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November 11, 2012

I wanted to encourage my colleagues to react to the prevalent professional and cultural tendencies of our time that place such emphasis on individual and isolated actions. I encouraged them instead to demonstrate the importance of influence and of the continuity of cultural endeavour, to illustrate common and shared ideas that form the basis of an architectural culture.

-David Chipperfield, Director

Every two years, almost always in early November when the weather is chilly and the crowds have died down, I take my design students up to Venice to see the Architecture Biennale.  I’ve seen its evolution over the years, less physical and more digital, less formal and more social.  It’s always a thrill and almost always provides inspiration for my own work, and (I hope) that of my students.

This year’s theme, Common Ground, is well-chosen. We can no longer afford the luxury of individualism, squandering resources and marring public space for the short-lived glory of creative individuals.  Unfortunately, the theme is also generic enough to be stretched and molded around any content the exhibitor chooses to display, content which occasionally seemed to be pulled from back rooms of studios in haste.  Bernard Tschumi’s posters, Zaha Hadid’s resin(?) casts, Hans Hollein’s students’ models, Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s Slussen Masterplan competition for Stockholm.  There were a plethora of collections which were cool to see: Cino Zucchi’s like-minded objects Billie Tsien/Todd William’s Joseph Cornell like compositions from their friends, and the 40,000 hours of student models. FAT’s investigation of copies.  Anything and everything can be “common ground”.  Another interesting exhibit was that of the team led by Norman Foster which projected images, words and sound to create a compelling experience of globalization in which Architecture paled by comparison to socio-political and ecological phenomena. I also liked the work of Zurich’s Günther Vogt which focused on Venice and its public assets, such as water, a good choice to open the exhibit.

Amongst the national pavilions, the theme was often more coherent.  The Swiss “ensemble”, the German “reuse” and the Japanese “Home-for-all” showed the effects of humility and collaboration, for too long missing in architecture.  The Italian Pavilion, curated by Luca Zevi, touched on the right areas of interest, from this generations fascination with green space to a former generation’s (that of Adriano Olivetti) progressive design thinking. Some of the other work included seemed to lack “common grounding” but I may have missed something in my haste.  Two days is not enough to do justice to all this work, and I’m still pouring over some of the catalogs to understand better some of the projects.

Perhaps it was because the week began with the re-election of President Barrack Obama, the candidate who at least stands a chance at fixing our country and our planet, it was one of those rare moments when I felt a bit of national pride as I entered the US Pavilion.  I absolutely loved this installation, which interprets the Common Ground theme very wisely with a focus on Spontaneous Interventions.  I liked it for its layout (thanks mostly to M-A-D studio, whose director Erik Adigard had spoken to our students back in Rome).  Outside, a collection of orange red cubes (soft but precisely molded) could be scattered, stacked and assembled in a variety of combinations to create useful spatial formations.  The floors in the four rooms are printed with quotations and timelines related to urban history, worth the time to read and follow.  Above your heads hang panels printed on one side with colorful bar codes which indicate thematic focuses of the projects described on the other side, projects which have in common an American pragmatism and the courage to act without waiting for orders from on high. Guerrilla gardening, urban agriculture, creative squatting, participatory urbanism, barter markets, and more fill the 124 panels.  It is easy to scan them, walking through the aisles laid like grapevines above you.  But when something looks interesting you reach up and pull down the panel to eye level, an action that activates a counterweight on the wall where the key “solution” is written, revealing the key “problem”.  Brilliant. The content, too, was an inspiration.  Art in Odd Places, NY Street Advertising Takeover, Rebuild Foundation’s 1415, Islands of LA, and dozens of others all make you think.  It’s a bit derivative of Design Like you Give a Damn or WorldChanging, but so positive nevertheless.  Check out the full catalogue of “interventions” at

The Biennale is also a good excuse to spend time in Venice, which amazes me every time. But for that, my post from a couple years back already tells my point of view.


outside French Pavilion


German Pavilion

inside US pavilion

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