Marx and Mazzini in Venice: The Second World at the 2014 Architecture Biennale

One of Karl Marx’s staunchest enemies was not some calloused old capitalist in a top hat, but another revolutionary, the Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Mazzini. The two men fought over the very terms of revolutionary action. Where Marx saw class struggle, Mazzini saw a nation in conflict; when Marx called for a ‘horizontal’ solidarity that would unite the world’s proletariat, Mazzini countered with his call for ‘vertical’ solidarity across a nation. Despite their opposition, however, both Mazzini and Marx became prophets of the twentieth century, as the dual logic of class struggle and nationalism came to dominate politics and cultural production in the wake of the “age of empire.” As far as architecture goes, there is no better example of that dualism than its attempted reconciliation through the Soviet motto “socialist in content, national in form.” Not Mazzini or Marx, but Mazzini and Marx. We know how that went.

When Rem Koolhaas, the curator of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, announced the show’s main themes in January 2013, he seemed to say that with the upsurge in globalization the notion of national culture has run its historic course just like Marxism allegedly did with the fall of the Berlin wall. Inviting the sixty-five participating countries to reflect upon the “absorption of modernity” during the past one hundred hears, Koolhaas virtually proclaimed the end of the national pavilion as a relevant organizing unit of the Biennale: “In 1914, it made sense to talk about a ‘Chinese’ architecture, a ‘Swiss’ architecture, an ‘Indian’ architecture. One hundred years later,[…] architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity.”[1] The irony of such a statement is unmistakable and, considering Koolhaas’s reputation, it was likely meant as a provocation. By the time of the opening, however, the realities of the exhibited material compelled him to allow for a more nuanced view: “Together, the presentations start to reveal how diverse material cultures and political environments transformed a generic modernity into a specific one. Participating countries show, each in their own way, a radical splintering of modernities in a century where the homogenizing process of globalization appeared to be the master narrative…”[2] So, national culture may not be dead, after all. And considering that “political environments” contributed to the diversity, perhaps there is some room in the consideration left for Marx, too.

For the nations that once comprised the Second World, the complex interplay of nationalism and Marxist supranational alliances provided the defining framework for the production of architecture during the better part of the twentieth century. That shared dynamic is all the more significant in light of the fact that many of the now independent nations used to belong to larger multiethnic states. At a Biennale that aimed at reevaluating history, rather than predicting the “next big thing,” most postsocialist nations could not avoid addressing their socialist past, but their responses vary, revealing differing historical experiences, as well as the greatly differing memory of socialism.[3] In some instances, the ambiguity caused by the dual framework is bewildering and it is perhaps best expressed by the curators of the Latvian pavilion, Linda Leitane-Šmidberga and Uldis Lukševics, whose “unwritten book of postwar modernism” documents a neglected body of architecture that constitutes “some kind of a heritage” with its own unacknowledged masters and masterpieces, yet at the same still time provokes “quite a difficult attitude” due to its association with the Soviet Union.[4] “Nobody knows what to do with this stuff,” says Lukševics.

How strikingly different the current evaluations of a socialist past can be is best illustrated by the pavilions of neighboring Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo, all of which once belonged to the Yugoslav federation. Attempting to resolve the ambiguity expressed by Latvia, the Montenegrin pavilion takes the side of the derelict heritage of socialism and recuperates its value. Focusing on four abandoned structures built between the 1960s and 1980s, the exhibition titled “Treasures in Disguise” questions the easy interpretation that sees these buildings as a “testament to the failure of modernism and the breakdown of Yugoslavia” and instead asks if their demise is “really due to an intrinsic lack of quality, or have we been unable to treat them with enough empathy to awaken a dormant potential that might be hidden underneath the patina of our own ideological disenchantment with modernism?”[5] The tone is similar in the Macedonian pavilion, which focuses on Skopje and the cosmopolitan architecture built there after the 1963 earthquake as a result of intense interactions with the international scene. Here, the lament over the lack of empathy for modernist heritage is only implicit, but it looms large in the mind of anyone familiar with the current megalomaniac reworking of the Macedonian capital in the spirit of theme-parkish classicism. In contrast, the pavilion of Kosovo is adamant about showing no sympathy for socialism or the state based on it. The “socialist government” is thus the sole culprit because of which “Kosovo has never absorbed modernity. Modernity has been a synonym of destruction and foreign aesthetics.”[6] Instead, identity is predictably sought in a more distant and rather idealized premodern past, symbolized by the seven hundred traditional wooden stools assembled into a striking tall rotunda.

For several other pavilions, the socialist period is a less contentious topic, explored across the ideological divides of the past century from the perspective of certain specific themes related to the generic aspects of modernity. Estonia asserts its self-perception as a technologically advanced “e-nation” through an interactive digital display that deals with the evolution of Tallinn’s public spaces through the political changes of the past hundred years. It is indeed fun to roam the pavilion’s interactive floor that reacts to the visitors’ steps or to browse through the accompanying website, but the exhibition ultimately sacrifices legibility to the fascination with new technology and the actual story of Tallinn remains obscure.[7] Romania focuses on industry as one of the drivers of modernity and displays a dozen-or-so videos of industrial architecture, as the sounds of machines and euphoric socialist choirs mix inside the room to create a dizzying, at moments almost manic, effect. Finally, the joint pavilion of the Czech Republic and Slovakia takes for its theme mass housing as the most ubiquitous building type before, during, and after socialism, tracing the general contours of the changing relationship between the individual and the collective. This is one of the exhibitions that gets close to addressing a classic Marxist theme, but it eventually leaves the viewer unenlightened, as it reduces the exhibits to several oversized diagrams, leading to the rather expected conclusion that housing under socialism was collective and that afterwards it became more individualistic. As in the case of many other pavilions at the Biennale, the growing trend to straddle the genres of art and research here results neither in very informative research nor in great art.

In contrast, Croatia put up an unambiguously research-oriented exhibition that explicitly engages in a polemic with Koolhaas’s invitation. One of the most traditionally “architectural” displays at the Biennale, complete with photos, drawings, and models, the pavilion presents Croatian modernism “as an effective bearer of national identity,” which tapped into “a pronounced common proclivity towards abstraction, formal reduction, pragmatism, rationality and specific design dexterity” characteristic for the country “throughout history.”[8] The message is effectively supported by elegant design, but the way in which the show essentializes identity into a fixed transhistoric formation inevitably leads to the conclusion that architecture’s “own abstract forms and autonomous procedural apparatus” function somehow independently of “frequent and radical shifts of political, ideological, and socio-economic frames.” In this view, Mazzini does not so much defeat Marx, but renders him utterly irrelevant.

Of all the pavilions of the former Second World, Serbia’s perhaps comes the closest to explicitly problematizing the dynamic between nationalism and communism by juxtaposing a presumed canon of national architecture and a doomed symbol of supranational revolution. The pavilion’s central top-lit room thus exhibits one “objectively selected” Serbian project from each of the past hundred years, but in order to reach that space a visitor has to pass through almost total darkness, which is disturbed only by two videos showing the never-finished Museum of the Revolution of Yugoslavia in New Belgrade.[9] Unfortunately, this potentially eloquent juxtaposition hardly communicates with the uninitiated, not just on the pragmatic level (the complex connotations of the museum remain unexplained, the exhibited projects are not identified), but even more significantly as a spatial metaphor. Should one read it as a passage through the horrors of communism to triumphantly reach the honey-colored temple of the nation? Or is it merely a diagnosis of the current state of affairs? To be sure, the outright celebration of the nation is unsettled as one of the videos shows the homeless inhabiting the basement of the museum, a chilling reminder of the price paid for the realization of nationalist dreams. But the mixed signals render the perspective unclear, perhaps due to the inexperience of a very young curatorial team.

Which finally brings us to Russia. One of the most clearly articulated exhibitions at the Biennale, awarded with a Special Mention from the international jury, the Russian exhibition titled “Fair Enough” leaves little doubt about its message, but delivers a wealth of content with panache. It is perhaps fitting that the place where the “real-existing socialism” started, the largest and most powerful part of the Soviet Union and the center of the Second World, produced such an acerbic commentary on architecture’s postsocialist condition. Curated by Daria Paramonova, Brendan McGetrick, and Anton Kalgaev of Moscow’s Strelka Institute, the exhibition is organized into an imaginary trade-fair that unashamedly transforms architectural heritage into commodity. Squeezed inside their little booths and shaped into easily digestible bits of expertise, the staples of twentieth-century architectural history, from Alexey Shchusev to El Lissitzky and from the nineteenth century “Russian style” to the NARKOMFIN building, vie for customers accompanied by fictional logos and a variety of promotional material. During the opening days of the Biennale, each booth was staffed by a “salesperson” dressed in an appropriate costume, ready to provide the clientele with all the information about their “product,” thus transforming the exhibition into an elaborate piece of interactive performance art. But these hosts were not just mere performers, even though they tended to stay in character. Instead, they were real experts on their subjects, many with advanced degrees in architectural history and criticism, for example, the co-founder of Second World Urbanity, Daria Bocharnikova; others had personal connections to material they presented, such as the grandson of the architect and artist Lazar Khidekel. This was a rare instance at the Biennale of a successful combination of art and research, i.e., of a strong statement and a wealth of information.

In addition, the connotations of the Russian exhibition are rich and call for reflection. Not only are the achievements of an internationalist Soviet avant-garde put on sale, but they are also Russified, at first by being exhibited under the banner of the nation-state and then even further by being mixed with the pre- and post-Soviet, more explicitly Russian, material. But if that represents a victory of national culture, it is a Pyrrhic one, because the nation itself is sold on the market, reduced to a commodity and a mere ideological foil for commercial forces. That is a powerful statement vis-à-vis Koolhaas’s original hypothesis for the Biennale—the clam that globalization erases national identity—because it throws into sharp relief the way in which the production of (cultural) difference becomes enlisted in the process of (economic) homogenization by working as a “false consciousness.” Marx the ideologue is perhaps dead, but Marxism as an analytical tool is still alive and kicking. And Mazzini appears to be just a zombie.


P1250974 “Lifting the Curtain: Central European Architectural Networks.” Photograph by author.


At the end, it is worth mentioning a small exhibition shown as a collateral event of the Biennale, because it addressed a significant part of the former Second World, while also transcending the otherwise required framework of national architecture. “Lifting the Curtain: Central European Architectural Networks” is organized by a group of institutional partners from Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia and covers an even broader region to include the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.[10] Gathering some thirty contributing researchers (for disclosure, the author of this review is among them), the exhibition shows some previously rarely explored projects from the past century, but its true value lies in its focus on the agents and mechanisms of transnational exchange, thus answering Koolhaas’s original invitation in a way that national pavilions by nature could not. It is a small but necessary step toward uncovering the architectural ties that once bound the former Second World.

Vladimir Kulić

The author is Assistant Professor of architectural history and theory at Florida Atlantic University. He is the co-author of Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia (2012) and co-editor of Unfinished Modernisations (2012) and Sanctioning Modernism: Architecture and the Making of Postwar Identities (2014).



[1] See:, retrieved July 14, 2014.

[2], retrieved July 14, 2014.

[3] Some pavilions, however, do eschew socialism by dealing with totally unrelated topics. For example, Albania displays the contemplation of two contemporary artists on the “Potential Monuments of Unrealised Past”; Poland focuses on the (im)possibility of representing the nation through architecture by reworking the tomb of Marshal Piłsudski; and Slovenia takes a flight into the outer space by focusing on the work of the interwar rocket engineer and astronautics pioneer Herman Potočnik Noordung.






[9] It is perhaps also significant that the museum was not designed by a Serbian architect, but by the Croat Vjenceslav Richter, perhaps the most committed avant-gardist in postwar Yugoslavia. Coincidentally, his work also seems to have inspired the design of the Croatian pavilion.



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