Koolhaas had no time to waste as he hurriedly but efficiently guided visitors through a one-hour tour of his exhibit "Elements of Architecture" shortly before it opened here last weekend as part of the Venice Biennale's 14th International Architecture Exhibit. The exhibit covers nothing less than architecture's evolution from homo erectus' first man-made fire to heating fixtures of the future, focusing on the plainer elements: ceilings unnoticed overhead; corridors too quickly bypassed; those overlooked conveyances, elevators.
"If you look at each element in isolation" you can feel its powerful, psychological dimension, Koolhaas said, beyond any "technical, artistic and pragmatic details."
Koolhaas, 69, is known for eschewing a defined esthetic in favour of using modern materials and technology to meet clients' needs. Projects by the Dutch architect and the team he leads at Rotterdam-based OMA have included a plan for the city centre of Lille, France, as well as such award-winning buildings as the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin and the new Seattle public library.
In preparing for the Biennale, Koolhaas seemed thrilled to have found kindred spirits taken with the fundamentals of the architecture that surrounds us daily, such as a German professor's thesis on the corridor and an Italian scholar's study of false ceilings. He himself has written a treatise on elevators.
While he has sought to distinguish architecture in this Biennale from art and design — a line that he says has blurred in recent years — he is actually one of the cross-disciplinary masters who have helped blur them.
Koolhaas has designed fashion runways for Prada, stores for Coach and cantilevered furniture for Knoll. Despite his purist intentions at the Biennale, design inevitably permeates the "Elements" exhibit, in the Knoll furniture sprinkled throughout the pavilion and in examples, of, say, door handles in a room dedicated to doors through the ages. Other luminary architects and designers, from Walter Gropius to Peter Eisenman to Philippe Starck, are prominently displayed there. And the exhibit coyly adds Koolhaas' name with a big question mark — an invitation for him to design the perfect door handle.
Inside the Central Pavilion, his first stop is the ceiling. Once, ceilings were architect's playthings, vaunted and vaulted, canvases for fancy. Now, they're more often simple planes concealing modern heating and cooling units. Sometimes, the unadorned modern planes hide earlier wonders.
Koolhaas points to the beautiful, painted domed ceiling in the pavilion, from which he has suspended a cross-section of modern machinery with a partial false ceiling to hide it.
"You see a dome recently restored by the Biennale, at great expense," Koolhaas motions upward. "The ceiling there is sort of a symbolic plane where there is room for beauty and meaning. You look also inside the belly of the false ceiling, and see how the two are fundamentally and radically changed, and how the ceiling has become a thick volume, completely charged with machinery, over which the architect has very little to say."
Koolhaas took two years to realize the "Elements of Architecture" exhibit, enlisting help from OMA staff and a team of students from Harvard, where he has been a professor since 1975. It is one of three overlapping exhibits he is overseeing as curator of the overall show, called "Fundamentals."
The second, "Monditalia," explores the Italian predicament of unrealized potential through other disciplines, including dance, music, theatre and film. "It's not Italy as an example, but Italy as a prototype of a recurrent condition," Koolhaas said. "Basically every country in the world struggles with this paradox: on the one hand, unbelievable gifts, on the other hand, an inability to realize them."
The national pavilions for the first time are organized around one theme, "Absorbing Modernity." Koolhaas said he asked countries to identify "either episodes or an overview or a unique moment where the process of modernization was at its most acute" in the past century.
The Korean Pavilion, which includes material from both North and South Korea for the first time, won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion.
Direct collaboration with North Korea proved impossible, said adjunct curator Jihoi Lee, of South Korea. So the curators relied on contributions, including one from Nick Bonner, who has run tour groups into North Korea for two decades. Bonner commissioned a North Korean architect to produce a simple, illustrated booklet, "A Day of an Architect," which shows architects realizing projects through work, dedication and inspiration.