Architecture exhibitions certainly constitute a special theme in the history of modern architecture. They can be associated with modern­ism as a self­establishing programme which required both technological and communica­tive support all through the 20th century. The 5  links of modernism with open media space, the development of the advertising industry and the emergence of communication strate­gies have been extensively researched. The apogee of all that was of course the fact that in the 1980s postmodernism found itself in the service of the desire ­machine of the com­mercial media industry: architecture became a staged background, symbolic capital and part of the star system. The first architecture biennial in Venice in 1980 was thus a crucial event, connected with typical tendencies of its era. The first biennials became real mani­festos of postmodernist performance archi­ tecture. Despite diverse main themes and world famous architects­curators, architec­ture biennials have to some extent followed the art biennials’ format, which centres on the author: the exhibitions have been mainly about architects, their creative egos and fan­tastic ideas, occasionally presenting exhilarating performances in real exhibition spaces. Biennials have conveyed new information about the state of various cities, the birth of grand projects and the results of architecture competitions; remarkable installations and multimedia performances have been created here, but they have always been architects’ tales for other architects, a professionally spe­cific vision of the situation of the society and space where we live. The latest architecture biennial, the 14th, considerably shifted this perspective. Biennials have uttered apoca­lyptic and social­critical predictions before, but they have never before been presented in such a cynical and brilliant way, the architect’s position has never been abandoned before, architecture has never been taken apart down to its basic elements and nobody has ever before said that we were left with only these banal and mundane elements.

When the Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, one of the most charismatic architects in the world and possessing a very sharp tongue, was named the curator of this year’s biennial, eve­rybody’s expectations shot up. This is a man whose absence from nearly all the biennials of the last decade has been regarded as both telling capriciousness and criticism of wor­shipping star architects. Nevertheless, on the brink of his 70th birthday he agreed to be the scriptwriter and director of the world’s big­gest and most prestigious architecture event. There is no need whatsoever for Koolhaas to prove anything to the world or acquire per­sonal notoriety, as his entire career is charac­terised by an extraordinary visionary talent, excellent communication skills and an ability to remain critical of the whole society even in a situation where as an architect of huge projects he has accepted commissions from big corporations or (e.g. in the case of China’s state broadcasting building) from totalitarian regimes. Cynicism towards society and hon­esty towards today’s situation of architecture have always been his trademarks.

Naturally enough, Koolhaas chose his favourite theme for the exhibition: modern­ ism, including its meaning in history, global programme and today’s situation. Koolhaas has always been fascinated by the impact of technology on architecture. In his book Delirious New York, published already in 1978, he wrote about the lift, escalator and air­con­ditioner as the most significant elements in the development of modern architecture. At the Venice display titled Fundamentals, every room was dedicated to a different element of architecture: doors, windows, facades, walls, floors, toilets, corridors etc. The sub­ text showed how much contemporary archi­tecture is shaped by these standard details, a fact about which architects and the history of architecture have remained silent. In an interview conducted in connection with the biennial by Charles Jencks, the grand old man of postmodernism and former teacher of Koolhaas, he summarised the exhibition as one big narrative. The whole galaxy of ele­ments showed that everything in building is getting thinner and lighter, and everything ends up with total digitalisation. Iconography of any kind and symbolism disappear, only light materials and technology remain. In the same interview, Rem Koolhaas himself commented that architecture was amazingly rigid and unprepared to realise that things had changed ever since the late 19th century. He said that the most important aspect in the history of architecture was the mechanical side, e.g the lift and the air­conditioner. Half a century later, the importance of these things was still not properly understood. All those ventilation pipes, suspended ceilings, façade materials, surveillance technology and other stuff filling the rooms in the main pavilion in Giardini were not an insignificant side theme or an engineering addition, but precisely the things that have changed the essence of mod­ern architecture. “From now on, architecture is these mechanical systems,” said Koolhaas. He added that the systems were becoming increasingly digitalised, controlled and reg­ulated by virtual means, while architecture was becoming more like a hybrid world of databases. A world where the human dimen­sion might well one day disappear altogether: “Be careful. One day the houses might betray you.” Fundamentals was both an ironic and criti­cal exhibition, and was displayed in an appe­tising format that attracted crowds: a cleverly assembled film programme, and diversely and fascinatingly designed theme rooms, where viewers were informed of the empirical rela­tionship between the main truths of archi­tecture, which they perceived via different senses. Truth should not be sought in theo­retical treatises or declarations of the archi­tectural world; it is instead right here, around us, in our everyday rooms, inside walls and under floor coverings, in the kitchen and in the bathroom.

At one of the discussions that took place in the biennial’s opening turmoil, the archi­tectural historian Aaron Betsky, the curator of the last but one biennial, cautioned that dis­ mantling architecture into parts is tedious and complete nonsense from the point of view of the biennial: an exhibition of architecture should convey an idea of the experimental, new ideas and the future. Besides, a biennial that presents only anonymous architecture, suspended ceilings and toilet bowls, actually lifts onto the pedestal just one name and one man: the curator Rem Koolhaas. This was a biennial about vision and ideas, but it was also the vision of one man and his team, their tour de force through history, through the despised and mundane, through modernity. Even Zaha Hadid, a symbol of bravura star architecture, must obey the dictates of ceiling or façade manufacturers, noted Betsky. Architecture cannot be reduced to pure art, an escapist exercise in thinking or a theoretical formula. Modernism made architecture a field closely intertwined with the world of technology, where in the 21st century the role and power of architects has become nearly nonexistent.

Estonian e-modernity

Koolhaas tackled the basic elements himself and suggested to the national pavilions the topic of accepting and absorbing modernism: the common and special features this essen­tially universal paradigm produced interna­tionally. What kind of symbiosis emerged when the typical and the local met, at the intersection of the regulated environment and traditional space? Following the given topic in national pavilions was amazingly unanimous, while each demonstrated its singularity, its special nature arising from the local context. Every nation except Estonia, which defined the local context the other way round, in a universal key that operates with the means of digital technology. The Estonian cura­tors Johan Tali, Johanna Jõekalda and Siim Tuksam left no room for doubt: the e­state is our new normality, and the specific nature of our space does not rely, for example, on climate, rich culture, historical legacy or dull disposition. We talk about space at the level of the global network and by means of digi­tal tools; our space is created by algorithms, programmed without leaving the screen. The Estonian display Interspace examined the digital through the public sphere. According to the curators, we are at a breaking point, where we increasingly relate to the public space through real­time information over­ load, the internet of things and social net­ works. Designing a physical space depends on its digital equivalent. Central control is replaced by public participation, a narrow group of decision­makers by the (digital) com munity, and new design technology organ­ises space in a different way. Koolhaas talked about the digital aspect and the blending of technology and architecture in a rather warning tone, whereas the eyes of the young Estonian curators sparkled and their brisk attitude, ready to change the world, dripped with optimism. We live in several spaces at the same time, the amount of information and the possibilities of processing and using it grow at staggering speed, and our psyche and understanding of the physical world depend on the development of the virtual environ­ment. Screen projections were displayed on the walls and floor of the Estonian exhibition hall, and the ‘virtual reality’ shaped itself according to the movements and clicks of the visitors in the physical room. The real focus of the exhibition was actually on interspace, in­between space which lacks the features of three­dimensional space and the structure of the algorithmic world. In the curators’ minds, this is free space where everything is possible. Even if in reality the freedom of the digital era is deceptive and we should not lose our criti­cal attitude in exalting the user revolution, this new non­material space has begun to influence our physical environment in a way difficult to imagine at the moment, let alone visualise it at an exhibition. Regrettably, there were problems with visual attractiveness in our pavilion. Still, if all this is not absorbing modernism, then what is it?