The theme of the 2014 Venice BIennale of architecture chosen by curator Rem Koolhaas is “Fundamentals”. Koolhaas says “Fundamentals will be a Biennale about architecture, not architects.” After years of featuring hermetic “explorations”, this year’s entries will return to those elements of building that are eternal and inevitable: doors, walls, ceilings, floors and so on. This rappelle à l’ordre is long overdue and sorely needed. These “fundamentals” are concrete reminders of why we build in the first place: to create spaces for ourselves that shelter, respond to our needs and frame our actions. Through specific spatial accommodations of these our most basic, and therefore universally human, requirements, architecture demonstrates their various cultural interpretations and reflects on the timeless question of the relationship between nature and culture: how what we are is reflected in and affected by what we create.
The suddenly re-remembered importance of architecture’s grounding is continued in the theme of the National Pavilions: “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014”, looking at how different countries evolved away from distinctive national architectures towards a singular global esthetic. According to the Biennale’s website, “The transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognize, involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions and imperceptible ways of remaining ‘national.'”
Reconstructing these national histories is crucial lest we forget that our present condition is the result of specific developments in economics, technology, politics and culture. Every country has taken a different path to reach this point, each with a unique story about how and to what extent its specific culture has been effaced and subsumed by a global culture. The Torre Velasca in Milan (above), designed by Architects Studio BBPR in 1957, is an instructive example of a place-specific response to Modernism.
One of the results of this event will be a new appreciation for the differences among the modernisms in each country. A closer examination will reveal significant variation among “modernist” buildings in various countries beyond their overt stylistic and organizational similarities. Globalization in architecture, as in its other manifestations, is not (yet?) total. There have always been forces opposed to it that re-emerge periodically as particular traditions rediscover and assert themselves. The different building techniques, industry organization and level of technical sophistication found in each country have had inevitable effects on what is built there. Comparisons among countries should have a great deal to teach us about the complex relationships between architecture and the material and institutional conditions of building, as well as the influence of cultural factors on the assimilation of global trends.