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The architect above the mist – part 1
von Thomas Wagner | 9/5/2012

I. Pictures by architects

Sometimes a tiny detail can reveal so much more about the way in which an architect sees the world (a space he evidently shares with others) than the highly complex spatial manifestations dreamed up by his architectural mind. In his installation “Pictographs – Statements” Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati has spread countless groups of pictures on an oversized table that stretches out beneath a ceiling suspended between the pillars of the Arsenale. Seldom composed of more than a handful of small images, the compositions have been created by colleagues whom Oligiati considers to be among the finest master builders of our time, with each of them selecting motifs that are special to them. Olgiati used these personal “musées imaginaire” to examine what constitutes the source of inspiration, and consequently the complexity and ambivalence of the very “Common Ground” that David Chipperfield, Director of the 13th Architecture Biennale, has declared the theme and guiding metaphor of the exhibition.

We find ourselves confronted by a sheer myriad of photographs that depict historical buildings, clay huts or floor plans; contributions include jumbles of numbers and letters that Jürgen Mayer H. has been collecting for some time now, and freehand sketches by Mario Botta. If your gaze wanders, it will eventually suddenly be brought up short by two photographs that leave you somewhat bemused: One shows Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Mist” (around 1818), the other the architect Hans Kollhoff in the very same pose as he looks out of a window and over a balustrade down at a square. Is this the architect above the mist of architecture?

And in the Arsenale it is likewise Hans Kollhoff who in an effort to pay homage once again to his neo-Classicist inclinations has lined up a phalanx of his own models (and those of his students) complete with two façade samples and called it all “The Morphology of Urban Facades”. Kollhoff’s strong-minded artistic thrust, which can be expanded by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani’s model of the masterplan for the Novartis campus in Basel or Zaha Hadid’s computer-generated organic stone drops, and several other examples, all go to show how difficult it is for many of the field’s major protagonists to refrain from making themselves or their work the center of their universe. All you need to do is watch out for intellectual frills and you will soon detect the old-established patterns, which for many in this business still provide the basis for their work: io sono architetto – only I know the right way forward.

II. Of common ground

Since 1980 the position of architecture has been examined every other year in Venice. Last time round it was directed by Kazuyo Sejima, who succeeded in setting limits to the often narcissistic self-promotion that typically prevails in the field and instead presented new approaches, images and idioms to address functions and issues in architecture. By contrast, many contributions to this year’s exhibition have sadly lapsed into old habits. In particular in the Arsenale the new common ground is sadly lacking; examples of self-doubt or substantive self-inquiry are far and few between. The “common ground” that has been invoked tends to be interpreted here as a stage on which the masters of the trade can showcase their authorial signature. It would seem that Chipperfield was far too lenient as a curator.

And yet he is right to investigate the common ground we share as architects, citizens, users, clients, politicians, to explore what connects us in terms of space, as regards building, living and thinking, bearing in mind our cultural differences. Think “Stuttgart 21” or other major controversial projects and you will instantly know what I am talking about: no less than the political, social, cultural and intellectual bedrock that decides whether our joint effort in designing our living environments succeeds or not. To conclude from this that the motto of the common ground which Chipperfield has prompted his international colleagues to embrace and explore in all its facets has somewhat fallen on deaf ears, however, would be to overestimate the demeanor of individual protagonists.

Perhaps it is not entirely wrong to say that large parts of the exhibition have turned out too conventional and are indeed somewhat docile. However, the question remains what inspires today’s architects (indeed almost exclusively men), what influences them and what problems they need to overcome and how do they in the process embrace the perspectives of others. And asked it must be. “I want this Biennale to celebrate a vital, interconnected architectural culture, and pose questions about the intellectual and physical territories that it shares. In the methods of selection of participants, my Biennale will encourage the collaboration and dialogue that I believe is at the heart of architecture, and the title will also serve as a metaphor for architecture's field of activity,” says Chipperfield, once again underscoring his approach.

III. Community spirit over self-promotion

Very early in the year Chipperfield pointed out in an interview with the weekly “Die Zeit” that the intention of his exhibition themed “Common Ground” was, among other things, to explore what in German is referred to as “Allmende” (common land). Fortunately, and notwithstanding all those who are adamant to continue honing their signature shapes, at the show we also encounter (predominantly younger) architects who are willing to contemplate open processes informed by a collective approach, examine or test unusual ways of working together and promote projects intended to counteract individualization in society. It is those wishing to overcome traditional attitudes of self-promotion who set about their work with a fresh, pragmatic and unconventional mindset.

They leave behind the individualism of iconic solitary structures and the notion of “signature architecture”, which although it did not exclusively dominate building culture in the previous decade, nonetheless helped ensure plenty of media coverage. In their contribution devoted to Hamburg’s “Elbphilharmonie” concert hall, Herzog & de Meuron have covered entire walls in newspaper clippings in an effort to demonstrate the brittle nature of the consensus between architect, client, building contractor and public in a situation informed by legal errors and a lack of communication that is further exacerbated by an economic crisis. Sadly they do not tell us what conclusions they draw from this.

An example that change tends to step into the room quietly, that people (as if in self-defense against an overly planned world that affords them neither voice nor space) set about reclaiming living environments originally not intended for them is the temporary restaurant that Urban Think Tank researchers Alfredo Brillembourg, Hubert Klumpner set up together with Justin McGuirk. (It earned them the Golden Lion for the best project in the main exhibition.) Although the improvisation seems a tad contrived, you cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief at being catapulted from the sterile nature of high art in the Corderie of the Arsenale and beamed into an improvised restaurant in Caracas. “Eating together is a very companionable way of exchanging ideas.” This in itself reveals that we are dealing here with a different kind of common ground. The pub’s rough brick walls are embellished with photographs by Iwan Baan that offer us a glimpse into the “Torre Confinanzas”, better known as “Torre de David”, a 45-story high-rise in Caracas, conceived in the 1990s as the headquarters of a bank but never completed. Over the years people have squatted in the tower and given it a new lease of life. Or shall we say: Many Davids assumed possession of the large Goliath, filled it with life, even if now it is little more but a “vertical slum”?

The place originally conceived for figures and financial transactions now boasts bicycles and people carrying mattresses or running small stores – and a church crammed with white plastic chairs. It is a very different kind of common ground that gets exposed here, one in which personal initiative sparked a community in which different rules apply and in which social relationships are permanently being renegotiated and reorganized – a task that is anything but easy. And ultimately “Torre David” points to another fact, which is that many megacities need to address the question of how we can succeed in setting up homes in uninhabitable places, in reclaiming built spaces and architectural aberrations.

The example shows: This architecture biennale is not about celebrating the new, let alone the sensational. But it is not until we enter the part of the main exhibition that unfurls in the Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini that we actually become aware of this. Even the embellishment on the façade transpires to be bricolage. In addition Kuehn Malvezzi have extended the basement floor and walls into gray brick foundations that now block off the central entrance, intended as a subtle intervention into existing structures. That said, the continuation on the inside of the building (the brick walls now feature photographs by Candida Höfer) goes a little too far. Moving on, in the Padiglione Wolfgang Wolters and Mario Piana document the immense effort involved in maintaining and restoring Venice’s ancient buildings. Even (thanks Diener & Diener) previous biennale pavilions have been included: Gabriele Basilico’s wonderful black and white photographs ably trace the history of the biennale and the relationship between architecture, patronage and perception. Likewise part of the documentary are 1960s and ‘70s administration and cultural buildings, even if the scouts dispatched by OMA do not quite succeed in their installation to differentiate precisely between edifices by renowned architects and those designed and planned by unknown administrative employees.

A side note: Unconscious Places

In four different locations of the Arsenale Chipperfield has inserted groups of images which German photographer Thomas Struth took between 1978 and 2010. The idea is to make the visitor come face to face with the unadulterated reality of our cities and provide a contrast to the models, plans, projects and installations exhibited in the show. The title “Unconscious Places”, which references Struth’s eponymous 1987 exhibition, describes a sentiment that has long since been around the art world and that is stylized here into some kind of proof that architecture has a social and political dimension. But this is precisely what Struth’s tableaus, shot in central perspective and almost always devoid of people, fail to do. The sober gaze of his documentary photography reveals just as little of the glittering life and the chaotic reality of cities and megacities as an architecture that for all Chipperfield’s best intentions remains detached. Indeed, in addition or as an alternative other photography projects could have been employed that succeeded in the subtle portrayal of the reality of architecture and urbanity without abandoning the impact the media had on them. “Uncommon Places” is the title that Stephen Shore significantly chose for his images of the United States, in which streets are depicted not as streets as we Europeans understand them, but as seemingly never-ending runways, the junctions at which they meet nothing but casual intersections that are imbued with fleeing meaning only from occasional gas stations and traffic lights. Consequently, it is not in the eye of the camera lense but on the margins that the built world consolidates itself into a valid image.

IV. Abyss and pictorial flood

For Lord Norman Foster the common ground that is the platform on which architecture operates is more of an abyss. His installation “Gateway”, on show in the Arsenale, is a flickering media spectacle that bombards and overwhelms beholders with salvoes of images, deliberately inducing sensory overload. To begin with the ground is made up of luminous names of architects, designers, planners and landscape architects. Like armies of ants they march across the floor, climb up on the pillars of the Arsenale like termite colonies, boding nothing good. Constantly compacting and disentangling again, they thus form a flexible net made up of Breuer, Sullivan and Rogers, of Boulleé, Doshi and Sangallo, which once it becomes too crowded with names implodes into an illegible dust of symbols. This too is a metaphor.

At the same time we see a pictorial hurricane sweeping along the walls. Historical and religious buildings, favelas and other places of social change, images of the “Arabellion” and the London riots, followed by rooms, stadiums, museums, train stations – Foster taps into the global network in order to immerse the beholder in its plurality and heterogeneity. In the reflection of the seductive space inhabited by the media architecture comes face to face with the conflicting facets of a world in which it has to sustain, indeed has to keep reinventing itself.

(to be continued in part 2)

Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati’s installation “Pictographs - Statements“ presents pictures on an oversized table, which might inspire contemporary architects, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Two famous figures from behind: On the left Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Mist “, on the right Hans Kollhoff, who overlooks a scenery, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
German architect Hans Kollhoff explains his models, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Extravagance is not everything: This section model by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron shows the concert hall of the unfinished Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Another type of common sense: Pictures of the “Torre de David“, an unfinished and occupied skyscraper in Caracas, are exhibited at the restaurant, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Whoever wants to enter the Austrian pavilion, which is concerned with the topic of “physicalness“, has to bend down first, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The photographs could have left out: Kuehn Malvezzi’s installation at the entrance of the Padiglione Centrale is made of grey bricks, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Self-reflection elegantly presented in black and white: Diener & Diener dedicate themselves to the pavilions at the Venetian Giardini, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
“Unconscious Places”: Architectural photographs by Thomas Struth are exhibited at four different places at the Arsenale, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Curator David Chipperfield themed this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice with the slogan “Common Ground“, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Conversation with an admired example: During a competition at the University of Lima, Grafton Architects were inspired by Paolo Mendes’ “new geography“ concept, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Even in Santa Maria die Miracoli, wonders take a little longer: Wolfgang Wolters’ and Mario Piano’ restoration projects demonstrate the difficulties of preserving existing architecture, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Floating models by Zaha Hadid Architects, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Architectural compound eye: The column-like installation “Arum“ is a creation by Zaha Hadid Architects, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Projected chaos: the audiovisual installation by British architect Lord Norman Foster is called “Gateway“, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Lord Foster’s picture spectacle: The names of architects, designers and artists are projected onto the floors, walls and even the visitors, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
David occupies Goliath: The temporary Venezuelan restaurant “Gran Horizonte” is part of the award-winning contribution by Urban-Think-Tank and Justin McGuirk, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Occupied by the inhabitants of Caracas: “David de Torre“ is a 45-storey skyscraper, which was originally built as office complex for a bank, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Improved façade: Alison Crawshaw’s new entrance to the Padiglione Centrale, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark