American Design Imperialism?
[this is an unposted piece I just came across, now more than a year old, but still relevant, I hope]
The Architecture Biennale in Venice seems to have divided the design world, or maybe it’s just me. I seem to be on the other side of a lot of issues and opinions this time around.
It’s not you, it’s me.
Take the US Pavilion by the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
There are two ideas at play: OfficeUS (either “office us” or “Office U.S.”) is a virtual collaborative think tank of participating architects in the US (or us) and a on site team of 8 architects in Venice. And then there is the exhibition, a wall of folios, one building each, by an American firm building abroad in the last 100 years.
The idea of a collaborative think tank is worthy, of a virtual one is timely and as a study of the past and future potentially brilliant. The Google of architecture is what it could have the aspiration to become. A virtual CIAM is the least one could expect.
But is OfficeUS worthy of an exhibition? Especially at the very moment of its founding? Maybe not. A couple of clever desks are not an exhibit. Nor is staffing the pavilion with 8 chosen architects, however great it is for them.
Enter The Wall of Documents, devoted to elaborating Rem’s challenge: Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014. 1,000 buildings by US Architects working abroad, each in a face-out deadpan folio available for inspection by the visitor. This has the effect of expressing the opposite of what it intends: American Design Imperialism.
The headline might be ‘America gives the world back the Modernity it borrowed in the first place, but in the form of corporate modernism’.
A smart friend referred to this in passing as 'beyond brilliant’, but I just don’t get it as an exhibition.
A book. An essay. A website. But an exhibition at the world’s most important collection of national architectural expression? These are two rich ideas, with depth and potential but not much as an engaging display.
At its root this is a common issue with the US Pavilion at the Biennale; in a effort to be 'democratic’ it can’t or won’t present a single powerful idea. It has to be congressional rather than monarchical. Smaller, less concerned countries manage to amuse, or baffle, or astonish with their singularity, while the US spreads its offering so thin that one can’t quite see what it adds up to: it is quantity’s triumph over quality.
This is not to say that there are not some truly remarkable buildings in the mix. There are and we know them well. It is to say that mixing the best with the merely conforming is not an idea as much as it is a reflection of the American ideal meal - large but not particularly good.
My guess, and hope, is that the afterlife of the US Pavilion will be much richer than its short life in Venice.