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Venice by the book

For the first time, the Biennale is commemorated with a book of essays: unlike many architectural readers, the contents coalesce convincingly around the theme, ‘Common Ground’

The Common Ground reader is an unusual book for two key reasons. It is (to my knowledge) the first anthology of essays specifically commissioned by a Director of the Venice Architecture Biennale to provide a theoretical framework for their curatorial theme. Therefore, as a genus of reader, its extensive and directed exploration of a single topic makes it quite unlike the typical anthologies one might see on any academic reading list − volumes whose definitive titles are often the only thing tying together an otherwise unrelated collection of texts.

In addition to the unusually focused nature of its content, the reader is perhaps even more peculiar given the context in which it was published. The Biennale lists its ‘partners’ as some of the world’s largest and most important property speculators (among them, the Sellar family, whose development group produced the Shard). This type of patronage is by its nature a problematic relationship for architects, and in the last two decades we have tended to err on the side of finance when it comes to expressing our principles. What often resulted is a kind of bland centre-right non-event, in deference to these potential clients. By contrast, the entire Biennale, exhibition and reader alike, deliver a message that is at times not so much left-wing as utopian communist.

Chipperfield is not known as a polemical architect. His restrained minimalist palette, delicate treatment of light and space, is as politically timid as it is white. He has, however, made a strong effort here to step outside his own tastes, evidenced by FAT’s rather spectacular Museum of Copying (an altar to postmodernist trademark infringement).

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An equally good example would be the Golden Lion-winning Torre David project, which depicts how an abandoned Venezuelan office block has become an impromptu socialist community for more than 700 families. The so-called ‘vertical slum’, in which a micro-society has formed without architects, is an obvious remark about the fiscal and moral failings of late-capitalist economics.

Chipperfield’s curatorial shift is paralleled in the attitude of the reader − it is political, projective and pluralist. He begins his introduction by ‘questioning the priorities that seem to dominate our time, priorities that focus on the individual, on privilege, on the spectacular and the special. These priorities seem to overlook the normal, the social, the common.’ This does not mean, he makes clear, that responding to the familiar is an excuse for sentimentality or resistance to progress. Common ground is intended as a lens for evaluating the health of the public domain (in all of its forms), and not for complacently elevating the banal or the conservative.

As the reader progresses, the subject of common ground unfolds in its multiplicity of meanings − as intellectual domain, as public territory, as shared body of professional knowledge. In the structure of the chapters, and also the juxtaposition of certain texts, Chipperfield develops a complex, but coherent argument. In essence, the book maps out the possible fields open to architects for the preservation and expansion of the commons. It might equally stand as a manifesto against the starchitects, whose complicity with an ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘consumerist’ politico-fiscal complex comes under attack frequently.

In their ceaseless quest for formal innovation, the starchitects ‘cemented a conception of architecture not as a series of enduring monuments but rather as part of a fashion cycle’ (Kazys Varnelis). This propensity for contemporary architecture to pander to perennial techno-fetishistic tastes has been fostered, the reader suggests, at the expense of the public, in all its senses.

Niklas Maak, while extolling the merits of Herzog & de Meuron’s controversial Elbphilharmonie, says, ‘In recent years, the actions of citizens in the so-called public realm seemed increasingly limited to fulfilling predefined consumer programmes in a passive, seated position: trying on shoes, ordering lattes, watching films and so on. But can architecture imagine the public sphere as something other than a group of people buying and consuming products?’ The reader thinks so, and it transcends discussions about commercial space to make more philosophical claims: ‘Common ground is an ethical concept,’ writes Peter Carl, ‘that invokes the one thing a city ought to grant − a depth that accommodates with dignity the diversity of its people and their histories.

The term ground in this phrase is a metaphor for the conditions by which freedom is meaningful.’ This kind of rhetoric, in which the social responsibility and the morality of the architect is appealed to directly, is quite rare today. The idea that the architect’s role is to articulate a civic space in which the citizen might be free is even rarer, although it is returned to by numerous authors: ‘the architect is the one practitioner who is able to project − in documents other than plan, section and elevation − the ramifying consequences of these forms in a culture of urbanity’ (Keller Easterling).

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The reappearance of duty at the heart of architecture is interesting, made more so by the fact that its nature and potential is described in terms quite unlike those arguments of last century. It feels, strangely, a very fresh take on what had seemed an exhausted subject. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Zhu Tao’s essay on the history of Chinese mega-projects, beginning with Mao’s Great Leap Forward and ending with OMA’s CCTV tower. Tao appeals for greater cultural sensitivity by foreign architects, and he eloquently explains how the Chinese socially and politically interpret the West’s sculptural masterpieces.

He concludes boldly: ‘China should not be treated as “an incredible empty canvas for innovation”, as Zaha Hadid once described it.’ Within the larger argument there are several non sequiturs − of 30-odd essays about a half dozen seem either afterthoughts or editorial dropped balls. They are not badly written, but fail to add anything to the topic at hand. This includes a rather fey page of text by Rafael Moneo, and a reprinted article from 1964 by Ove Arup. The latter was presumably included as a historical yardstick, intended to highlight our drift since the ’60s. Unfortunately, its thoroughly dated remarks read more like a vintage BBC newsreel. (‘The client is increasingly the community as a whole, expecting to be decently housed and catered for in all sorts of ways undreamed of before.’)

These weaknesses by no means detract from the impetus of the reader, and nor are the essays all sweeping proclamations. Some of the most poignant texts are well-chosen case studies. Reiner de Graaf’s homage to the now razed Pimlico School is a case in point. John Bancroft’s magnificent building was demolished in 2010 to make way for Pimlico Academy, and in the process half the site has been sold to develop luxury flats. As de Graaf notes, ‘The story of Pimlico School is essentially the story of London since 1970. In the demolition of the school, one could read the definitive end of a short-lived, fragile period of naïve optimism, before the brutal rule of the market economy became the common denominator.’

De Graaf assesses the attitude of the new school’s architects as ‘a sad mixture of opportunism, grovelling hypocrisy and utter lack of collegiality’. This sentiment precisely characterises the problem David Chipperfield sought to address. The Common Ground reader is both a reaction against this condition, and a valuable proposition about the the architect’s role in the 21st century.

Common Ground: Venice Biennale of Architecture 2012

Author: edited by David Chipperfield, Kieran Long and Shumi Bose

Publisher: Marsilio

Price: £20

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