Critical Round-Up: Venice Biennale 2014

Critical Round-Up: Venice Biennale 2014

With the first weekend of the Venice Biennale in the books, over the past few days reviews from critics have been flooding in. Each is eager to dispense their opinions on what has been one of the most highly anticipated Biennales in recent memory, and it seems that the event has not disappointed. From reviews of the festival as a whole to individual takes on the National Pavilions, read on after the break as we take a look at some of the most intriguing reviews so far.

The British Pavilion. Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia

"You couldn't ask for more than this"

Rowan Moore of the Observer relates how impressed he is with the experience, but offers a slightly different take on what the theme says about architecture's current status:

"The show is partly a celebration of what built spaces can do, but there is also an underlying pessimism. Things Ain't What They Used to Be is one message, or We're All Doomed."

However, often prone to a highly critical take on architecture himself, Moore seems to see this as a positive for the show rather than a negative. He also praises Koolhaas's stated aim to make the Biennale "about architecture not architects":

"The Biennale is greatly enhanced by the fact that, unlike its predecessors, it does not pay tribute to the big beasts of contemporary architecture (Koolhaas excepted) and the absence of their honking and rutting adds greatly to its enjoyment."

With regard to the National pavilions, Moore singles out the Golden Lion-winning Korean pavilion, which he says "combines North and South in a way that makes them look more similar than you might expect." He also praises the British Pavilion, saying that "It offers a series of flavourful cultural snacks, which also manage to embody something important about British culture."

He concludes:

"At times, this year's biennale is only obliquely about architecture (it includes, for example, dance performance), but as architecture is usually best experienced obliquely, this is a strength. Shows like this can be a wearisome tramp through information, but this one is stimulating. It doesn't offer answers, but the questions it raises are pertinent."

The French Pavilion. Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia

"As consistently strong a range of contributions as I have seen in a decade"

Ellis Woodman, writing for the Architects' Journal, splits his review into three parts, reviewing the Elements Exhibition, Monditalia Exhibition and the National Pavilions seperately. Of the Elements Exhibition, he says that "it is an exhibition that makes little attempt at visual seduction", adding that:

"There is more than a little of the atmosphere of the Building Centre in evidence and, in the relentless concern with classification something of the Ladybird guide to Architecture too," ultimately concluding that "Elements of Architecture might be taken as a statement of the architect’s subservience to conditions beyond his control: the water in which all architects – even those of Koolhaas’s status - are ultimately required to swim."

On the Monditalia Exhibition, Woodman seems much more engaged, saying:

"As a piece of scenography, the show is a delight... Stages where dance and theatrical productions will take place throughout the biennale’s six-month run have also been thrown into the mix, reinforcing a sense of architecture’s place within a larger cultural discourse."

Finally in his piece on the National Pavilions, he echoes Moores sentiments by saying that "Britain’s contribution, A Clockwork Jerusalem, ranks among the best," however his favorite is the French Pavilion:

"Centred on a model of the Villa Arpel - the preposterous modernist house from Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle - it examines the shifting popular reception of modern architecture in France from the thirties to the sixties. The section devoted to the pioneering housing estate, La Cité de la Muette at Drancy which subsequently become an internment camp for Jews captured the contradictions at the heart of that story to horrifying effect."

The Korean Pavilion. Image © Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia

The Korean Pavilion: "Exceptionally Well Executed"

Janelle Zara of Art Info focuses attention on the Korean Pavilion, relating the interesting story of the (ultimately failed) attempt to include contributions from both South and North Korea:

"Pavilion commissioner Minsuk Cho of the Seoul-based practice MASS Studies had hoped to provide a holistic account of this history by enlisting curators from both the North and South, to create a landmark exhibition that would be the two states’ first collaborative engagement. The effort proved to be difficult, if not impossible.

"'I was practically sending love letters to different people, ambassadors, with no response,' Cho told ARTINFO. 'By mid-December, we had to decide to give up plan A.'"

Zara adds how "Although broad in its scope, the exhibition unfolds without political condemnation," concluding that the pavilion is "a story told in small increments, where the gaps in between become more visible as we look closer."

The US Pavilion. Image © Nico Saieh

The Canadian Pavilion: "a complex collective effort"

Alex Bozikovic of Toronto's Globe and Mail reviews the Canadian Pavilion (which received a special mention among the awards):

"the 1958 building, shaped like a nautilus shell, has defied many curators... The exhibition design – led by Sheppard, White and their partner, Matthew Spremulli – shows some nimbleness: They’re occupying the interior of the pavilion with a sinuous “ice floe,” and lining it with three sets of physical artifacts.

The exhibition itself - an examination of the Nunavut community which has now become home to previously nomadic Inuit - gets praise from Bozikovic, as well as the background work which has gone into it, concluding:

"design with social ambition doesn’t always travel well. Lateral Office’s Venice exhibition is an exception."

The British Pavilion: "one of the few exhibitions in the Giardini to directly address Koolhaas's brief"

Vicky Richardson, director of Architecture, Design and Fashion at the British Council, may have a somewhat biased take on the British Pavilion, which she helped to create. However, her article for Icon Magazine is interesting for the comments it relates from Biennale President Paolo Baratta:

"A Clockwork Jerusalem, they said, is one of the few exhibitions in the Giardini to directly address Koolhaas's brief: Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014.

"Baratta said the show was like psychoanalysis for Britain: it puts our architecture "on the couch" and all our feelings pour out."

Richardson adds

"In that sense, A Clockwork Jerusalem does what the Farrell review should have done: it looks at how contemporary architecture has ended up pushed into a corner, defensive and obsessed with all the wrong things."

US Pavilion: "impossible not to be struck by the curators’ bravery"

Writing for Architectural Record, Fred A Bernstein gives a glowing account of the US Pavilion:

"Some countries use their pavilions as conventional galleries, displaying photographs of finished buildings. Others create architecture-based installations. A smaller number take an intellectual approach, posing and then answering questions derived from architectural theory or practice. And a very few—and these may be the ones taking the greatest risks—pose questions to which the answers are allowed to emerge, through real-time investigation, over the course of the Biennale’s six-month run.

"The U.S. pavilion, incredibly, does all these things and more, with a jaw-dropping and eye-opening study of architecture as a 20th-century American export."

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "Critical Round-Up: Venice Biennale 2014" 10 Jun 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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