This piece was commissioned by Space magazine. It appears in the magazine’s October 2012 issue.

Each Venice Architecture Biennale is given a theme by its curator, a leading architect or critic. The 2010 show was gathered under the slogan ‘People meet in architecture’ by SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima. Two year’s earlier Aaron Betsky called for ‘Architecture Beyond Building’. Like most Biennale themes, these were open-ended propositions suggesting some kind of social agenda. With such ambiguous propositions as guides to the maze of displays and pavilions over the Biennale’s two sites, the visitor often struggles to find a connection between concept and content. Neither noisy self-promotion, whether of architectural practices or nations, nor the untrammeled pursuit of novelty are the best ways to approach social problems. And with prizes awarded to the best pavilions and displays, the Biennale has often been like a kind of strange beauty contest in a zoo where different species are judged.

This year, the Biennale has been curated by David Chipperfield, a British architect with a reputation as a meticulous modernist architect of museums and homes around the world. Like his predecessors, Chipperfield has charged the Biennale with social purpose, that of mapping the ‘Common Ground’. For Chipperfield this means recognizing that cities are ‘created in collaboration with every citizen and the many stakeholders and participants in the process of building.’ This was an unambiguous rebuttal of the idea of the ‘star’ architect who shapes the world with iconic buildings. Chipperfield’s brief was underscored by realism: after all, almost all the buildings and urban schemes which are created today are the product of large teams of people with different skills. Chipperfield’s brief was also an expression of idealism. If architects can forge a common ground – with each other, and with the future users and occupants of their buildings– perhaps architecture can restore its social purpose.

So with celebrity and novelty under an embargo, how well do the exhibitors deal with the challenge of representing architecture today?

In Common

Chipperfield’s attack on the architectural ego has been widely and, it would seem, enthusiastically accepted by the exhibiting nations and practices. The Korean pavilion contains eight practices – representing established architects and newcomers – who turned off the spotlight by presenting their schemes anonymously. Global superstar practice OMA honours the much maligned municipal architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, another form of near-anonymous design elsewhere. Different architectural practices share the white-walled spaces in the Central Pavilion to engage in dialogues about form. Dublin-based Grafton Architects, for instance, have picked up Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s call for architecture to be drawn out of the landscape in its new scheme for UTEC university campus in Lima. Their monumental studies in building form are arranged in a ring like some kind of prehistoric sacred site with photo blow-ups of da Rocha’s Serra Dourada Stadium (1973-5), a concrete megastructure, filling the horizon behind.

Foster – the voice of the street?

Even Norman Foster – perhaps the most the successful architectural global brand in the last two decades – agreed to Chipperfield’s terms. One of Foster’s two contributions to the Biennale is a multi-media installation called ‘Gateway’ made with film maker Carlos Carcas and artist Charles Sandison. Dozens of rapidly-paced documentary photographs, showing different gatherings of humanity – from riots to the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca – are projected high on the walls of a pitch-black room. This spectacle is accompanied by a booming soundtrack, carefully synchronized to accentuate the elation and the anxieties in these moments. Underfoot, data projections of the names of illustrious architects from the past and present, stream across the dark floor and up the rough columns of the Arsenale like a digital virus. Whilst the installation is impressively dizzying, what is not clear is the connection that Foster, Carcas and Sandison want to make between architecture and these dramatic events.

So which schemes and projects on display in Venice might improve the quality of being together? ‘Common ground’ infers something shared. Perhaps it can be understood as the meeting point for consensus and universal values. This is clear in Chipperfield’s introductory statements. But for a ground to be truly ‘common’, it has to accommodate difference and disagreement too. In recent years political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has made the case for agonistic relations in our political, cultural and economic lives. For a democracy to succeed, she argues, different and critical views need to be expressed. Critique and disputation are important for the health of civic society. They are just as important for architecture too.

Herzog & de Meuron have installed a show which sets out the schedule of one of their major schemes, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, which shuddered to a halt in November 2011 in the face of conflicts between the client (the city) and the contractor. It is now scheduled for completion in 2014. The building is presented as a series of suspended forms fashioned from layered blocks of foam held by plywood panels. These models offer little more than an impression of the interior spaces of the concert halls. Blown-up pages from the German press flank these hanging boxes. What is impressive is the amount of frank coverage of the scheme and the differences between the three main players. For architecture to truly occupy the common ground, it needs to be well reported. The public nature of a building should start with discussion of proposals, construction and even costs, and not on the day that the contractors leave the site. On this evidence, German readers are certainly better served by their press than most others elsewhere.

The US Pavilion celebrates the power of bottom up design.

Some of the most interesting exhibits in Venice offer reflection not on buildings as distinct objects but on the means by which we – architects and non-architects alike – can improve our buildings and cities. The US Pavilion, a small neoclassical temple, is filled with more than 120 examples of what the curators called ‘Spontaneous Interventions. Design Actions for the Common Good’, that is ‘bottom up’ attempts to improve the environment, sometimes by architects and artists, and sometimes by local citizens. They include real achievements such as a community scheme in Jackson Heights, Queens which has turned asphalt roads into grass playgrounds for children. Desires are mapped too: Candy Chang’s ‘I wish I was …’ schemes in which local people can express – in a direct and simple fashion – their hopes for vacant lots. Like these projects, the American display asks for just a little effort on the part of visitors. Large hanging panels describing each scheme hang on pulleys from the ceiling at head-height. When they are pulled into view, a counterweight suspended close to the walls rises to reveal, in a few words, the ‘solution’ to the problem being addressed. Underfoot, the curators have created an infographic charting the long history of participatory citizenship in the US to demonstrate that the projects overhead are deeply wired into the country’s DNA. Whilst all these schemes undoubtedly seek to improve the spaces of American life, many do not require the conventional skills of architects. In fact, sometimes what is required, it seems, is less architecture.

Architecture takes the form of a Venezuelan bar

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of rethinking on show in Venice is a spirited project recording the squatting of Torre David, an abandoned and unfinished 45-story office tower in the middle of Caracas, Venezuela. With its roof-top heliport, the tower was planned for the super-rich. Today, 750 poor families make their home in this ruin of the boom-bust economy. They have cut holes in the reinforced concrete frame for doorways and laid cinder blocks to form interior walls. Homes, shops and other businesses have been made in this concrete skeleton. For Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, researchers from Urban-Think Tank and ETH-Zürich, and curator Justin McGuirk, Torre David represents an important experiment in informal settlement which has much to teach architects. Of course, they are not the first to take lessons in participation in the favelas and barrios. The key difference is the lateral sprawl of the shanty town is replaced by the vertical organization of the tower. The tower in ruins is one of the nightmares of modernity. In his 1976 novel High Rise, JG Ballard makes power cuts to an up-market block the trigger for a spiraling descent into primitive violence. Here in Venice, it is presented as an urban landscape with real social value. The community which has formed in the tower has become a self-governing society.

This project won a Gold Lion award from the Biennale jury, not least because McGuirk and his colleagues mounted a joyful and energetic show, complete with a Venezuelan arepa restaurant and moving photographs of everyday life in the tower by celebrated Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan. The café is the most lively corner in the what, for the most part, is a rather serious Biennale. The attention given to the building has not been welcomed by the Venezuelan architectural community or the press for that matter. In the run up to the show a campaign was mounted to discredit the project, claiming that the country was being misrepresented by this ‘vertical slum’ occupied by squatters with no regard for private property. The arguments for and against the exhibition in Venice have rippled across the national press.

McGuirk told Space that the inhabitants of Torre David are circumspect about the attention that Venice has brought to their home:  ‘It is a delicate thing because they love being special and that they are doing something interesting which is worthy of architectural analysis … I would not say that its ideological but they do believe in what they are doing. They think of themselves as a commune, of a kind which they can traced back to a South America before the conquistadors … They are self-organised. They have systems in place. They have water and electricity and security. It is a miniature city. But they are also nervous. If you attract too much attention, you might be kicked out.’

Material Memories

Torre David also represents another theme which runs through the Biennale, that of the fate of modernist buildings. This is emphatically a post modern show (after all, everything in it is after modernism). But it is not one which celebrates its defeat. In fact, many of the exhibits seem wistful, reflecting on what the material legacy of modernist structures which still form much of our material environment. This is perhaps not surprising: David Chipperfield Architects is perhaps best known for its restoration of the Neues Museum, a twelve year project completed in 2009. In Berlin, Chipperfield eschewed imitation, trying to salvage what he could of the historic fabric whilst introducing unsentimental and avowedly new elements where the past could not be reclaimed. Like strata in an archaeological dig, fragments of nineteenth century decorative schemes float on rough plaster and new wall surfaces frame old brickwork. The result is not only ethereal but it makes the Neues Museum a chronometer of Berlin’s troubled history.

Dispassionate modernism

The German Pavilion in Venice makes a claim on a much later and less remarkable type of building – the unassuming brutalist and late modernist structures erected in the 1950s and 1960s found in almost every German city on both sides of the former Cold War divide. Usually regarded today as being fatally outmoded, they are often destroyed to make way for the new. Muck Petzet, the German commissioner, makes the economic and environmental case for reusing and recycling these buildings, perhaps even reducing them as cities and societies shrink. To illustrate his project, Petzet has identified more than a dozen schemes which revive the brutalist concrete structures, seemingly the most unyielding forms of post-war modernism. Presented with the challenge of improving the large, grey and poorly insulated Dornbusch Church, a sixty year old structure, Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architects proposed reducing the building in size. Now the site features a large courtyard inscribed with the footprint of the much larger structure which once stood there and the reduced church itself has gained the dramatic chromatic effect of over-sized stained-glass windows.

The display in the German Pavilion is strangely cool and dispassionate, even if the attachment that young architects feel for late modernism is real. The settings – blown up so that they seem architectural in scale – are always depopulated in Erica Overmeer’s photographs. Whilst the economic case for reuse is made in the Pavilion, the emotional one seems missing. This is clear if one compares the German Pavilion with other engagements with the recent past. In the Korean Pavilion for instance, architect Hanh Jong Ruhl focuses on three schemes which contain memories, albeit sometimes painful ones. Recyling buildings from era of the Japanese occupation – such as the former Kyungsung Court House which was converted by Jong Ruhl to become the Seoul Museum of Art ten years ago means coming to terms with the traumatic events which took place within their walls (such as the trials of Korean independence activists). Similarly, the Estonians used the Biennale as an opportunity to reflect on the value of a Soviet-era building, the Linnahall concert hall designed by Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe and built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The display, entitled ‘How Long is a Life of Building?’, features a melancholic film of the long and low structure in its present ruined state and a more upbeat set of interviews with people who have memories of the building. These include stories of events in the late Soviet period when the high pomp of official rituals were interrupted by cats chasing mice, and concerts become impromptu opportunities for anti-Soviet sentiment. A structure which could so easily be presented as symbol of the failure of a much detested system, Soviet socialism, is presented as a rich field of Estonian memories.

Common Languages

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean, the Estonian and many other displays turned to forms of documentary film to capture architecture. The challenges facing anyone seeking to represent buildings and cities in an exhibition are daunting. The chief problem is one of absence. For the most part, the subjects of all the Venice exhibits are simply elsewhere. Unlike the art biennale which occupies the same national pavilions and rooms in the former dockyards of the Arsenale on alternate years, the content of the show – whether the research being undertaken by British architects abroad or the environmental problems facing Greenland – has to be delivered through representations. Moreover, buildings, cities and landscapes are intricate things requiring considerable explanation and interpretation. Many of the exhibits – like the American pavilion and Herzog & de Mouron’s stop-start scheme in Hamburg – requires a lot of words. So what are the alternatives?

Light is coloured by the Dutch exhibit

The Dutch chose to focus on their own pavilion. Designed by Gerrit Rietvelt sixty years ago, this simple box on a square plan with full height windows.  Artist Petra Blaisse has done little more than fill this void with a curtain which slides into fixed positions on mechanical runners fixed to the ceiling. The sequence takes almost 40 minutes to complete. This moving wall is made from fabrics with different degrees of transparency or metallic finishes. As it loops back and forth, a rich variety of light effects and new spaces are produced, if only temporarily. Called ‘Re-set’, the installation is intended to highlight the quantity of empty buildings in the world today which might be reused. (Curator Ole Bouman reminds us that the building, only used for three months in the year, has been empty for forty years of its life). The effect of Blaisse’s moving curtain is entrancing and this rather mundane point is quickly forgotten. In the company of the densely packed and information-rich pavilions – which demand a lot of their visitors – the Dutch pavilion really holds the visitor’s attention.

Hi-tech, low content

Whilst CAD may rule architectural studios today, relatively few schemes in Venice make use of digital display techniques.  There are almost no fly-thrus and very few digital models to be seen. The Russian Pavilion is an exception. A team gives out digital tablets equipped with QR scanners to visitors. The first impression is exhilarating. One steps into a complete world of pulsing code equipped – like a time-traveller in a Hollywood fantasy – to read the mysterious geometry on the walls and floors. When the screen in one’s hands flashes up stern portraits of the members of the city council of the new Russian silicon valley, Skolkovo, being planned near Moscow, the effect is disappointing. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the content being delivered on the tablet  – a upbeat narrative of a new city which is being planned by a superstar cast including Chipperfield, SANAA, Herzog & de Meuron and others – the format cannot hide the fact that one is looking at a promotional website.

Sublime pattern making

Farshid Moussavi’s investigations into the ways in which pattern and ornament produce what she calls ‘affect’ are far simpler and, perhaps as a result, far more effective than the interactive screens in the Russian Pavilion. Moussavi has filled a tall gallery in the Arsenale with immersive video projections derived from the structures of historic buildings. They include the medieval ribbed vaults in Lincoln Cathedral and the scalloped forms of the Orchid Pavilion designed by Yutaka Murata in Tokyo (1987). Past and present are bridged by what she calls ‘affect’. This is how the rhythm and spatial organization of ornament and the patterns formed by structure affect the body. Architecture is, for Moussavi, a kind of moment when the body enters into a space, even one created five-hundred years ago. Her idea seems slightly strained when converted into large projections in the Biennale. But there is value in being reminded that our encounters with buildings are embodied ones when so many of the rest of the displays are so wordy.

Sound promotes touch, as visitors to the Polish Pavilion cling to the walls

This point is also made – quite loudly – in the Polish Pavilion. Artist Katarzyna Krakowiak and curator Michał Libera have ‘filled’ the space with the sound to – in Libera’s words – ‘make the building more audible, more sensual for the people who walk in’. Outside feeds deliver snatches of familiar Venice experiences such as the sound of a motor boat passing by on a canal or occasional laughter. But it is the building itself which provides the most remarkable sounds. The building’s natural resonance have been amplified into a low, percussive rumble which seems to issue from the walls and floor itself. The effect is compelling. When it came to judging the schemes the Polish Pavilion did not win a one of the three ‘lions’, the prizes awarded by the Biennale Jury but it was given a special nomination. Restrained and yet sensual, imaginative but not spectacular, it captures many of the undercurrents running throughout the 2012 Biennale. Perhaps one should never set too much score by the award of prizes. But the jury – led by Chipperfield – was surely out to make a point or two. They gave the chief prizes to the Torre David installation and the Japanese Pavilion featuring architect Toyo Ito’s emotional narrative of working with victims of the Tsunami to design new homes which provide the practical and psychological shelter which victims of a disaster require. The American Pavilion’s assembly of ‘Spontaneous Interventions’ was nominated as well. These garlands were clearly a reminder to the profession to listen harder to the people that use the buildings it designs.


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