“Architects have no authorship over their product.”
So spake Eva Franch i Gilabert, the fecund ideator at the helm of Storefront for Architecture, at a recent speaking engagement at Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments. Gilabert spoke in the context of her reflections on this year’s Biennale Architettura — its 14th installment — and her statement, while seemingly contentious, is upon closer inspection emblematic of a far broader current of unrest among architecture and its constituents.
This year’s exhibit was curated by Rem Koolhaas, known worldwide as both a prolific builder and as the influential nexus of many of today’s most prominent figures in architecture. Koolhaas, titling his exhibition Fundamentals, endeavored to “reconstruct how architecture finds itself in its current situation, and speculate on its future,”1 evoking the uncertainty of a discipline with a newfound self-awareness. Seeing, perhaps for the first time, a reflection it not longer recognizes.
Interpretations of Koolhaas’ message vary in flavor and pungency, yet the brunt of criticism lands not, as it may seem, on the shoulders of the curator, but on his subject; architecture is on trial. The question of architecture — an inquiry into what is rather than how does, or when, or why or in order to… — is long in the tooth, yet with each passing generation, receiving a fresh coat of paint, feels fresh. It is not narcissistic, but reflexively existential.
In Koolhaas’ own words,
“Fundamentals consists of three interlocking exhibitions—Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, Elements of Architecture, and Monditalia—that together illuminate the past, present and future of our discipline. After several architecture Biennales dedicated to the celebration of the contemporary, Fundamentals will look at histories, attempt to reconstruct how architecture finds itself in its current situation, and speculate on its future.” 2
“…architecture has become more marginalized than at any point in its history, and architects far less influential in the shaping of the built environment than they’re ready to admit…it is the global neoliberal hegemony to which architects are necessarily beholden that has bankrupted architecture’s creative and critical faculties.” 3
Fundamentals seeks to reveal the mechanisms of architecture as well as its components. but there are many intangible components not displayed – cultural, emotional – suggesting that the biennale instead investigates the components of building systems, the nuances in whose details begins to reveal an underexposed portrait of architecture.
The problem with architecture, and with Fundamentals’ examinations, is that it is so often associated with buildings. Buildings are born out of wedlock and raised at arms length from the parents that bore them.
Fundamentals is not the end of architecture. The components of Elements are not nouns of the language of architecture.4 The details elucidated in Modernity are not its grammar. Architecture cannot be found in the vernacular. It cannot be found within walls or behind doors. Fundamentals searches for architecture in buildings, and finds none. If the answer cannot be found in these, perhaps the wrong questions are being asked.
1 “Latest Details Released on Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale 2014 ‘Fundamentals’,” ArchDaily, March 12, 2014, http://www.archdaily.com/484728/latest-details-released-on-koolhaas-venice-biennale-2014-fundamentals/.
2″What’s So Different About Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale?,” Metropolis, March 27, 2014, http://www.metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/March-2014/Whats-So-New-about-Koolhaass-Biennale/.
3″Biennale Breakdown: A Guide to the National Pavilions,” Metropolis, June 23, 2014, http://www.metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/June-2014/Venice-Architecture-Biennale-All-the-Highlights-Misses-and-Surprises/?cparticle=3&siarticle=2
4 “Rem Koolhaas is stating the ‘end’ of his career, says Peter Eisenman,” Dezeen, June 9, 2014, http://www.dezeen.com/2014/06/09/rem-koolhaas-at-the-end-of-career-says-peter-eisenman/.