing a library-like collection of portfolios, each documenting one of more than 700 buildings, all designed by US firms for foreign settings. Rounded up by students from MIT and Ohio State University, the documents are a tour de force—an amazing record, warts and all, of the prolific production by U.S. firms, large and small, working abroad from 1914 to today. With some 27 other countries, the United States has a permanent national pavilion on the Venice Biennale site. The Department of State supports our national participation in the Biennale, choosing organizers and curators through a competitive process.

“Our” building—completed by Delano and Aldrich in 1930, nicely accommodates well-conceived and skilfully executed exhibitions. And that’s exactly what we’ve got this time around. A trio of women curated the OfficeUS show: Eva Franch i Gilabert (of the Manhattan-based Storefront for Art and Architecture), Ana Miljački (of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Ashley Schafer (the editor of Praxis). The interior—an enviable and sleek set of smoked acrylic desktops that double as horizontal showcases—is the work of architects and brothers, Leong Leong. The whole is enhanced by Pentagram’s unmistakably deft graphic touch.

The Biennale also takes on matters of diplomacy indirectly, and sometimes explicitly. The wonderful Korean pavilion (designed by Minsuk Cho) won the Golden Lion for best in show. His rich and lively work considers the architecture of North Korea, positing how a future might be different for a united country.

For all to see, the Biennale lays out the centrality of architecture in society and culture. On a world stage, one sees how design serves (or at least attempts to tackle) difficult issues in society. Members of the AIA—one among many of the organizational sponsors of the U.S. pavilion—make a very fine showing.

Thomas Vonier FAIA, a Vice President of the Institute, represented the AIA at the opening of the 2014 Venice Biennale this June.


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