Seeking Common Ground

Seeking Common Ground

Read the second part of AN‘s feature on the 2012 Venice Biennale, a Q+A between Julie V. Iovine and Biennale director David Chipperfield, "  

These invitees were asked to “propose a project along with a dialogue that reacted to the team and showed architecture in its context of influence and affinity, history and language, city and culture.” It’s not an altogether uninteresting curatorial strategy given the diversity of today’s internationalized architectural culture and several in this group of invitees do seem to have taken Chipperfield at his word seeking historical or craft-minded collaborators rather than colleagues. One example is the relatively unknown Indian architect Anupama Kundoo, who is recreating her own “wall house” with Indian craftsmen, students from Australia, and craftspeople from Venice who have been working on the installation for over a month. Another example is Zaha Hadid who suggests a constructive conversation with great modernist engineers of the past such as Frei Otto and the London–based group Fat, which focused on the Villa Rotunda, the most imitated building in the world, to both reflect on their own practice’s interests in copying and copyright and on the universality of the building itself.

Another invitee, the American historian Kenneth Frampton, has brought along his five North American architects—subjects of a book published on the occasion of his 80th birthday—all of whom are exemplary practitioners of design but not necessarily ones who “emphasize shared ideas over individual authorship,” as Frampton asserts. But it has to be said that when looking at the official list of entries there are many geographical and national gaps in the selection. Out of the 58 listed in the official press release, Chipperfield’s friends include: 15 from the United Kingdom (no surprise there); seven groups from the United States; and, perhaps in a nod to Chipperfield’s minimalist roots, 9 architects from tiny Switzerland. There is one architect from Africa (Noero Wolff Architects) and none from China or France.

Common Ground is in fact primarily a reaction to the last biennale in 2010, which focused on immediate, sensory environmental experience rather than material construction and processes in architecture. These concepts are perfectly exemplified by Herzog & De Meuron. Their installation uses the controversial Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg to highlight the problematic relationship between media and architecture.

Commissions were made to fill obvious gaps, such as a video on Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Shard and its presence as the tallest tower in London, and a look at the participatory process driving the transformation of the Berlin cold war-era airport, Tempelhof. But do the majority of the invited participants truly engage in new and meaningful ways with the sub-groups they have brought in or do they really show off their own talents?

Urban-Think Tank (Alfredo Brillembourg, Hubert Klumpner), Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan, Torre David/Gran Horizonte, 2012.

The exhibits sometime end up being a dialogue only in the sense that they have multiple groups showing off personal strategies and tendencies, like Norman Foster’s wraparound video installation. Albeit a collaboration, but one that focuses on Foster himself. All in all, Chipperfield is an unusual choice to curate this premier world exhibition. From Vittorio Gregotti back in 1975 to Paolo Portoghesi, Hans Hollein, and Aaron Betsky, directors have simultaneously engaged in academic writing and curating in addition to practice. Chipperfield, while being one of the most important architects of his generation, has not been thought of as a strident voice like Peter Eisenman or Peter Cook, neither raising his voice for or against any particular tendency in contemporary architectural discourse beyond the played-out minimalism of the 1980s. Like the 2010 director Kazuyo Sejima, he is primarily a practitioner, not a professional architect engaged simultaneously as a critic (Gregotti), or historian (Portoghesi), or even artist (Hollein), all of whom seem to have gained some experience as curators contributing to their role as director.

Chipperfield’s architecture—the iconic River & Rowing Museum on the Thames, the America’s Cup Building in Valencia, Spain, and the Neues Museum in Berlin—are important projects that prove he is one of the most accomplished exponents of British modernist design working today. With the exception of the Pritzker Prize, he has won nearly every important architecture award, including the RIBA Gold Medal in 2011, and he has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth. It is true that he co-founded London’s 9H Gallery along with Wilfried Wang and Richard Burdett, but that was in 1985 and apart from surveys of his own work, he has not been responsible for any theoretical exhibitions or texts.

The past director/curators of the biennale have always started with a notion or a single concept and with a title such as Presence of the Past (Portoghesi) or The Architect as Seismograph (Hollein) or Metamorph (Kurt Forster). It’s not that the theme “common ground” is not a good one inasmuch as it seems to suggest a critique of the dreary “star” architect phenomena or that it hints at bottom-up participatory planning as the driver of design. But somewhere between the sophistication of new technologies as form generators, the evolution of technological and specialized consultancies, and the desire of users to be part of the design process, a new paradigm is emerging as to how the common ground will settle into practice.

One hopes Chipperfield’s project will, as promised, “initiate dialogues” that make what the theme really means clearer. Chipperfield’s biennale comes back to the art of building itself and this is evident all through the Arsenale (where in fact the expansive volume of the space has been chopped up a little too much by sheetrock dividers). There are some surprises that you would not have expected from Chipperfield, including a loud and colorful pop-up bar by Urban-Think Tank, a recreation of the never finished Torre David/Gran Horizonte, a skyscraper inhabited by 750 families in Caracas. Featuring amazing photography by Iwan Baan, this festive space is the informal meeting point of this biennale—a shared space for people, architecture, and culture.