By Michael Webb
Any pretext to revisit La Serenissima is welcome, and the Biennale offers a recurring excuse. It allows you to wander around the crumbling brick halls and still waterways of the Arsenale—arguably the most fascinating place in the city—and admire the zoo of architectural curiosities in the Giardini. The tide of mass tourism doesn't extend this far, though the obscenely large yachts moored along the quay are evidence of another kind of predator. This year's architectural Biennale was directed by Rem Koolhaas who insisted that it open in early June and run six months, as does the art exposition. Hopes ran high that his prestige and creative imagination would generate a memorable show.
The Central Pavilion fulfills that promise. Flanking the entrance is a full-scale recreation of Le Corbusier's Do-mi-no House, a century-old symbol of modernity. Fifteen rooms of the labyrinthine pavilion are dedicated to the elements of building: a wonderfully idiosyncratic assortment of roofs and floors, doors and windows, staircases and ceilings, ranging from the earliest Chinese examples to the latest European products. Visually arresting, the displays need few labels, and they are introduced by a masterly compilation of how these elements have been depicted in the movies.
Koolhaas's other major contribution, Monditalia, exemplifies the major failing of this and earlier Biennales: a didactic emphasis on research and documentation at the expense of visual allure. Forty-one projects explore the inner rot of Italy: a country prey to corruption (the Mayor of Venice was arrested for embezzlement on the eve of the opening), organized crime, uncontrolled immigration, and the neglect of a cultural legacy that comprises more monuments than the rest of Europe combined. In a short video, an elderly restoration specialist at Assisi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, complains that he used to work with art historians and scholars, but "today, except for a few lucky monuments, restoration is contracted out like tiling and plumbing."
Too much of this material belongs in a book, not a gallery. Jazzing it up with dance merely distracts from the theme. Visitors gazed open-jawed as group of seniors shuffled though a eurhythmics class. Their connection to architecture was left unexplained. The one exhibit with real punch is narrated by Stefano Boeri, architect of the hugely costly conference center that was rushed to completion on La Maddalena, an island off Sardinia, for the 2009 G8 summit. At the last minute, Berlusconi transferred it to L'Aquila, so that he could grandstand before the world's leaders in the earthquake-devastated city. La Maddalena, formerly an arsenal, is still a toxic site so the center has been abandoned, and L'Aquila remains a shambles.
The Giardini displays are wildly uneven. Jean-Louis Cohen addresses Koolhaas's theme head-on in the French Pavilion. "Modernity, 1914-2014: Promise or Menace?" chronicles 101 key buildings, one from each year, with a lively overlay of film clips. The centerpiece is a model of the dysfunctional modern house designed for Jacques Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday. The US Pavilion is as exciting as the lobby of a trade fair: racks of printed dossiers on 700 buildings that American architects have built abroad over the past hundred years. It would take hours merely to skim the mass of information on display; far better to skip the pavilion and wait for the four books Lars Müller is about to publish, following his brilliant volume on the building elements of Venice.
A few free spirits treat the theme irreverently. The Dominican Republic recalls a wildly ambitious exposition of 1955 celebrating Rafael Trujillo's 25-year rule—a tin-pot dictator's failed bid for self-glorification. Macedonia has constructed a rotunda from traditional three-legged stools, Bahrain from bookshelves. Morocco covers the floor with sand and juxtaposes models of casbahs with contemporary proposals for high-density living. The Russian pavilion is a clever hoax: a mock trade show, featuring stands of fake companies that represent conflicting tendencies in Russia today. Britain presents "A Clockwork Jerusalem": a tongue-in-cheek chronicle of postwar styles including Thamesmead, where Kubrick filmed A Clockwork Orange. An exhibit from Hong Kong, across the street from the Arsenale illustrates the challenge and expense of finding a resting place for funerary urns in an impossibly overcrowded city-state.
The architectural Biennale has been preaching to the choir for the past 10 years. Visitors should lower their expectations and allow plenty of time for serendipitous encounters and discoveries, taking frequent breaks for Prosecco. Venice is a place of enchantment and one should ignore the pointy-headed academics, who try to turn this event into an earnest trudge through the problems of contemporary society.