Jennifer McMaster delves into the common ground of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Held once every two years, the Architecture Biennale is an opportunity to not only display architecture, but to discuss and debate it as well. This year’s Biennale, directed by David Chipperfield, holds immense potential for such dialogue. His theme of Common Ground is current, complex and incredibly relevant.
Yet, while this year’s participants look to Common Ground, they rarely reach into its depths. Most of the work presented is beautiful, but it rarely ventures into territory that truly challenges or surprises you.
Some architects, such as Herzog & de Meuron, display their work in a way that stimulates discussion. Their exhibit is lined with newspaper articles documenting their controversial Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Headlines scream of budget blowouts and stalled work, yet the architects make no excuses. It’s honest, it’s gutsy and it fuels debate about iconic architecture.
Norman Foster’s contributions to the Biennale have a similar impact. While many are transfixed by Gateway, his content in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion is equally captivating. Here, Foster turns to his HSBC Bank building in Hong Kong. Alongside Andreas Gursky’s haunting photographs of the tower are two videos by Marisa González. They show how, every Sunday, Filipino maids use the building to set up temporary homes with cardboard boxes. This remarkable transformation shows how people will always invent ways of repurposing space.
But the most powerful exhibitions in the Biennale draw the focus away from display, and encourage exchange. They create and encourage conversation, directly highlighting issues affecting architecture.
This is true of the Spain Mon Amour exhibition. With half of the practices in Madrid and Barcelona having shut down in the last twelve months, the Spanish devoted their budget to flying two hundred students to the Biennale. These students hold pristine models of Spanish buildings, which quickly become irrelevant once conversations begin. The reality of their stories comes to the fore, communicating much more about architecture than a conventional display ever would have.
The Biennale is much more than a place to simply showcase and admire work. It is an opportunity to create discussion, highlight concerns and display promising initiatives. It should be an inspiring, challenging and, most of all, meaningful affair.
The 2012 Architecture Biennale lacks some of this spark. There are gorgeous drawings and models that float in space, cabinets of curiosities and plenty of spectacles. Amidst these, there are some incredible moments, where exhibitions look past individual achievements to issues beyond the Biennale. They are the installations and thoughts that linger long after leaving the city behind.