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Forms of Freedom:
African Independence and Nordic Models at the Venice Biennale
Peter Lang

June 7, 2014-November 23, 2014
Museum of Finnish Architecture
Produced by The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway, in collaboration with the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design and the Museum of Finnish Architecture

One of the most remarkable aspects of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale is the overall adherence to the themes set out by its director, Rem Koolhaas, especially with regard to the numerousnational pavilions, whose political and creative independence were long-standing if not controversial features of these historic biennial exhibitions.

Under the general rubric of “Absorbing Modernity,” Koolhaas’s challenge for the national pavilions is to document and reflect on the impact of modernization on their respective countries. In contrast to the ranging eclecticism of previous biennial editions, this time the national pavilions share similar goals, highlighting landmarks and milestones in their progress toward becoming “modern” states. Clearly the burden of interpreting the impact of modernization, including its merits and demerits, falls squarely on each national pavilion and its curators.

And what makes these stately explorations into modernity all the more problematic is that the passage toward modernization varies radically from country to country, region to region, continent to continent. Perhaps the most innate difference between nation-states is between those that are “first world western” and those that are arguably “non”-Western, postcolonial, and or geopolitically peripheral. This split leads some pavilions like France or England to appear confidently at the forefront of architectural innovation and architectural culture, while others, like Bahrain or Romania, strive to establish their position and legitimacy within the current modernization narrative.

What distinguishes the Nordic pavilion from the other national pavilions is precisely how these global schisms have coalesced into a singular uplifting vision. The fortuitous aspect about the Nordic exhibition is the encounter between Nordic traditions in social democracy and the appearance of a new set of African nations freed from the bonds of colonialism. There are two fundamental perspectives adapted by the exhibition’s curators, Nina Berre, director of Architecture at the National Museum in Oslo, and cocurator and exhibition architect Gro Bonesmo, partner in the architectural firm Space Group.

The first perspective recounts this little-known history of merging cultures—Norway, Sweden, and Finland with Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia—while the second recounts how these mutual episodes opened vital spaces for architectural experiment and urban innovation. Building Freedom speaks about “architectural nation-building where master plans were used to build cities and regions, prototypes and prefabricated systems were used to build education and health centers.” Finding Freedom suggests, according to the curators, “the experimental free area that emerged from this encounter between Nordic aid and African nation-building.”

The simply designed display, composed of a set of eight wall partitions reaching up to the graceful concrete beams supporting the semiopen roof built in 1962 by the architect Sverre Fehn, supports a sequence of narrative panels recounting in most straightforward terms the story of postwar social democracy and African aspirations in the new postcolonial era. Among the schools, assembly halls, cold storage plants, and urban plans, more than a few are remarkable for their beauty and economic clarity. The exhibition includes numerous architects, including the Norwegian Karl Henrik Nøstvik, who worked and eventually settled in Kenya. But mainly there are great projects, architectural drawings, and photographs (all reproductions unfortunately), and a number of video clips presenting ceremonies commemorating diplomatic encounters, and on-site documentaries. It should be noted that cocurator Bonesmo is a former member of OMA, but the original research displayed here significantly avoids Koolhaas’s own penchant for irony and detachment.

How to Cite this Article: Lang, Peter. “Forms of Freedom: African Independence and Nordic Models at the Venice Biennale,” review of the 14th Annual International Architecture Exhibition: Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Rem Koolhaas, Venice, Italy, June 7 – November 23, 2014, JAE Online, July 11, 2014, https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/forms-freedom/.