July 7, 2014
It’s next time again.
A wise film distributor once told me, “You bring your own baggage to a film.” By this, she meant we all have a point of view and there are all sorts of things in our own backgrounds. Therefore, a film never really starts from zero, the memories and life you have lived also effect your experience.
Such was the case for me in viewing the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture in which there was a lot of film. It is certainly one of the premiere architecture exhibitions in the world and they have been getting more and more interesting but, for me this year, director Rem Koolhaas (despite the frequent use of film to make his points) scored a “must see” with only one of his three themes.
Three themes? Why do you need three and why didn’t they resonate more meaningfully with each other? Most likely the same thing that sinks a lot of movies and other creative projects – decisions by committee. In the Arsenale, the giant, dramatic indoor exhibition venue where Venetians built boats in the 15th century, most of the space was given over to something called MondItalia, a blatant committee pleasing promotion for the host country. Let me rant a bit here and then we’ll get back to the good stuff.
MondItalia was designed to give due credit to the Theatre, Dance and Cinema Biennales. Venice has had over a hundred years of international impact and wild tourism success with its famous Art Biennale so, the Venetians decided to also tackle Architecture, Dance, Theatre, and Cinema. The ostensible tie in was that all these other art forms require Architecture (get it?) so this could be fertile territory to explore. Fair enough. I’m not really qualified to talk about the way the other disciplines were presented but, as a filmmaker, I was appalled at the way they treated one of the greatest cinematic traditions in the world.
Think about what could have been done! There was a small section on Cinecitta, the massive studio complex in Rome where Fellini made many of his legendary films. La Dolce Vita! La Strada! 8 1/2! Satyricon! Some of the most iconic and significant masterworks of cinematic history. What a great excuse to show some imagination with the display. This is Cinecitta! The legendary “City of Cinema.” You couldn’t ask for a more intensely visual creative opportunity. I should be interested in this, right!? So what do they do? They show a model with tacky (hip?) cardboard cutouts and little army men on a site map. It was completely banal. No zip at all. Given the potential this was truly shameful.
All along the Arsenale’s lengthy promenade, screens hung at various heights showed clips of 82 films, shown simultaneously. The conflicting audio created an irritating ambiance of noise and the aggregated visual statement was a disaster. I wanted to cry seeing all that hard work reduced to such meaningless clutter. Almost all of the projectors were working, so this gets a nod, but to reduce the masters of Italian Cinema; Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, Antonioni for gosh sakes, to a deadly dull series of clips (presumably featuring architecture) completely missed the point. Where was the curation? Where was the insight? Where was the focus? Where in the world was the drama? It reminded me of the back pages of a High School yearbook where the lazy untrained editors grab any photograph lying around and paste them all together into a messy photo montage that is supposed to be charming and representative. It isn’t charming. It’s just a mess. I was furious and ready to throw a hothead Marcello Mastroianni-style Italian fit. Being there was completely frustrating and irritating and reading about such nonsense must also feel like a big waste of your time.
The second theme was based on a new book and looked at the architect’s “Fundamental” palate. This theme was in the Central Pavilion over at the Giardini (Garden) section. This part was turned over to the Harvard School of Design for realization. The opening room gave you a great feeling of good things to come (we can dream can’t we?). The room presented the concept of “Ceiling.” They constructed a typical polystyrene drop ceiling in a tall central space and filled it with all the HVAC ducts and electrical and service equipment necessary for modern buildings. You sort of gasped as you looked “behind the curtain” at all this complex silver tubing and systems for which Architects need to spec, plan, install and provide maintenance. Then, in a feat of true artistry, the exhibition designers pulled your attention to the fully restored intricately painted dome ceiling from 1909. Genius! Aesthetically gorgeous and the striking visuals spoke loudly and clearly about the practical and visual concerns of architects past, present and future.
I’m sorry to say it went quickly downhill from there. The next room was such an outrageous ripoff I returned to the land of the disappointed and furious.
As with any film or building, context is vital (back to the baggage). You probably heard about the stunningly crafted film done by Christian Marclay called The Clock . This was a highlight of the 2011 Art Biennale and deservedly won the Golden Lion for Best Artwork. Marclay’s film is a clock. If you watch the film at ten in the morning, all the clips are from ten in the morning. As you watch, time passes and this unfolds in real time and on the screen. If you watched for half an hour the clips all show cinematic clocks now reading 10:30. Art Daily said, “Spanning the range of timepieces, from clock towers to wristwatches and from buzzing alarm clocks to the occasional cuckoo, The Clock draws attention to time as a multifaceted protagonist of cinematic narrative. With virtuosic skill, the artist has excerpted each of these moments from their original contexts and edited them together to form a 24-hour montage, which unfolds in real time. … ‘an abundant, magnificent work’ (The Financial Times) ‘relentless and compelling’ (The Guardian) and ‘utterly transfixing’ (The Huffington Post). The New Yorker’s profile is linked here.
In a feat of disgustingly unoriginal thievery the Architecture exhibition designers just said, “I have good idea, lets do our own version of The Clock but instead of being about time we can make it about Architecture!” (Groan) So, they edited together a bunch of clips that featured stairways, doors, towers and anything with windows or walls. Maybe others enjoyed it but my enormous respect for Christian Marclay made the baggage I was lugging around a very heavy burden. I was jumping up and down furious and this experience soured any objective investigation of the rest of the exhibition (Door, Window, Corridor, Floor, Wall, Toilet, Roof etc.) none of which, for me, had the impact or imagination of the first room (Ceiling).
My favorite moment in this “Fundamentals” exhibition occurred as a British architect attempted to explain to a frustrated group of official on-site curators why the flat floor robot horizontal elevator was not working properly. This would have made a great film. Let me describe the scene. The atmosphere is tense. (It matched my pissed off mood.) See now the robot looking like a shamed puppy surrounded by a scolding group of adults with their hands on their hips and their voices raised in anger. Cut to medium shot featuring the architect. He explains slowly, carefully, and firmly (in a tone of voice that is irritatingly patronizing and stresses with each syllable that this fiasco is not his fault) “You see, the robot’s wheels cannot find proper contact with the floor because the floor is not level! You can’t expect this expensive, highly designed, intricate system to work if it does not have a level surface. The floor is not level.” Cut to close up of the robot’s wheel spinning helplessly in the air. Cut back to closeups of everyone shaking their heads and frowning. Cut to architect smugly shrugging. Fade to black.
If I did not know better, I would think we had slipped over into performance art. The robot lost its grip on reality and would mindlessly and violently slam itself into the walls when any one of its wheels became disconnected from the floor. In that tiny gap, between the ungrounded wheel and the off-kilter floor, is the entire yawning disconnect between design and reality. Reality is messy. The old Italian floor is not a laboratory. Society doesn’t always function the way you predict. Which brings me quite seamlessly to the third theme of the 2014 Architecture Biennale: Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014.
This year’s director, Rem Koolhaaus explains: “For the first time, the national pavilions are invited to respond to a single theme…65 countries – in the Giardini, at the Arsenale and elsewhere in the city – examine key moments from a century of modernization. Together, the presentations start to reveal how diverse material cultures and political environments transformed a generic modernity into a specific one.”
I need to unpack a bit to explain why this theme was so meaningful to me. I’m working on two film projects directly related to this concept. The first is a 100 year history of The Cleveland Foundation for the PBS Station in Cleveland. 1914 to 2014 is exactly the time frame I’m supposed to cover and the purpose of the Foundation has modernity and all of its associated issues written all over it. How can we help the future city to function better?
The second project is a film about Modernism for the General Services Administration, (the largest landlord in the world). The GSA is renovating the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building and we are putting the innovative design solution of a glass, double wall construction concept, into the larger context of modernism in general. Absorbing Modernism 1914 – 2014? Bring it on!
See me now, gravel scrunching underfoot, striding down the ally of trees in the Giardini straight to the temple-like steps of the British Pavilion. Two black and white concrete cows, part of a famous late 1970’s art project, have been brought in from Britain’s Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre to guard these steps. Themselves part of an attempt to reconcile the British countryside with modernization, they look forlorn and weary of their iconic status.
At the top of the steps is an enthusiastic bunch of architecture students who have been brought in to run the exhibition. They offer a very chipper good morning and since there are no other visitors I request a tour and am instantly obliged by two intelligent well spoken young guides who provide a brilliant overview of A Clockwork Jeruselem.
The Financial Times article linked here will give you your own in-depth well-written overview: The British Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale by Edwin Heathcote
“A Clockwork Jerusalem, with its implied mash-up of William Blake’s strange visionary poem and Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian version of London modern [looks at] the British picturesque and utopian influence in modernism.”
Was there ever a more sinister and damning look at modernism than Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange? To pair this with poetic prophet William Blake is brilliant. Blake’s poem was set to stirring music in 1918 and has become sort of a national anthem. The lines “Dark satanic mills” and “Chariots of fire” and “England’s green and pleasant land” have themselves become iconic expressions of the struggle to find balance between quality of life and industrial progress.
One of the highlights for me of this complex, fascinating and imaginative exhibition was a painting by Joeseph Gandy of architect John Soanes Bank of England depicted as a ruin. Soanes’ architecture of the Bank of Britain turned London into Rome. This painting projected you into the future. It was a cinematic painting that told a story straight out of a Sci Fi film about a time machine.
The Gandy painting was particularly evocative because of my own baggage of just having filmed a similarly domed “ruined” bank for the Cleveland Foundation documentary. The Roman temple of the Pantheon-like Cleveland Trust Building (built in 1911) figures centrally in our story and this bank, which has lain unused and forgotten for many years, is now being “re-purposed” as a high end downtown grocery store. The marble floored lobby under the massive Tiffany stained glass dome will now become an eating arcade. Being there brought the often theoretical Historic Preservation v.s. Modern Use debate into vivid reality. These thoughts flitted through my brain as I looked at the tiny silk stockinged and waist coated figures in Gandy’s painting poking at the ruins of Bank of Britain with their walking sticks. One felt the passage of time and it all fit together with the William Blake poetic theme, And did those feet in Ancient Time . . .
The poem is surreal and inspiring. Seeing the devastation of the modern city, Blake encourages us (and perhaps a battalion of young architects?) to go to war against urban ugliness:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
He might well have added: my sharpened pencil, my slide rule, my new materials like tempered glass and stainless steel and reinforced concrete. And off they went, full of what the Clockwork Orange hooligans would call guddiwuts and skolliwoll (guts and school) to war against slum and squalor. Like any crusade, (and this cannot be overstated), they went into the war of urban regeneration with only the best intentions.
Inherent in Koolhaas’ challenge, as modernism sweeps the planet, are many questions about the wisdom of this crusade.
The French pavilion next door, in Modernity: Promise or Menace? asked pretty much the same question four different ways. They started with humor (and film again) by looking at the ultra moderneVilla Arpel, the architectural star of Jaques Tati’s, Mon Oncle. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1958. Watch the funny well done trailer here. Villa Arpel is filled with all the impractical cliches of modern style (uncomfortable furniture, leaking roofs, mysterious appliances) and turns modern architecture into an indelible farce.
From there the French pavilion examined: Jean Prouvé: Constructive Imagination or Utopia? Prefabrication: Economy of Scale or Monotony? and finally, The Large Housing Schemes: Happy Heterotopias or Places of Reclusion? For me, the entire pavilion seemed to ask, with that ironic French shrug, “If you’re so smart, what went wrong?”
Such good questions. The answers are complicated. Housing project + bad design + cheap materials = inevitable slum is not the full equation but it does usually help to factor in that profound little gap.
Somewhere along the way, Modernism itself gets yoked to Communism and many of the most effective projects in the Biennale looked at this unsettling marriage. Inherent in both is profound idealism and abject failure. The failure of modernism in the communist world might be described best by the acronym used to describe why and how people (meaning spies) can betray their countries: MICE. Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego. Take your pick and if you want to raise any modern architect’s hackles just watch their face as you equate the idealistic promise of Modernism to Worker Housing. “Worker Housing” says it all; cheap, unlivable, dystopian, sterile, monotonous, oppressive, blighted, oh my god – what were you thinking?!
The idealism of Modern Architecture was clearly evident in the Korean Pavilion, that won the Golden Lion. One room was dedicated to the sort of propaganda messages that reminded me of Bollywood movie posters. Gorgeously illustrated and dripping with irony, the most effective of these combined architecture with utopian Communist visions of a better world.
The Chilean Pavilion (that won the Silver Lion) also combined architecture and politics. In homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001, the exhibition was titled, Monolith Controversies. In the center of the space, dramatically lit (you could almost hear tympani and trumpets announce its presence) was “The Monolith” itself, a gigantic piece of reinforced mass produced pre-fab concrete in all its brutal glory. This was not a Hollywood prop it was an important historical artifact. In 1972, its wet cement (sort of like a sidewalk on Hollywood Blvd. in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater) was signed by socialist reformer Salvadore Allende, the 29th President of Chile. Next to his signature he wrote, “Thank you Soviet and Chilean comrades.”
Why all the glorification? This was it! This was the future! It was sort of like the original prototype “lego.” The panel was the first product of a Soviet/Chilean joint venture, a Russian built cement factory that would churn out thousands upon thousands of these literal building blocks to construct Chile’s new modernist skyline.
In the exhibition, this sublime future was put on view for all to see (and judge) because in order to view “The Monolith” you had to first walk through Mrs. Guitiérrez’s apartment to get there. Jammed with tchotchkes and doilies, Mrs. Guitiérrez had done everything she possibly could to make her tiny cement bunker a humane place to live. The Chilean exhibition told this fascinating story with film and multimedia, well-lit models, drama and magnificent carefully constructed irony.
Architecture exhibitions carry a heavy load. The projects are complex and have many moving parts which need to be explained. This takes time and demands patient attention from the viewer. The profession itself has a hard time explaining to a broader public what it is they actually do, (hence the attraction of something simple like Door, Window, Floor). But, it can be effectively done and as a great architect (Piet van Dijk) once taught me, “You can complain about budget and time and the site all you want but great architecture is about transcending the limitations.” And so it was in the Chilean Pavilion and even more so in the German Pavilion.
For me, the German Pavilion made perhaps the clearest and most optimistic statement about the promise of Modernism. Best of all, they communicated in a loud, powerful and clear architectural voice without speaking a word. They created sublime space and let you experience it for yourself.
The permanent German Pavilion is an “imposing and muscular” Nazi era construct designed in 1938 by Ernst Haiger. Outside, impudently parked right in front with a sort of diplomatic immunity, (and you have to remember, this is Venice where there are very few cars), there is a vintage Mercedes (that you find out later belonged to Helmut Kohl). You wonder, “What’s going on? Is someone important inside?” You walk up the steps and as you cross the threshold you are magically transported into a modernist triumph of the chancellor of Germany’s private residence. Read more about the project here in a well done article by Dezeen Magazine
“German architects and curators Alex Lehnerer and Savva Ciriacidis have reconstructed parts of the Kanzlerbungalow (Chancellor’s Bungalow) in Bonn – a building completed in 1964 by architect Sep Ruf that was home to the German chancellor up until 1999.”
The curators describe their project like they are pitching a film.
“We were hunting for a ‘political building’ that, aside from its physical reality, could be seen as a communicative medium charged with meaning…Our idea began as a one-liner: We’ll ‘remake’ theKanzlerbungalow and ‘cross-cut’ it with the German Pavilion in Venice. We like seemingly simple premises: the precise details of a high-concept notion deepen it, helping it to become richer and more complicated, create contradictions, and ultimately turn the one-liner into an entire story.”
This interior is everything you want from Modernism. Clarity. Simplicity. Perfect proportions. New materials but contrasted with familiar tactile brick and wood. Great light. Elegance. Sophistication. An interior any architect would love, brilliantly executed with taste and serenity.
I finally got to put down my baggage. I felt at home.
Until next time with much love, I remain, your,