Federation for
Housing and

The Crisis Biennial?

In the curatorial concept Common Ground, there is a search that might have been provoked by a crisis in the profession faced with sweeping societal change. But is the exhibition failing to give substantial answers to the challenges that lie ahead?

Chipperfied & friends at the architecture biennial in Venice

The curator of this year’s biennale, David Chipperfield, has invited a group of architects to the Arsenale with an agenda that appears to be looking more back than forward. At least that is the impression you get when walk through the Arsenale, the main exhibition venue at the Venice Biennale. As always, you need to spend at least a day to get the full picture. The amount of information is massive.

Chipperfield seeks a common ground but what does that mean? Chipperfield wants to bridge the gap between architecture and society. In that light you might say, it is an attempt to unify instead of diversifying, to bring to the profession closer to the massive scale challenges which society all around the world is faced with. After being appointed as main curator, Chipperfield explained his choice of theme:

“I am interested in the things that architects share in common, from the conditions of the practice of architecture to the influences, collaborations, histories and affinities that frame and contextualise our work!”

And Chipperfield continues: “The title ‘Common Ground’ also has a strong connotation of the ground between buildings, the spaces of the city. I want projects in the Biennial to look seriously at the meanings of the spaces made by buildings: the political, social, and public realms of which architecture is a part”.


Model by Zaha Hadid . Photo: Kristoffer Lindhardt Weiss 

Common ground and common purpose

The exhibition at the Arsenale is an attempt to step away from the culture of star architects and icons and into the idea of collaboration and a deeper understanding of the contextual forces influencing architecture and planning. Perhaps a reaction to the crisis in the world economy putting a greater pressure on architects and their ability to act. It is not only a search for a common ground, but also a search for a common purpose. With urbanization sweeping the globe at an unbelievable speed, and louring climate crises, planners and architects need more than ever to come up with clever answers. Answers that should be based, according to Chipperfield, on an understanding of history and context.

I can’t help thinking that although the ambition is to venture into the future on a new set of principles, the exhibition appears introvert. It is very much a look inwards at technique, materiality and experiment as a basis for acting in the world rather than a direct attempt at handling and exemplifying how to tackle big societal issues. The cities of tomorrow might look and work differently than the ones we know today or in the past. They will have to become greener, smarter, more secure or socially cohesive and these questions are not at the forefront of the exhibited projects. It is as if the curator is saying: Only by looking back and understanding the architectural practice, finding a common ground, can we act in a world presenting us with an immense complexity of globalization, economy and a new media reality. That is a highly questionable strategy to pursue.

Herzog de Meuron model. Photo: Kristoffer Lindhardt Weiss 

Herzog de Meuron and Hadid

The exhibition scenography is well crafted considering the curatorial concept. In the dimmed light you get the feeling of being in a museum. It radiates authority and brings a genuine feeling of entering a historical space. Even the shapy ‘blob-till-you-drop’ architect, Zaha Hadid, appears dated in this setting. Quite an achievement. Her contribution is a fascinating and rich examination of updated construction principles with references going back in time displayed through impressive large-scale models.

Herzog de Meuron delivers a silent critique of the media context surrounding architecture and planning. Their famous Elbphilharmonie is controversial because of the exploding building costs and political chaos surrounding the project, creating a battlefield between client (City of Hamburg), the general contractor and the architects. Their exhibition contribution is an uncommented and uncensored overview of the press reports. It is an elegant way of displaying the many conflicting interests surrounding big projects. The project is a very precise comment on the curator’s ambition to explore the political, social, and public realms of which architecture is a part.


Not enough?

According to the online design magazine Dezeen, the biennial has received sharp criticism, like the one uttered by architect Wolf Prix: “In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning”. To Prix, the concept of common ground is simply to defensive, and too much a compromise, seen in the light of what the profession is going through.