© OMA

Venice Biennale 2014: Elements of Architecture

The result of a two-year research studio with the Harvard Graduate School of Design and collaborations with a host of experts from industry and academia… Elements of Architecture looks under a microscope at the fundamentals of our buildings, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime: the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator, the ramp. The exhibition is a selection of the most revealing, surprising, and unknown moments from a new book, Elements of Architecture, that reconstructs the global history of each element. It brings together ancient, past, current, and future versions of the elements in rooms that are each dedicated to a single element. To create diverse experiences, we have recreated a number of very different environments - archive, museum, factory, laboratory, mock-up, simulation…

Room Two: Ceiling ...ceilings – traditionally iconographic, thin, and continguous with the underside of the floor above – became exponentially thicker over the last 100 years... Ceilings acquired three dimensionality, consisting of a large inaccessible section used as storage space for HVAC, plumbing, wiring, surveillance devices... The false ceiling is the sectional equivalent of poche – the cavity usually considered only in plan, in relation to walls.
Room Three: Window ...window seats, bay windows, sills, shutters, blinds, curtains, screens, filters all emphatically declared the multiple functions and the recognizable position of the window, both from the outside and on the inside of architecture.
Room Four: Corridor ...“corridore,” meaning a person who runs to transfer messages, and later the space for running on or next to city walls, first appears in 14th century Europe.
Room Five: Floor ...once a surface for symbolic expression – defining the way spaces are used, the “rules of the game” – floors in the 20th century tended towards a purely Cartesian surface, rational, undecorated, unloved, always perfectly flat, ideally soundless.
Room Six: Balcony...newfangled invention, awkward appendage, “fake appetizer” (Quatremere de Quincy), health-giver, mediator between inside and outside, public and private, universal civilizer, platform for theatrical projection of personal micropolitics (mini-gardens) and national ideologies, go-to tool of social democracy, registration of mass individualism on the face of the city, privileged promontory over the street, storage space, wasted space... the balcony is the modern architectural element par-excellence... its role in announcing private identity publicly now subsumed by the digital realm...
Room Seven: Fireplace ...the promethean technology of the fireplace – one of the many elements competing for origin-of-architecture status – has eventually allowed the element to go into hiding... As our mastery of fire has improved, the former tasks of the fireplace – heating, cooking, lighting, a gathering place and focal point for media and culture – have been divided up among multiple discrete devices, and/or dispersed like tentacles through systems that penetrate every hidden space of architecture and lead eventually to power stations (enormous fireplaces)...
Room Eight: Facade ...a metonym for architecture as a whole, the façade though a relatively young concept, is the architectural element most invested with aesthetic, political, and cultural meaning. As the classic concept of façade crystalized in Europe, it was dominated by decorum, composition, faciality, orientation, profile, embellishment, signification, and rigidity.
Room Nine: Roof ...perhaps as a result of our gratitude to the roof-over-ourhead, it has always been super-charged with local cultural meaning. The paradox of the roof is that this indelible regionalism – styles are ultra-recognizable (the Black Forest roof, the Chinese roof) – coexists with universal principles and physical structures that must be adhered to in order to keep the roof up and the weather out.
Room Ten: Door ...a traditional element once invested with physical heft and iconography has turned into a dematerialized zone, a gradual transition between conditions registered by ephemeral technologies (biometric detectors, body scanners) rather than physical barriers.
Room Eleven: Wall ...walls provide structure and divide space: the load-bearing wall, separating roof from ground, and the contingent partition wall, organizing movement within the resulting container.
Room Twelve: Escalator ...born with the rush of industrial inventiveness and the science fiction of the 19th century, the escalator is, at first, literally an attraction at the great expositions of the turn of the century. Seamless assisted ascent becomes a universal standard for shoppers.
Room Thirteen: Stair ...the diktat of the 15th-century architectural theorist Leon Battista Alberti – “The fewer staircases that are in a house, and the less room they take up, the more convenient they are esteem’d” – has proven to be a prophesy for the contemporary condition of the stair, considered dangerous – safety requirements limit ambitions – and possibly endangered, only still in existence in order to fulfill the requirement of having an exit strategy... though the stair may be making something of a comeback as an aid to fitness and an energy-saving alternative to the elevator.
Room Fourteen: Toilet ...no architectural treatise declares the toilet as the primordial element of architecture, but it might be the ultimate one... Once a respectable communal activity, the toilet gradually became privatized, enclosed within architecture, plugged into plumbing, placed in counterintuitive proximity to baths and showers, eventually transformed into a piece of (digital) technology...
Room Fifteen: Ramp ...a ramp can be a device that changes political systems, triggers revolution. Ramps can announce a new age, a new art, a new lifestyle without furniture, even a new relationship between humans and animals. Ramps can liberate architecture and people...
Room Sixteen: Elevator ...the introduction of the elevator ended an entire period of architectural history, and relegated another element – the stair – to a bit part role in buildings.
Room Seventeen: Exit ... Book for Architects, Wolfgang Tillmans.