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Empirical Affinities at the Venice Biennale

Chipperfield selects a range of tectonic teamworks at the year’s Biennale which offer precious few surprises

The very first view of an exhibition often sets the tone for the entire experience. At this year’s Venice Biennale, directed by David Chipperfield, the antechamber to the famous Corderie feels oddly empty. Is it a calm and thoughtful oasis or simply a transit space to the baubles beyond? A stark graphic announces Chipperfield’s chosen topic, Common Ground.

You proceed sideways into a large cubic hall animated by a kaleidoscopic black and white spray of words and images from a team led by Norman Foster. After the somewhat puzzling calm of the Corderie threshold, you’re immersed in an equally puzzling frenzy: part Architecture 101, part CNN.

A compelling aspect of these mega-exhibitions is the unexpected adjacency and similarities detected between unlikely cohorts. Farshid Moussavi follows Foster and saturates her walls with large-scale images of building components − structural systems, envelopes, typologies. Drawn from investigations of ornament and function, she titles her installation ‘Architecture and its Affects’, proposing that ‘affect’ is less predetermined then ‘meaning’ in  the quest for public engagement.


Farshid Moussavi

From these introverted halls you move into spaces of similar size, yet inhabited by multiple presentations. As with the five North American architects selected by Kenneth Frampton, many are complete exhibitions in themselves. British trio Eric Parry, Haworth Tompkins and Lynch Architects offer what appears to be a partial city. Though it’s frequently difficult to ascertain exactly what is being proposed.

For an architect of elegant museums and coolly seductive boutiques, Chipperfield’s scenography or choreography appears somewhat haphazard. Is this a case of hyper Empiricism, deliberate yet casual? As Sejima showed in 2010, the pacing of the visitor’s experience − the infiltration of the seemingly endless Corderie − is essential to Biennale success.



Chipperfield’s theme, Common Ground, is usefully simple and open to interpretation. It can be thought of as ecology or social topography, inviting the public into the Biennale party. Indeed Vittorio Gregotti’s resuscitation of the art Biennale, in the wake of les événements of 1968, was based on planning initiatives for Venice itself. We might also think of Common Ground as interests shared in common between architects and their fellow travellers.

FAT nimbly addresses both constituencies, the public and the adepts. The Londoners present a large partial model, a quadrant of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, together with its mould, playing with notions of authenticity and influence.  Their Museum of Copying includes appropriated images and images of appropriation such as a ‘Palladian’ villa in the Palestinian Territories.


Herzog&de Meuron

If recent Biennales seemed to presage a cybernetic future, this Biennale returns the architectural model to centre stage. Herzog & de Meuron exhibit a series of large models, albeit suspended in the air. Presenting their Hamburg Elbphilharmonie project, currently stalled, the Swiss pose unexpected questions regarding cost, politics and public engagement. A long rail of German newspapers recounts the travails of architect, client and contractor.

Some years ago Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with Ai Weiwei for the Jinhua Architecture Park and a proposal for 100 houses at Ordos, the now legendary ghost town in Inner Mongolia. Several of the young architects on their communal list (Tatiana Bilbao, HHF, Christ & Gantenbein) were involved in designing a series of small, sheltering structures along the 117-kilometre-long Ruta del Peregrino pilgrimage route in the Mexican state of Jalisco. With a circular table bursting with maquettes and a movie off to one side, this is Common Ground in the sense both of architects collaborating and of civic engagement.


O’Donnell + Tuomey’s timber tower codenamed Vessel

Close by is O’Donnell + Tuomey whose early reputation was established by their collective approach to replanning Dublin’s Temple Bar in the 1990s. Here the Common Ground theme spawns a timber tower, codenamed Vessel, through which you could walk and peer up and out in unexpected ways.

Linear cases recount the Irish duo’s evolution through collaboration with artists, craftspeople and other architects. Zaha Hadid and her team also colonise their space with a beautiful pavilion, a delicate volume or habitable bloom of pleated metal. Intellectually, the work is supported by looking back (to mid-century thin shell experiments by Felix Candela and Heinz Isler) and by looking forward (via current cyber-savvy student work from Vienna).


Zaha Hadid

The Golden Lion for Best Project in Common Ground was awarded to the team of Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan for their re-presentation, including a functioning cantina, of the Torre David in Caracas, a high-rise whose construction stalled two decades ago and is now inhabited by several hundred families. This ‘informal’ or ad-hoc project epitomises a pervasive feeling at Venice that the starchitect moment has passed.

Chipperfield may be onto something if he is heralding architects working in teams, or at least in reciprocity with each other. Suggesting clues for the future, the 13178 Moran Street group from Detroit shows how an everyday structure can be infiltrated and re-thought to greater communal purpose. A tectonic laboratory, it’s a significant pointer for young architects everywhere.


Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan - Torre David in Caracas

Calm and thoughtful versus glamorous baubles − Chipperfield seems to want to have both. It’s hard not to be moved by a wall of archival drawings from Rafael Moneo and then discover, at the far end of the Arsenale property, a small garden enclosure by Álvaro Siza. After immersion in the Corderie, it’s affecting to experience a serene space made from modest materials. 

Yet Chipperfield provides few real surprises (the white traditionalist models from Hans Kollhoff are more of a shock than a surprise). Rather he seems to want to communicate ever so politely with a broad range of visitors, so his Biennale risks being merely a sampling of what’s out there rather than clearly directing our attention to possible futures.


Hans Kollhoff

Gran Horizonte

Venue: Venice Biennale
City: Venice
Dates: until 25 November 2012

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