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Venice Architecture Biennale is on limited 'Common Ground'

British architect David Chipperfield's seemingly wide-ranging approach to the Venice Architecture Biennale ends up feeling exclusive and focused on past glories.

August 31, 2012|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • The young British firm FAT contributed an installation about architectural copying that included a recreation of part of Andrea Palladio's 16th century Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy.
The young British firm FAT contributed an installation about architectural… (unknown )

VENICE, Italy — "Common Ground," the title British architect David Chipperfield chose for the 13th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, suggests a generous and expansive, if somewhat tame, strategy for organizing what still ranks as the most important architecture exhibition in the world.

And in fact that feel-good two-word phrase, defined in endlessly elastic terms by Chipperfield and his curatorial team, has allowed him to use this biennale to bind together a number of themes that have dramatically reemerged in architecture in the last three or four years.

The exhibition, which opened to the public on Wednesday, focuses in particular on the city (the urban commons) and on history (the threads that connect generations of architects across time).

The approach surely appealed to Chipperfield in part as a way to bridge the gap between his own generation — he was born in 1953 — and that of the architects now in their 20s and 30s. Many of those younger architects are eager to tackle issues related to urbanism and public space in their work and are busy reinterpreting the postmodern architecture of the 1970s and '80s, which brought history, memory and the quotation of older styles back into the architectural conversation.

But the exhibition itself, despite that determinedly optimistic and wide-ranging approach, feels limited, exclusive, stiff, starched and a bit cloistered. And for a show that is so keen to question the value of architectural celebrity — Chipperfield writes in the catalog that he wanted it to "emphasize shared ideas over individual authorship" and reject "solitary and fashionable gestures" — this biennale includes an awful lot of stars, many of them longtime friends and colleagues of Chipperfield's.

Though Chipperfield makes a big show of casting a wide net with this biennale, mostly what he's caught with it are the kind of big fish immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the architectural scene of 20 or 25 years ago. The architects featured most prominently include Norman Foster (given two separate rooms to work with), Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, Peter Zumthor, Bernard Tschumi and Jean Nouvel.

Some of them move in new directions — Nouvel contributes a terrific proposal for reinventing Parisian highways and overpasses as public green space — but for the most part the ideas are as well-known as the names. The language of the wall text and catalog feels like a throwback to the 1980s, with references to collage, tectonics, pastiche, memory, continuity and mannerism.

Occasionally this sense of déjà vu is no problem at all, as with a superb and very simple roofless structure by Siza painted burgundy and installed outdoors. Even if it looks a lot like his full-scale buildings, it's a welcome reminder of his vast talent.

Elsewhere the content begins to feel airless and precious. There is a little bit of humor and irony in this biennale, including a series of installations about architectural copying by the smart London firm FAT, but not nearly enough. There is some color but not much.

In the final room of Chipperfield's installation at the Arsenale, the old shipbuilding yards, there is a wall covered with drawings by Moneo of projects for Madrid, enclosed in beautiful wooden frames. The work is remarkable, even virtuosic, but you have to wonder what the point is supposed to be: That nobody draws this way any longer? That standards have fallen? That the computer has ruined everything?

It's at moments like these — and in a few other spots in the Venetian Giardini, or gardens, where the other half of the main show is located — that you begin to think about what Chipperfield has left out. It's a fairly long list.

The most obvious omission is any sustained consideration of the developing world. There is an installation by the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo — in the form of a small two-story brick house — but it stands so clearly outside of the flow of the rest of the show that it feels like an afterthought.

There's also very little about digital design or the environment. Female architects play a minor role. And the show's political content is feather-light.

It would seem impossible to launch a show in Italy called "Common Ground" in the late summer of 2012 and not address, directly or indirectly, the experiment in political and economic common ground called the European Union, which has been in severe crisis all year. But Chipperfield seems to have pulled it off.

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