It initially seems like a contradiction that the most important architecture biennial is held in Venice, a city known for its ancient palazzos, timeworn bridges and aged churches. Yet the biennale’s most recent edition, directed by David Chipperfield under the title ‘Common Ground’, successfully bridged the old, the new and the very new. In his introductory catalogue essay, the British architect calls Italy the ‘spiritual home of architecture’, due to the way in which the country’s architects have, throughout history, understood ‘the importance of buildings not as individual spectacles, but as the manifestation of collective values.’ Chipperfield’s curatorial premise emphasized the need to counter trends toward individual and isolated actions in architecture in favour of encouraging the formation of shared ideas and visions as the basis for the future development of the discipline.
This mostly successful exhibition focused not only on relationships between architects, but also on interactions and influences among designers, artists, writers and academics. Chipperfield attempted to move away from the idea of the architect as an autonomous creative genius, toward a consideration of the architect as an examiner of the issues facing our world, such as ongoing social inequality, armed conflicts and the destruction of the environment. Given how necessary collective endeavours are to the practice of architecture, Chipperfield could be accused of being obvious – after all, few buildings are made by a single architect acting alone. Yet it is also true that the discipline is currently dominated by a small group of globally operating ‘starchitects’, whose reputations are buoyed by previous editions of the biennale.
‘Common Ground’ emphasized collective creation and dialogue either by inviting architects who have worked collaboratively or across disciplines or by forging new collaborations between architects and artists that Chipperfield saw as having a connection. As a result, the exhibition sometimes resulted in the celebration of collaboration for the sake of collaboration. One such case was the contribution of the firm Kuehn Malvezzi, whose structure housed works by artists Candida Höfer and Armin Linke. The group’s intent was to investigate the intersection between the making and exhibiting of architecture – specifically in the Giardini and the Central Pavilion, the two spaces encountered by the public when visiting the biennale – via two sculptural installations. But they did not establish enough of a connection beyond the simple fact that both artists have photographed plenty of buildings over the last few decades.
On the other hand, one of the more successful displays juxtaposed presentations by the Ireland-based firm Grafton Architects and the Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Grafton was recently awarded its first project in South America, to build a new university in Lima. For inspiration, its principals looked at Mendes da Rocha’s Serra Dourada Stadium in Brazil, and their design successfully combined references to the landscape and architecture of two very distinct countries.
The show never went too far down the visual art path, but there were still several displays that looked, at least on the surface, like art works. Norman Foster’s Gateway, for instance, created in collaboration with the artist Charles Sandison, gave the impression of a video installation by Doug Aitken on ecstasy. Furthermore, a handful of artists – including Martin Boyce, Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky, Olafur Eliasson and Thomas Scheibitz – were included , reflecting the growing affinities between the fields. Elsewhere, Peter Fischli and David Weiss exhibited their iconic airport photographs in the same room of the International Pavilion that they occupied in the previous year’s art biennale. But the most convincing display of art in the entire exhibition – something of a curatorial masterstroke – was Chipperfield’s decision to exhibit photographs by Thomas Struth in four different locations in the Arsenale. The presentation included works made between 1978 and 2010 depicting various cityscapes around the world, and almost amounted to a mini-retrospective.
Looking back at the last four editions of the architecture biennale, this one stood out for its sober, intellectually driven approach, even if, as several critics have pointed out, it featured many known and established architects. But Chipperfield’s show moved away from Frank Gehry’s opulence, Zaha Hadid’s spectacular styles and Rem Koolhaas’s excessively erudite approach to city planning and urbanism, all of which were emphasized in previous years. It stepped away from the overly discursive approach that has dominated the field in recent decades.
Given how many great architectural projects are never realized, it makes sense to present architecture through plans and documentation in the form of an exhibition. A case in point was Herzog & de Meuron’s project in the Arsenale, which documented, through newspaper articles, models, films and diagrams, the conceptualization and building of the Elbphilharmonie, a new building for the philharmonic orchestra in Hamburg that has been plagued by endless construction woes and political controversy. The project is finally being built, but, as was evident in this presentation, in a form that differs substantially from Herzog & de Meuron’s original plans.
Given the artistic aspirations of some of the participants here, one wonders whether we should continue to make distinctions between architecture, design and fine arts. And, if a more holistic approach is desirable, is it the proper role of biennials such as those in Venice to lead the way? Doing so would accommodate the desires of many creative individuals who are already working across traditional, and by now perhaps artificial, boundaries of discipline and context.