By Selena Anjur-Dietrich
In a white, rectangular room, a mechanical arm hums, drawing circles and wobbly lines in a patch of sand, wipes them away, and begins again. This is the centerpiece of Israel’s pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, an international exhibition that has embarked on a new journey: providing global architecture with a conscience.
The Biennale, since its founding as a show to promote contemporary art in 1895, has invited more and more countries to participate by contributing and furnishing pavilions at the exhibition grounds in Venice. According to Paolo Baratta, the current president of the Biennale, the event no longer simply features “architects invited to talk about themselves … This time, the exhibition is the result of research effected under the guidance of the curator [Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas]”. For the first time, the 65 participating nations all address the same theme in their individual pavilions: “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014”. One of the curators of the USA pavilion, Eva Franch who partners with Ashley Schafer and Ana Miljacki, explains the importance of the theme best: “In observing specific national modernities, we are observing many projects that went into this idea of modernity. Modernity is not that white – not neutral – nor as seamless as we imagine”. As a collection, the national pavilions show how Modernism was born of a hopeful view of the future, but instead exported formulaic and self-perpetuating architectures from the West, carrying with it immense baggage in the form of social, political, and economic models. This is not to say that the global South passively received the movement (as the use of the word “absorbing” in the title might suggest); the interaction and adaptation following its arrival is precisely what makes this theme so rich and revealing.
By examining histories of Modernism, each nation is explicitly stating how architecture exports not only ideas about design, but also the underlying messages and desires that led to its creation. Russia’s pavilion, entitled “Fair Enough”, sets up an imaginary trade fair, complete with colorful booths and flashy animations on flatscreens, to illustrate the commercial nature of architecture in the globalization age. The Nordic Pavilion, co-curated by Norway, Finland, and Sweden illustrates a 1960s-70s trend in East African countries, where decolonization was often coupled with the introduction of Scandinavian modernist architecture, due to the recent founding of development aid in the Nordic countries. These projects incorporated influences from two contrasting cultures and would symbolize a new age of social democracy, and serve as concrete, habitable illustrations of how design can play a role (positive or negative) in political processes as essential as nation-building.
As for the Israeli pavilion: the mechanical arms are drawing what curator Keren Yeala Golan describes as Israel’s “Urburbs” (the title of the exhibition), or the condition in which 80 percent of Israel’s population lives. The sand represents the Negev Desert, from which residential complexes that are neither urban nor suburban – perhaps urburban? – sprang during the height of Modernism.
Baratta urges Biennale visitors to recognize that indifference is not separate from excess, that architecture must be driven by the desires and correlated problems faced by peoples around the world. These problems, rather than formulaic, easy solutions, must become the source of regeneration in architecture.
Selena Anjur-Dietrich ’17 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org