Political tensions have stalled preparations for the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, as the event still has no officially appointed curator. Though it is generally accepted that British architect David Chipperfield, who won the Mies van der Rohe Prize for his Neues Museum in Berlin in June, will take up the post, he wrote a letter to Building Design in late November denying his involvement.
Earlier this year the architect was reported as the favorite from a list including Eduardo Souto de Moura, but his disapproval of the proposed appointment of Giulio Malgara, an Italian food importer and friend of Silvio Berlusconi, as Biennale director, usurping Paolo Baratta from his long-held post, stalled his commitment and threw the Biennale into a state of static. The divisive atmosphere dissipated with the Italian prime minister’s resignation in November.
Seemingly at odds with his architecture, which is often sober and austere but also profoundly contextual, the London-based designer doesn’t shy away from wily politics: in 2006, on receiving the RIBA Stirling Prize, he denounced the British system of procurement as “a dysfunctional relationship between client and architect.” Vicky Richardson, Director of Architecture, Fashion and Design at the British Council said: “Chipperfield has always emphasized the role of the architect as a public intellectual. He has been a brave critic…and does not shy away from controversy or from confronting difficult issues.” If appointed, Chipperfield will be the third Brit to curate the Architecture Biennale in the past six festivals, following Deyan Sudjic, currently director of London’s Design Museum, in 2002, and Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics in 2006. All three were roommates in the 80s at the fledgling Blueprint magazine and 9H gallery office. Though Chipperfield lacks the accoutrements that are the stuff of current-day starchitects, his contribution to the international architecture scene is undeniable.
Chipperfield’s long-standing concern for historical context and specificity—evident in projects from the Neues Museum to the Stirling Prize-winning Museum of Modern Literature in Germany—will likely take the festival in a wholly different direction from last year’s theme People Meet in Architecture, by Japanese architect by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA. “My guess is that his important contribution to the biennale will not be to bring a particular aesthetic,” said Richardson, “but to take a more profound look at the relationship between architecture and the public.” Meanwhile, in New York, the Institute for Urban Design will be representing the United States at the biennale with a theme complementary to Chipperfield’s own austere activism, called tactical urbanism.