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A look inside the national pavilions of the Venice Biennale

Standing beneath a temporary polystyrene ceiling suspended from the Central Pavilion’s grandiose entrance dome, one thing at this year’s Venice Biennale is distinctly noticeable by its absence: the lack of any actual architecture.
But then it’s hardly a surprise. In Fundamentals, the overarching theme of this year’s exhibition, Dutch architect and festival curator Rem Koolhaas has designed a programme  that eschews contemporary architecture altogether. As Koolhaas explains, the 2014 Biennale has, “nothing to do with design”.
The Central Pavilion is the setting for Elements of Architecture – one of the festivals three interrelated exhibitions – and pays close attention to basic elements such as windows, doors, stairs and balconies rather than the building itself. Koolhaas describes these things as, “things architects can’t ignore”. What happens when we deconstruct buildings down to their very essence? What makes them tick?
In the Central Pavilion’s surrounding Giardini sit a further 29 pavilions each constructed by a different nation at various periods between 1907 and 1995. Under the theme ‘Absorbing Modernity, 1914 – 2014’, each national pavilion attempts to chart how the forces of modernism have affected their cultures over the past 100 years.
The strong connection between architecture and social responsibility is a prominent feature of all the exhibitions, but one that particularly catches the is the Israeli pavilion in which four robotic arms trace patterns into a giant sandpit to reveal plans for a new urban environment, only to erase it shortly after - before repeating the process all over. Curated by architect Ori Scialom, lecturer Roy Brand, artist Keren Yeala-Golan and designer Edith Kofsky, the ‘Urburb’ reflects the growth of Israel’s urban environments, in which modernism played a central role in creating the country’s unique architectural landscape.
The Nordic Pavilion studies the combined role of Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish architecture following East Africa’s liberation in the 1960s and 70s. Curated by the National Museum in Norway, ‘Forms of Freedom’ is a wonderful documentation of how, through a shared belief in progress, Nordic architects worked with the leaders of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia to build a new future based on the modernisation of these new African states. The exhibit features a series of walls, each filled with contemporary photography and documentaries. The walls acting as pages of a chronological storybook, charting the region’s architectural history as it unfolded.
The United States tackled the theme by taking a retrospective of how American architecture has been exported around the world in the past 100 years. Curated by Storefront director Eva Franch, MIT architecture professor Ana Miljacki and Praxis co-founder Ashley Schafer, ‘OfficeUS’ presents an archive of over 1000 U.S. architectural projects around the world, collectively offering a broader narrative of US modernisation and its global reach.
OfficeUS also features a space in which a group of resident design partners work at specially designed tables. Over the exhibition’s duration, a cast of expert critics will join the partners to discuss what can we learn from our current work and how can we adapt these principles to help dictate the future of design.
The third element of the biennale, Monditalia in the Arsenale, presents a melting-pot of dance, theatre, music and film in an ambitious attempt to connect these mediums with architecture for the first time.
Historically, the Arsenale plays host to the curatorial centrepiece, but Koolhaas is never afraid to break the rules and uses the scale of the 300-metre long Rope House to create a theatrical and cinematic experience which examines architecture through the context of everyday life in Italy.


Benjamin Quarless

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