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Architectural History and Modernity at the Venice Biennale

Shatha Almutawa, September 2014

Has modernism invaded the world? Has traditional architecture disappeared because of modernism?” David Mitchell, creative director of the New Zealand exhibit at the 2014 Venice Biennale, asked these questions in a lecture last February. The 14th Architecture Exhibition focuses on the theme Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014, and has been described by the Telegraph as a “riotous mix of medieval toilets, clips from Hollywood movies, cross sections of buildings and much more.Sixty-four countries are represented, and one continent, Antarctica, has its own exhibit, even though its architecture is provisional and all its building materials are imported.

Over the summer, we interviewed curators and wrote about three pavilions: China, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates (these articles appear on the AHA Today blog). The curators told very different stories about the place of modernism in their countries, what it represents, how it changed the landscape of their cities, and how tradition and history have been preserved (or not).

Michele Bambling, curator of the UAE Pavilion, connected the UAE’s architectural history with the stories of the people who lived there even before the founding of the country. Their encounter with modernity is documented in photographs. “The camera came into local people’s hands very late, after the discovery of oil and the generation of revenues in the ’70’s. That’s when local people were able to buy cameras and that’s when photographs were taken by UAE nationals,” says Bambling. The idea for the UAE Pavilion was conceived after Bambling curated an exhibit of Emirati family photographs with her all-female students at Zayed University. Over time, the project grew and attracted attention as the first collection of personal photographs taken by Emiratis and residents of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah.

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Houreya Naser Musabah Khamis Al Kalbani shared this photograph of her father’s friend Ahmed Abdulla Al Jassasi, taken in 1980. She said, “I love how the person who took this photo created a panoramic view by taking two photos that show the newly built house given by the government and showing the lady by the station wagon. Notice that the telephone wire reached the house before the paved road.”

The New Zealand Pavilion, whose name “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest,” is a play on a line from the Rudyard Kipling poem “The Song of the Cities,” shows that modernism in these Pacific islands is a combination of European and Māori heritage and international building styles. Curator David Mitchell said in an interview that a hundred years ago “there were Māori meeting houses and other buildings but they weren’t viewed as architecture. They were treated as anthropological artefacts.” The interest in incorporating elements of Māori architecture in new buildings began in the 1940s.

Jiang Jun, curator of the Chinese Pavilion, looked beyond architecture to the philosophies behind it. He described the process of traditional building in China as one that takes into account more aspects of human life—and nature—than does Western architecture. For this reason, in China blueprints traditionally were drawn up on-site, as each building was being built. He argues that contemporary architects could benefit from applying the principles of ancient Chinese architecture. “What we want to extract from the philosophy is universal value, not only for Chinese but for the world,” says Jun. These values include “Sustainability, freedom. . . Respect for nature, doing something unlimited within limited space.”

Winners were announced on the opening day of the exhibit. The Golden Lion award was given to the exhibit Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula (representing both North and South Korea). “I really hope our work is a small positive demonstration of how interesting it could be if the two Koreas could gather and talk about architecture,” commissioner and co-curator Minsuk Cho told the Architectural Record. The second-place Silver Lion award went to Chile. The Venice Biennale closes on November 23.

Shatha Almutawa is associate editor of Perspectives on History.

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