For the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale (on now through 23 November), the exhibition's curator Rem Koolhaas selected the arguably ambiguous theme of “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014” as a guide for all participating nations. As one would expect, such a wide and insidious topic has been interpreted in many different ways, influenced by local spirit and each nation's unique societal, political and artistic evolution—not to mention history of architecture.
One of the most original interpretations was created by the Russian Federation team, a group consisting of Commissioner Semyon Mikhailovsky and curators from Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. The historic Russian Pavilion at Giardini has been transformed into "Fair Enough," an imaginary commercial event meant to promote Russian ideas and ideals. Dazzling lights, a kitschy atmosphere, tacky graphics and no shortage of enthusiastic statements and pandering propaganda make up the self-aware approach. The cohesive aesthetic is so well reproduced and in such a general setting that at times it's difficult to understand the line between fact and fiction.
As in every good architecture project, the starting point is very clear: begin with an analysis of today’s problems related to life in dense urban areas. For example, one of the biggest issues in developing countries is displacement, since in recent years 144 million people in 125 countries were forced out of their homes due to disasters. What, specifically, about the future of architectural practices can better this? Other questions abound. Are architects too dependent on computers and robots? When considering entertainment, consumerism and the youth, how do we approach storing our "stuff," since so many own far too much already?
It’s easy to say that we can solve contemporary problems so long as we don’t forget the past, but the Russian curators have made this statement paradoxically strong and clear with the slogan of “Russia’s past, our present." In this way, at "Fair Enough" there is a way out for every obstacle, and it can be found in the long (and controversial) history of Russian Architecture.
Speaking to the point of storage, the Russian Federation answers with the already existing Dacha, the traditional cottages used as second homes that became popular during the Soviet era. In response to an attack or a disaster, there's Ark-Stroy; a super-strong housing system designed for the USSR’s Ministry of Atomic Energy and built in the Tulskaya neighborhood of Moscow. Such "solutions" allow the viewer to rethink stigmas and genuinely reconsider the recycling of "old" ideas.
As the exhibition continues, it showcases more interesting examples of decoration from the monumental Moscow subway, educational methods for children, influences of Russian architecture abroad and the stunning works by Suprematist artist and designer El Lissitzky, just to name a few. In each section it's possible to find promotional materials like leaflets, brochures and catalogues, all of course designed perfectly in sync with the expo-like environment.
Also worth noting is the work coordinated by Maria Kosareva, as she’s been able to recreate different graphic styles according to the content and the historic period of reference. Thankfully, for all design enthusiasts in attendance, she even included Russia's curious, historic graphic nightmares: arrows, yellow letters with shadows, dreadful fonts and overly saturated pictures of smiling people. Regardless of portion of the exhibition visited, Russia's contribution is one not to miss.
Second image courtesy of The Charnel House, all others courtesy of Venice Architecture Biennale