Elephant in the Room: Chile Pavilion Proves We Misunderstand Modernity

The exhibit, which won the Biennale’s Silver Lion, shows just how little architects understand modernity.

Over the next few days, Metropolis will be bringing you articles on the best pavilions from the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venizia.

Right by the entrance to the Chilean Pavilion at the ongoing Venice Biennale of Architecture, there is a set of eight small ceramic elephants on a wooden radio cabinet. Dripping with decoration of vaguely Indian inspiration, trunks raised, and a foot extended as though they are about to march, these elephants are replicas of ones in the apartment of Mrs. Silvia Gutiérrez in the city of Viña del Mar. In fact, the entire room is a replica of Mrs. Gutiérrez’s apartment—complete with pink walls and burgundy-and-gold couches.

Beyond this cosy living room, in a dimly lit exhibition space, curators Pedro Alonso and Hugo Palmarola reveal the larger context—Mrs. Gutiérrez lives in a “panel house,” constructed as part of a giant social housing program promoted by two successive governments of Chile in the 1970s. President Salvador Allende hoped to build 80,000 dwellings per year, using a system originally designed in France in 1948, then redesigned in the Soviet Union before arriving in Chile via Cuba. The system, known as large panel construction, and abbreviated as KPD in Russian, was based on the manufacture of giant concrete walls.

One of these panels, produced in 1972 in the small industrial town of El Belloto, stands at the heart of the pavilion. Awash in red light, it is a dramatic counterpoint to Mrs. Gutiérrez’s living room. Its weathered surface, first signed by Allende and then covered up with a Madonna and Child by the military dictator Auguste Pinochet, belies a complex history that is unpacked in the displays around it—a history of industrialization, the Cold War, Chilean politics, and socialist utopia. Particularly beautiful is a wall of models representing 28 housing typologies from around the world that used a similar construction—each one of them, one hopes, with apartments like Mrs. Gutiérrez’s in them.

Mrs. Silvia Gutiérrez’s apartment, as replicated for the Chilean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It faithfully reproduces all 514 objects from her living room in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Courtesy Andrea Avezzù

The pavilion is presented as a study in contrasts—the industrialized construction and the personalized interior, the grand ambitions of international politics and the little aims of everyday people, the export of modernity from the global north and its absorption (or subversion) in the south. This contrast was the rationale given by the Biennale jury for awarding Chile the Silver Lion among the national pavilions. But those willing to spend a little more time reading the objects in Mrs. Gutiérrez’s living room might come away with a radically new vision of modernity and modernism. And it starts with those elephants.

Architects have long had a flawed view of interior design. The general understanding is that the bric-a-brac that we collect in our living rooms is some sort of rebellion against the standardization of modern life—that we “humanize” the ideal glass-and-concrete boxes of modernism with ceramic elephants. The truth, of course, is that it is not the concrete walls but the elephants that are the ultimate sign of the state of human civilization that we call modernity.

The adjoining exhibition space shows a standing KPD panel. A projection on the wall behind, by Gianfranco Foschino, shows photographs of housing districts built using the system. An adjoining wall has 28 models of global housing projects that show the evolution of the KPD system.

Courtesy Gonzalo Puga

For where could those tchotchkes have come from? They could have been made by a local entrepreneur who was convinced that Chileans would find Indian elephants beautiful. They could have been produced by one of the thousands of workshops in India that export touches of the exotic to customers around the world. Or—the most satisfying speculation of all—they might have been turned out by the thousand at a factory in China that imitates Indian tourist souvenirs for international consumption. Each of these scenarios, dependent upon global flows of material, commerce, and culture, would only be possible in the modern world.

The true promise of modernity—one that continues to be made to millions of people all over the world—is access to means and resources that will help them fulfill their dreams and be their best selves. In an essay in the catalog for the pavilion, critic Boris Groys calls the panel houses “stations on the way to utopia.” The consumerist utopia is not fulfilled by having a house, or by having the same house as one’s neighbors. It lies in  being able to go out and buy ceramic elephants for one’s mantelpiece because there exists some factory or craftsperson somewhere that produces them. The existence of kitsch is an important clue that architects can’t ignore in their investigation of modernity, especially as they look beyond the bounds of western, industrialized society.

A photograph of Mrs. Gutiérrez’s actual apartment

Courtesy Hugo Palmarola

The theme of the national pavilions at the Biennale is “Absorbing Modernity,” the hypothesis that modernism has caused national design identities to be somehow subsumed into an international style. The pink room at the Chilean Pavilion not only proves that the architectural community was mistaken in the absurd premise that modernity is some sort of external, homogenizing force; it shows that we are mistaken in what forms, materials, and symbols we read as “modern” in the first place. Global and local mechanisms of aspiration, demand, trade, and cultural exchange underlie every object in Mrs. Gutiérrez’s living room, but it unfortunately doesn’t receive the same critical attention from the curators of the pavilion as the giant concrete KPD panel in the adjoining room.

In another catalog essay for the pavilion, historian David Edgerton rightly notes that “our collective grasp of the material basis of modern life is astonishingly weak.” He writes this of the relatively utilitarian concerns surrounding the production of concrete. When, then, can we ever hope to grasp the complexity of ceramic elephants?

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