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Venice Architecture Biennale ponders century of modernity

Architecture has become global and national characteristics are blurring. At the Venice Architecture Biennale, participating countries explore the last century of building history - together, rather than as competitors.

For the first time, all countries participating in the

14th International Architecture Exhibition

are focused on one issue: "Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014" is the title director Rem Koolhaas chose for the national pavilions at this year's Biennale, which takes place in Venice every two years.

New this year is that countries are working together on one topic. For decades, there has been more competition between countries than collaboration, but that has changed for the 2014 edition.

The curators responsible for the exhibition in the German pavilion - Alex Lehnerer and Savvas Ciriacidis - do not come from Germany, but from Switzerland. The building has a long and spotted history; it was built in 1909, but then completely rebuilt by the Nazis in 1938 and turned into a manifesto to Nazi architecture.

'The nation's living room'

By turning the "Padiglione Germania," as the pavilion has been called since 1912, into a "Bungalow Germani," the Swiss architects have put this historic building into a new political context. They explicitly recall the so-called chancellor's bungalow in Bonn, where Germany's chancellors used to reside and hold receptions while the city on the Rhine River served as the German capital. The modern building was designed by architect Sepp Ruf and built in 1964.

For decades, the Bonn bungalow was known as "the nation's living room," and was home to all of Germany's chancellors from its construction in 1964 until the country's capital was moved to Berlin in 1999.

Bungalow Germania at the 2014 Venice Biennale, Copyright: CLA/Foto: Bas Princen

Low ceilings just like in Bonn: The chancellor's bungalow inspires the German Pavilion in Venice

In 2001, the chancellor's bungalow was listed as a protected historic site, but the German capital had already moved to Berlin two years earlier and the building quickly lost importance. Nevertheless, it remains part of German cultural history. With its long, flat roof and the spacious, flowing transitions from one room to the next, the building is a significant representative of modern architecture.

"We want to bring together these two intertwining threads in Venice - the nation and the related field of architecture from the past 100 years. We didn't want to do that with a chronological collection that has a beginning and an end, but rather with a construction and staging of a certain architectural moment," the two Swiss architects said of their approach as curators.

At the Venice Biennale, the concept of architecture as a representative of the state is critically examined. In the German Pavilion itself, the fascist architecture of Nazi Germany meets the democratic spirit of the German Federal Republic.

According to Lehnerer and Ciriacidis, "Every building questions the myths of other buildings. Does the transparent glass of the bungalow make sense if it doesn't keep its promise to grant views and vastness, but rather frames a view of the bleak white wall of the Pavilion?"

Chancellor's Bungalow in Bonn, Copyright: DW/M. Todeskino

The chancellor's bungalow in Bonn is surrounded by green space on the Rhine River

Global perspective

Their concept seems to be working. This year's Biennale has more visitors than ever before. For the first time, 10 countries are participating, including Costa Rica, the Ivory Coast, Mozambique, and Kenya. So it's no surprise that this year's look at architecture is more global.

The 69-year-old Dutch director is quite cosmopolitan himself. Koolhaas is said to be one of the most interesting masterminds of contemporary architecture. In 1975, he founded his famous Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam and has been coordinating and developing projects around the world ever since.

Among his projects are the

Nederlands Dans Theater

in Den Haag , the

Nexus World Housing

in Fukuoka, Japan, the

Villa Dall'Ava

in Paris, the

Kunsthal Rotterdam

, the Euralille conference and exhibition hall, the reconstruction of a Broadway theater in New York, the administration building of the Universal Studios in Hollywood, a concert hall in Porto, the wheelchair-accessible Villa Lemoine in Bordeaux, the

Guggenheim museum in Las Vegas

, and the Dutch embassy in Berlin.

Layering and condensing

As a theorist, Koolhas gets enthusiastic about extreme, radical and ugly aspects of large metropolises - things like drive-in restaurants, asphalted parking lots, and shopping malls. For him, cities without character are the fulfillment of modernity. While cultural pessimists may view the disorganized sprawl of modern urban spaces as a horror scenario, it is a message of salvation for Koolhas.

Portrait of architect Rem Koolhaas, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk

Pioneer architect Rem Koolhaas is the director of this year's Venice Biennale

Koolhas' formula for saving space is layering and condensing. He envisions cars underground, so that pedestrians can better use private and public zones. Above that come the shops and apartments. The utopias of modernity are present throughout his works.

However, Koolhas also says, paradoxically, that this beloved modernity is becoming increasingly diluted. "Modernity has long arrived in China and other countries. It doesn't belong to us anymore," he said at a Biennale press conference.

All the more interesting is the review of architectural development by the participating nations, according to Koolhas. For him, it's not about the achievements of the individual architects but about the language of architecture itself.

The 2014 Venice Biennale runs through November 23, 2014.

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