Koolhaas is setting the foundations for true modernity

What will this year’s Architecture Biennale be like? Expectations are high. Recollecting the last, quite lethargic, intellectually void edition, our appetite has grown exponentially. Even more so when we consider the general curator persona – Rem Koolhaas himself. It is the only starchitect who hasn’t sold out his soul, even when cooperating with the regimes. He simply does not let go of the intellectual side of architecture. Departing from the main statement for the Biennale – “Fundamentals”, we speculate what the Biennale will be like. With panache, Koolhaas claims that the modernity of yesterday was only apparent modernity. Is architecture starting anew? We’ll see about that!


“Fundamentals” – the leitmotif for this year’s Architecture Biennale, formulated by Rem Koolhaas, the main curator, focuses our thoughts on the roots, on the essence of architecture. He points our attention to the questions of “what architecture is”, “what architecture was” and, most of all “what architecture will be”. This Biennale has the potential of raising these fundamental issues we tend to forget about in our pursuit of modernity. It is the ambition of every curator to touch the most essential problems, however, the last editions, with their “fundamental” questions of “People meet in architecture” or the “Common ground”, seemed to have come dangerously close to the cliché. What is more, the titles were more of the slogan type, rather than mottos stimulating deeper thought. With Koolhaas, there is no doubt that this is the right question asked in the right time. Never before in the history of humanity has it been so easy to lose touch with these “fundamental” roots.

We are living in a global world. What seemed to be an academic training for sociologists – the “global village” – has now become the reality for many of us. Within our life spans, we can live in as many cities in various countries as we see fit, constantly changing the culture, language, meeting new people from distant areas of the globe. Nowadays, it is so easy to change, learn new languages, learn new lifestyles, taste new cuisines, discover new entertainment. Sometimes we don’t even have to go outside to explore the world. In this constant rush, it is so easy to forget about constancy, about the starting point, running towards the finish line. As fashion, architecture itself tends to surrender to fleeting trends, new technologies, new revolutions. The basic terms are distorted, leaving us with their mere representations, reinterpretations, continuations, reincarnations, adaptations, commentaries, translations, and leaving the core of architecture in the fade. Who knows, perhaps with his “Fundamentals”, Koolhaas is performing a ceremony, through which the Biennale is turned into a mystery play reminiscing the origins or architecture, particularly the modern one.

“Fundamentals” also comprises “Elements of Architecture”, through which, in the Central Pavilion, the main curator and a team of his coworkers will pursue the definitions of such, seemingly obvious, architecture elements as the window, the door, the wall, the roof, the stairs, or the elevator. This primer, a vocabulary of architecture, may surprise us – we would expect yet another “fuck the context” case from Koolhaas or his AMO think-tank. Instead, we are returning to the sources. We think it’s a bull’s eye. It is this absence of clearly identified, basic terms that hinders all discussion about architecture itself. It is one of the major pains of contemporary theory of architecture, which often tends to lose its overtone when faced with the definition of architecture, building or space. By specifying these terms, Koolhaas provides solid foundations for further discussion, which may lead the current discourse out of its permanent cul-de-sac. We can only hope that this new discourse will not be too strongly directed by the powerful personality of the main curator and his prominent ideas, that the head of OMA will not strive at creating his own history of architecture. Although perhaps it would be better, compared to the mediocrity of the previous curators.


As announced by Koolhaas, research will be the leitmotif for the Biennale. Researching the condition of architecture, defining its problems, collecting data – these aspects have always been the province of this exhibition. This time, research will be approached from every angle, and the Biennale will be a true laboratory. Initially, such approach to the exhibition caused a mild stir with us – hoping that the Biennale wouldn’t be boring or excessively concentrated on analysis. Who likes to watch the same charts and read the same statistics? However, everything points that this time, it won’t be just another survey, but an essential vivisection of modernity, a resection of the flesh of architecture to its bare bone, a thorough examination of its particles under the microscope. Ultimately, the Biennale is a mirror that allows architecture (and architects) to take a look at itself. This is what we expect from the best editions of the Biennale – to reach the essence of architecture.

This motif of “foundations of architecture” is elaborated on in the exhibition titled “Absorbing modernity 1914-2014” – developed in the Arsenal and in some of the national exhibitions. A critical outlook on the last 100 years of the victorious procession of modernity, on the foundations of modernism, on what modernism has achieved, seems to be essential at the verge of the 21st century. We are now entering the phase of “mature modernity” (or so we may think, since “modernity” is elusive, like Alice’s White Rabbit). Modernism is 100 years old now, it is an esteemed senior, we can approach it with distance, not only without piety, but also without any hostility, which was so characteristic for the postmodernist discourse. It is the right time to analyze this modernity with reserve, particularly when the world seems to be facing a turning point because of it. The changes brought by the 20th century, with architecture and civilization in general seem to be tempted by yet another –ism, ideologies and revolutions, have derailed the old hierarchies of values. Have they been replaced by a new order? Capitalism, democracy and globalism, which were proposed as the right answers not so long ago, are questioned today by the overwhelming crisis, of values and the economy. Plus there is the identity crisis that the whole world is struggling with. Who am I – ask individuals lost in the postmodern, atomized society – ask entire nations, dissolving in an ocean of global processes. In his curatorial statement, Koolhaas says: In 1914, it made sense to talk about a “Chinese” architecture, a “Swiss” architecture, an “Indian” architecture. One hundred years later, under the influence of wars, diverse political regimes, different states of development, national and international architectural movements, individual talents, friendships, random personal trajectories and technological developments, architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernisty.


815-Absorbing-Modernity-201_Fotor2It is all very obvious. The only puzzling thing is the epithet Koolhaas used to describe modernity – “seeming”. Perhaps modernism is only apparently modern, ergo its revolution was apparent too? Perhaps the 20th century was a mere vestibule to modernity, which has been mistakenly understood as unification, as a rejection of locality in favor of global banality?

Such approach undermines belief in modernism and its redemptive power. At the same time, it doesn’t deprive us of hope for the better, as stated in the final paragraph of the curatorial statement: 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.” In a time of ubiquitous google research and the flattening of cultural memory, it is crucial for the future of architecture to resurrect and expose these narratives.

Modernity is yet to come. Will we have the guts to reach for it? We hope that this Biennale directed by Koolhaas will be at least a foretaste of it.