by Roderick Conway Morris

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Francesco Galli/Biennale di Venezia
Farshid Moussavi's installation in the Corderie at the Arsenale

Architects Seeking Common Ground

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 11 September 2012


'I wanted this to be a show about architecture, not architects,' said David Chipperfield, the artistic director of the 13th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale.

'We have made two mistakes over the past 25 years: There has been too much concentration on individual architects and too much on individual buildings,' said Mr. Chipperfield in an interview on the terrace of the Biennale's headquarters at Ca' Giustinian on the Grand Canal, on the eve of the opening of the event in late August. The exhibition continues until Nov. 25.

'So for this Biennale I didn't want projects. I wanted the architects that I invited to participate to answer the question: What have you contributed to architecture? And equally to investigate the issue of what we architects for all our differences have in common, hence my overall theme of the exhibition: 'Common Ground.' This theme also raises the question of how architects relate to society, because architecture cannot operate in a vacuum. If it is to be successful it has to operate with society.'

The Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima's stimulating show of two years ago was a difficult act to follow, and Mr. Chipperfield said that there were architects whom he would like to have included but they had already appeared in Ms. Sejima's selection. However, this appears to have had the positive effect of extending the horizons of this edition.

'We have gone for a broad sweep in age, in generations, in geographical terms and in types of architecture,' said Mr. Chipperfield.

The exhibition of nearly 70 displays and installations by individual architects, groups and institutions fills the spaces of the Central Biennale Pavilion at the Giardini and the Corderie (Rope Walk) at the Arsenale. This is flanked by 55 national pavilions in the gardens and other locations around town. Angola, the Republic of Kosovo, Kuwait and Peru are exhibiting for the first time.

The most flamboyant contribution in the 'Common Ground' show is the 'Torre David/Gran Horizonte' at the end of the Corderie, curated by Justin McGuirk, which won the Golden Lion for the best project in the exhibition. It consists of a recreation of Gran Horizonte, a famous 'arepa' restaurant in Caracas, and will be serving arepas - corn cakes with various fillings - and other Venezuelan food and drink throughout the show.

With food, the entry provides common ground for visitors to the Biennale, and it is also an arena for a presentation in photos and films of the Torre David, an unfinished 45-story office tower in Caracas that was abandoned after the death of its developer and the collapse of the economy in 1994. The site is now home to around 750 squatter families and inhabited up to the 28th floor despite the absence of elevators, with small shops and recreational areas.

The architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, with their research and design teams at Urban-Think Tank and ETH Zürich, spent a year studying the building, and found that it was far from the 'vertical slum' it had been described as. It had succeeded in housing families in ever-improving conditions and it had developed a well-organized social structure. The exhibitors offer it as a model for other informal settlements around the world.

Also at the Corderie is Farshid Moussavi's fascinating installation of huge, constantly changing projected displays of digitally realized patterns in ancient, modern and contemporary architecture. Ms. Moussavi has made a long-term study of form, style and ornament in architecture, and she has argued that there is a deep fragmentation of 'meanings' in today's built environment. Paradoxically, her juxtapositions of images of organic, geometric and invented architectural forms illustrates that common ground is constantly present as styles evolve and are reproduced.

Olafur Eliasson is noted for spectacular light installations but occupies two of the smallest spaces in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini to present his 'Little Sun' project. Worldwide, 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity, and kerosene lamps are expensive to run and hazardous. Mr. Eliasson's neat, solar-powered Little Sun lamp, designed with engineer Frederik Ottesen, is to be marketed at a higher price to those in places already enjoying the luxury of electric power in order to subsidize the sale of the lamps to those off the grid.

The tsunami that last year hit Japan cost 20,000 lives and left 400,000 people homeless, erasing towns and villages on a 400-kilometer, or 240-mile, stretch of coast. Immediately afterward, the leading architect Toyo Ito set about thinking how he and his colleagues could help. Since survivors in most places had nowhere left even to congregate, Mr. Ito recruited three young architects to join him on a pilot project in the devastated town of Rikuzentakata, home of the photographer Naoya Hatakeyama, who had lost his mother in the disaster.

The building of the 'Home-for-All' meeting place, designed in collaboration with local survivors and financed entirely by donations of money and labor, is narrated at the Japanese pavilion at the Giardini. It won a richly deserved Golden Lion for best national participation. The immaculately presented and poignant show includes 25 trunks from the cedar forest irreparably damaged by the salt water of the tsunami. From the wood of these trees - among the branches of which, said Mr. Ito, pieces of clothing had been found 8 to 9 meters, or about 25 to 30 feet, above ground level - came the structural materials for the meeting house.

As the Arctic ice cap melts, Greenland is facing a unique challenge. Until recently on the extreme edge of the inhabited world, it now faces the prospect of becoming a major global hub as the northeast and northwest passages open up to shipping and its vast oil and mineral resources become practical to exploit.

'All Greenland is common ground in that you cannot own land in Greenland,' said Minik Rosing, the curator of the Danish Pavilion at the Giardini. A Greenlander and professor of Geology at the University of Copenhagen, he and the Danish architect Kent Martinussen, the commissioner of the pavilion, have presided over the exemplary presentation of the multiple issues now facing this subcontinent in 'Kalaallit Nunaat Periarfissalik/Possible Greenland.'

Visitors to the pavilion enter through the living room of a typical Greenland family house and step out into the chilled-down atmosphere of the adjacent space where expanses of Arctic ice are projected onto the walls. The subsequent rooms detail plans for the changes that Greenland faces. A project for a large new airport-port hub is illustrated along with displays focusing on the alternatives offered by potentially polluting mining and drilling and on the preservation of an incredibly productive and sustainable marine environment. The provision of housing (presently in chronically short supply) and of social meeting points, in a suitably vernacular and environmentally viable style, is also imaginatively addressed.

Greenland, an autonomous state within the Kingdom of Denmark, has a population of only 56,000, offering the chance of an unparalleled democratic participation in deciding its collective future. 'But not least of the problems to be confronted is the prospect of sudden wealth, which certainly has not necessarily proved beneficial to other societies,' said Mr. Rosing.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024