Rem Koolhaas’ Biennale: Or how the Tempest Swept Venice.

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Peter Lang/  5 July 2014./ 2000 words. (NOT FOR REPRODUCTION PENDING PUBLICATION)

Brave New Biennales: bringing the Tempest to Venice.

A Tale about the Magician Koolhaas who plays Prospero, lives on an island in the Venetian Laguna, and brings a Tempest to the Venice Biennale.

 

Miranda:

O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t.

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206[5]

(Aldous Huxley quoted this line from the Tempest for the title of his dystopian novel Brave New World published in 1931)

 

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In choosing to take a different perspective on the 14th edition of the Architecture Biennale in Venice directed by Rem Koolhaas, I decided to skip the standard blow-by-blow critique, and instead confront what I believe is the greatest enigma behind this controversial event. Up till now, the majority of critics taking a look at this year’s exhibition find fault with Koolhaas’ method, not so much with his madness. But the key to the exhibition is not in its studied aloofness, but in its insubordination—Koolhaas is determined to shake up the Biennale institution by any means possible.

 

In all likelihood it didn’t start out this way. Koolhaas went about his business to remake the Biennale as did any major curator in the past, but Koolhaas is ambitious, and he set the stakes very high. To remake the Biennale, Koolhaas would need to dismantle the entire institution in order to rid it of its nearly century old infrastructure, complete with archaic “nationalist” pavilions, an array of inflexible labyrinthine spaces and gigantean maritime buildings, and a legacy of incredibly dated architectural categories. Koolhaas must at some point hit a frustrating impasse, compelling him to look for alternative best practices. It might have been around then that he hit upon the Tempest.

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The Tempest has an incredible allure for the kind of intellectual figure who won’t be compromised. The Shakespearean play itself lives on and on: it morphs continuously through time into an incredibly wondrous amalgam of human drama and personal transcendence. The Tempest is a malleable condition, and can double as a playbook for utopian practices, a manual for post-colonial discourse, or a stage for ferverish fantasies.

 

Prospero, the ex-Duke of Milan was a man of great vision and curiosity. While his methods may not be commonly practiced today, he would be of great inspiration to someone like Koolhaas who also faced insurmountable odds. Prospero ruled by sorcery, commanded over an army of slaves, spirits, half humans and fairies. His supernatural powers were based on his immense intellect, drawn from his great library in Milan of which a portion accompanied him in his escape from the city. His strongest affections are reserved for his daughter, Miranda. But the most important cue Koolhaas probably takes from Prospero is dramaturgical, that all spectacle is one big illusion, and that the scenes and characters are but figments of one’s imagination. Prospero evokes the “stuff dreams are made on.” He reveals the insubstantial world of the theatrical craft, masking fiction from truth.

 

Our revels are now ended. These actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air.

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life.”

Shakespeare, The Tempest, Scene 1, Act 4 pp92

 

Koolhaas evokes a similarly surreal worldview—he has his Islands to rule over, the cluster extending from the Giardini to the Arsenale, and he too rules over an army of slaves, spirits, half humans and fairies, though we are in an age designated politically correct, so most of his “people” are just that. Koolhaas’ power is also built on his immense intellectual skills, and he is known to gain great inspiration from his vast readings, all of which have been meticulously documented in his oversized publications, anthologies and collections of raw bibliographical content. Koolhaas also has strong affections for his daughter, who appears alongside him in his most personally displayed project to be found anywhere in the Biennale: Father and daughter worked together on the Biblioteca Laurenziana, the compact architectural masterpiece by Michelangelo that was for Koolhaas a “terrifying” and nightmarish experience like no other. His daughter’s images transform the mannerist vestibule into a huge wailing wall, for all to pay their respects.

 

The episode that gives away the mutual affinities of these two great men is precisely this deployment of language that Koolhaas stages much the same way Prospero does, (especially well illustrated in Peter Greenaway’s film interpretation from 1992, Prospero’s Books). Arguing for an exchangeable language of architecture that knows no solid forms or fixed associations, Koolhaas’ program for Elements is purely about architectural props that shield the mysterious workings of the hidden interstices, the heaving and bellowing mechanics and circuitry that dwell behind the outer surface membranes. The “false” ceiling becomes in essence a cloak or mask onto which all symbolisms and sentiments can freely be associated. This is the world Koolhaas wants to control a world of mysteries and incantations…

 

Between the underside of the floor above and panels hanging from it there is a large inaccessible section used as storage space for services that aid the technological performance of a building…

Such a space is considered “false.” (…) this hidden ceiling space has been off-limits to Architecture—and  to the imagination of the users of buildings—since  the middle of the 20th century.

False ceilings are supposed to be meaningless but contained mysteries beyond their banal uniform modular surfaces; they also still harbor their own suppressed unconscious iconography– of smoothness, comfort, convenience even humanity..

From the Fundamentals Catalogue: “Ceiling:” (Marsilio 2014). page 203.

 

Koolhaas’ spells and incantations are meant to push architecture back in to the realm of the unknowable, the mysterious, the false. But with the further magical help of Ariel, (played possibly by Hans Ulrich Obrist in this production for the Biennale) the making of  an actual Tempest is the vehicle to bring Koolhaas’ enemies within reach, or at least within arms distance. On the forth of June, the day of the press opening of the 14th edition of the Architecture Biennale, the Mayor of Venice Giorgio Orsoni, together with a slew of regional and national officials were arrested over corruption charges concerning the Moses locks, one of the most costly and monumental projects developed to spare Venice from high water surges. Could this be just a coincidence that the arrest of Venice’s compromised leadership and the entrapment of Antonio, Prospero’s brother and King Alonso of Naples occur at strategic moments leading up to the climax of the plot?

 

The shipwreck itself raises other critical questions. Isn’t the shipwreck a better metaphor for the Elements exhibition? The Elements themselves and the way they are displayed, the toilets, doorknobs, stairs, corridors, and air vents oddly resemble the collected flotsam from a shipwreck washed ashore. In today’s popular imagination architecture has more to do with scattered building debris left by human conflict and natural disasters then by any soaring skyscraper or fancy stadium. Much as the symbol for contemporary architecture in the time of Le Corbusier was the Ocean Liner, is todays contemporary architectural symbol par excellence the “shipwreck?”

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Monditalia is situated in the world that lurks within the walls of the ancient Venetian maritime compound, and has been cast as the allegory of contemporary Italian culture. It is symbolically represented by the Tabula Peutingeriana the Fifth century map of Italy that hangs from one end to the other inside the Arsenale. In the Tempest, it is Caliban who represents the power of the island before Prospero’s unexpected arrival. Caliban ruled with savage yet poetic might over the primitive island world until it came under the subjection of the enlightened Prospero. For Koolhaas, Monditalia is the world of Caliban, land of Dionysian desires, irrational projects, and rampant corruption. From this perspective, it is interesting to observe that this world is almost entirely given over to the Radicals, and their little blessed offspring. Among the exalted discotheques, radical pedagogues, shifting geographies, immigrant rites, North African tributes, is also Koolhaas’ and his daughter’s Laurentian tribute, coincidently placed next to the Wife of Lot, the tearful apparatus that with Kafkaesque pulsating rhythm melts architecture into nothingness. Could this be another ghost effect of the master Prospero?

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Koolhaas’ personal presence in Monditalia is nonetheless very telling, for this is the one realm in the exhibition where he sees his soul at rest. Not among the Elements, Koolhaas’ Vitruvian treatise on the basics of architecture that questions the role of craftsmanship and artistry. Nor does he show kinship with the National Pavilions, whose responses to his question on modernization and nationalism were intended to raise global awareness on the grave injustices of asymmetrical resources, supremely powerful transnational distribution networks and micro geopolitical conflicts. None of these questions of course, were intended to offer solutions. Rather we keep coming back to Monditalia, aka, the world of Caliban, to divine the mysteries of Koolhaas’ Biennale.

 

But its not the early 17th century version of the Tempest that provides the missing clue, but instead we need to jump in time to the faraway future, 1956 to be precise, when the film Forbidden Planet was first released. Forbidden Planet, one of most spectacular science fiction movies to be produced in that period by MGM, a first with Eastmancolor, and featuring the most advanced special effects of its time, is cleverly based on Shakespeare’s’ the Tempest. Caliban, in this Hollywood interpretation, is not a character but an invisible monster whose power and force is unstoppable. His origins are associated with the lost people of Krell, who once lived on the planet Altair IV. Dr. Edward Morbius, an exceptional linguist and his daughter Altaira are the only living survivors after an exploratory mission landed some time ago on the planet.

 

This version of Caliban, the monster turns out to be none other then the subconscious id of Morbius, whose incredible and terrifying powers originate in the vast depths of the planet. It is this version of the Tempest, with Caliban as Prospero’s repressed subconscious that helps explain Koolhaas’ impressive omnipresence. Monditalia, is, in fact the repressed subconscious of Koolhaas. From here arise the uncontrollable powers that have shaped the world of the 14th Architecture Biennale, and from here the invisible forces that have defeated all of Koolhaas’ intellectual and architectural challengers. There is ultimately some poetic justice, while Rem Koolhaas does get his way, –“there are no architects but only architecture” –Koolhaas’ subconscious rises up in the end to stop him. A look at the Laurentian Wall in the Arsenale, provides the answer, Koolhaas stands in terror before his own creation.

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But that might in the end equal a huge victory for Koolhaas, as he steps into the canon of so many Prosperos before him. If there is an unfortunate shortcoming, it is that Koolhaas could not transcend his own grandeur. After all, can any massive systemization of Fundamental architectural data–be collected and made public without turning to crowd sourcing? He could have made this the most memorable Architecture Biennale in recent history if he would have made Fundamentals into an open source architectural network, similar to Jimmy Wales’ and Larry Sanger’s Wikipedia.

Instead of a limited set of Koolhaas fellow travellers and filial branches, OMA, Harvard, the AA, Princeton, Columbia, etc., controlling all the intellectual input, he could have opened it up to the greater public, to join together in producing a constantly evolving Vitruvian encyclopedia of 21st century architecture, cities cultures, and design. A lost opportunity, perhaps, but then one never knows what the next incarnation of Prospero might come up with. Meanwhile, we can listen to Caliban’s wondrous ode to his homeland and wonder if there will ever be a place quite like this for us.

 

CALIBAN

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

 

Shakespeare, the Tempest, Act 3, Scene 2, page 7