The Venice Architecture Biennale is a polyglot affair. Some countries use their pavilions as conventional galleries, displaying photographs of finished buildings. Others create architecture-based installations. A smaller number take an intellectual approach, posing and then answering questions derived from architectural theory or practice. And a very few—and these may be the ones taking the greatest risks—pose questions to which the answers are allowed to emerge, through real-time investigation, over the course of the Biennale’s six-month run.
The U.S. pavilion, incredibly, does all these things and more, with a jaw-dropping and eye-opening study of architecture as a 20th-century American export. One of the project’s virtues is that it follows, but isn’t limited by, Rem Koolhaas’s directive that each participating country analyze the rise of modernism over the last 100 years. Another is that it is beautiful, thanks to the installation by brothers Dominic and Christopher Leong, of the Manhattan firm Leong Leong. For the brothers, who started their firm in a recession and haven’t really had the chance to show what they can do, the pavilion is a breakout project, outfitted with diabolically clever, wood-and-acrylic desks that double as vitrines.