The 2012 Venice Biennale looks into architectural culture to discover what is shared, but is this self-absorption or a timely reinforcement of essential values? Report by Chris Foges.
When David Chipperfield chose Common Ground as his theme for the 2012 Venice Biennale, it was perhaps more an expression of hope than a description of reality. In recent years he has often spoken of a ‘culture of architecture’ and a ‘community of architecture’ which are undermined by internecine squabbles, to the detriment both of architects’ professional standing and the contribution they might make to the public good.
Nevertheless, his curatorial approach was ‘to make neither an exclusive selection of projects on the basis of prejudice and taste, nor an uncritically inclusive exhibition’. Common, then, does not connote ‘universal’, but rather affinity with a particular set of ideas about architecture and the city. While there is an exception that contradicts any generalisation one might make, the show is weighted towards European architects of a certain type: the work is informed more by continuity with the past than by visions of a radically different future, materially rich rather than technically advanced, dignified rather than spectacular. It exhibits a more or less overt sense of the importance of people and place.
The last two biennales (directed by Aaron Betsky and Kazuyo Sejima) were criticised for indulging the vanity of architectural stars, producing shows that looked more like second-rate art fairs than architecture exhibitions, all abstract sculpture and rooms filled with fog. Chipperfield was concerned that his biennale should focus on what most practitioners actually do – design buildings – rather than ‘lose the subject of architecture in a morass of sociological, psychological or artistic speculation’.
So representations of buildings make a welcome return – there are some particularly fine drawings of cities by Fiona Scott and Rafael Moneo – alongside large-scale installations which retain a distinctly architectural character. Eric Parry, Lynch Architects and Haworth Tompkins show building facades; O’Donnell & Tuomey contributes a two-storey timber structure offering an intense distillation of the spatial qualities found in its built work; and there is a beautiful recreation of a house by Anupama Kundoo, built by Indian and Venetian craftsmen.
The vast halls of the Arsenale demand some of these larger gestures, and the question of how to exhibit architecture without simply filling a room with studio ephemera is well handled by participants including Justin McGuirk and Urban-Think Tank, who recreate a functioning Caracas cafe to tell the story of the squatted, unfinished 47-storey Torre David, and Luis Fernandez-Galiano, who has recruited a roomful of unemployed graduates carrying models of recent public buildings to illustrate the damage economic crisis has done to the profession and urban development in Spain. Norman Foster’s dramatic installation flashes images of public spaces in use for both pleasure and protest around the walls, while the names of architects – our shared ancestry – are projected onto the floor.
This dual meaning of common ground as ‘shared culture’ and ‘the space of the city’ is stretched further by exhibitors who take it to refer to the commonweal – specifically to the ethos of post-war public sector architecture. Dutch historians Crimson contrast the communitarian ideals of 1960s new towns with their contemporary equivalents, while OMA presents the work of five European municipal architects’ offices in that era, bold public projects by ‘anonymous’ civil servants.
This accords with Chipperfield’s proposal that the show should celebrate collective effort over ‘singular talents’. If that intention is not entirely fulfilled by the reality, there is nevertheless a refreshing honesty in exhibits that try objectively to examine, or demystify, the practice of architecture: a room curated by FAT based around a foam Villa Rotunda suggests that much of architectural ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’ is nothing more than copying. Herzog & de Meuron reproduces newspaper articles charting the problems of its Elbe Philharmonie, whose site became a battlefield for client, contractor and architect. In an exhibit on the role of architectural media, Steve Parnell presents a large wall graphic that tracks the educational, professional and social relationships between architects and critics involved in four British and Italian architectural journals in the 1950s and 60s. It resembles the storyboard for a particularly complex soap opera.
A similar drawing might usefully be done to trace the threads that bind biennale exhibitors in a mutually supportive web of influence, but are not readily evident to the uninitiated. It would have to take in the crowds of museum curators, critics and assorted notables who descend on Venice for the three-day private view. Many are drawn from the same parts of the architectural culture as the exhibitors – indeed this prosecco-soaked carnival is rather like an unselfconsious performance of ‘common ground’ – so it is perhaps unsurprising that the general murmur was that Chipperfield has produced a good biennale.
Dissenting voices argue that this is the profession at its most narcissistic, entranced by a beguilingly beautiful representation of itself and blithely indifferent to great struggles in the outside world, where its voice is increasingly irrelevant. This misses the point that the culture of architecture might itself be a source of strength in some of those conflicts, but it is true that the show is somewhat inward-looking.
Rem Koolhaas is rumoured to be lined up to direct in 2014, and will doubtless address some of the issues (and regions) skirted this year: the qualities of typical new construction rather than rarified exceptions, or the relationship of architecture to money and power. These and many others are vital questions for the profession and for the quality of people’s lives, but it would be rather limiting if they were always to take precedence over thoughful commentary about the design process and the qualities of good buildings. We would be denied a lot of interest and pleasure.
First published in AT231, September 2012