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‘Absorbing Modernity’ in Venice with Professor Lawrence

We recently caught up with Assistant Professor of Architecture Amanda Reeser Lawrence, who edited the catalogue for the United States Pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. Professor Lawrence shares a few photos from the opening in Venice and discusses the history of Biennale, the importance of the catalogue in complementing and contextualizing the exhibition, and the concepts of “influence” and “transfer” in architecture.

Tell us about the Venice Architecture Biennale and how you were selected to edit the catalogue for the United States?

Beginning in 1980, and occurring every other year since then, the Architecture Biennale in Venice has brought together architects and designers in what has become the most significant global exhibition of architecture. Various countries sponsor exhibitions, curated by leading architectural thinkers in their county, which are displayed in national pavilions on the grounds of the Giardini in Venice from June to November.

This year, Rem Koolhaas was the overall director of the exhibition, putting forth the theme of “Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014.” The Commissioners for the U.S. Pavilion are chosen through a competition organized and judged by the U.S. State Department, who then funds a portion of the exhibition. PRAXIS, the magazine that I cofounded and co-edit, was chosen as deputy commissioner, along with Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York as commissioner. My specific role was to edit the catalogue for the exhibition.

Images via Storefront for Art and Architecture

What is the relationship between the catalogue and the United States Pavilion?

Often exhibition catalogues simply recapitulate the material in the exhibition itself. But we wanted this catalogue, which we titled Agenda, to stand on its own, while also serving as a complement to the exhibition.

The exhibition, OfficeUS, curated by Ana Miljacki, Eva Franch I Gilabert, and Ashley Schafer, focuses on 100 years of American architectural export and features 1000 projects designed by U.S. architects and built abroad. These projects are displayed as a “repository” of information along the walls of the U.S. Pavilion, and over the course of the 25 weeks of the Biennale the pavilion will function as a working “office,” with onsite partners and collaborators reengaging this historical material.

The catalogue takes this material and performs what we termed a “double-curation,” recombining it and telling new stories. We use the architectural analogy of the “section cut”—a type of architectural drawing that slices an imaginary plane through a building and allows you to see things that are otherwise invisible. The catalogue acts like a section cut of the exhibition, revealing surprising adjacencies, reconfiguring information, and challenging what we think we already know.

It took us nearly a year to develop the framework, commission the material, and go through the extensive process of revising and editing. In the end I am incredibly proud of the end result, which was the product of many dedicated team members, and also relieved that it was completed in time for the Biennale opening in June!


What did you learn while editing the catalogue?

Of course I learned an incredible amount about the subject matter—the last 100 years of U.S. architectural export abroad—through the catalogue contributors as well as the exhibition curators.

My own research is currently focused on the idea of influence—the mechanisms through which architects look back to the past and how the past is remade into the “new.” Agenda considers influence through a more geographic lens, exploring the translation and dissemination of ideas from the United States to many countries abroad.

As one might expect, we can see the impact of U.S. building practices in, say, the embassy program after World War II, or projects built by “star” U.S. architects around the world. But Agenda exposes the workings of U.S. architectural export as a two-way street and a more complex phenomenon. There is an article that I edited, for example, on émigres who came to the United States, many fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s, who then established their offices in the United States. How do we understand their status as Americans? What does it mean when they build back in their “home” country, as a kind of double agent?

There is a vast range of subject matter presented in the catalogue; on the overlooked women in corporate U.S. architectural offices, on the image of U.S. technology in the international Expos of the Cold War, on the role of Hilton Hotels as “little Americas” abroad, on Japanese housing projects for U.S. embassy workers, on U.S. solar technologies exported to Africa, on the “super tall” towers being built abroad by U.S. architects in the last ten years, and an article by CAMD’s own Assistant Professor Ivan Rupnik on the export of U.S. Industrial Engineering Tools to European Modernists in the early decades of the twentieth-century. There’s even an article on the Playboy bed as a U.S. export! It was fascinating to consider and complicate what we often think of as a monolithic transfer of ideas from one area (or country) to another.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The exhibition will be up in Venice through November 2014 and I encourage anyone who has an opportunity to go and visit! You can also monitor events at the OfficeUS Pavilion through their website and purchase a copy of the catalogue by contacting PRAXIS at mail@praxisjournal.net. And stay tuned for a Northeastern-related Biennale event later this year.