Assistant director of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, Kieran Long, talks to Australian designer HY William Chan about being a non-architectural voice for architecture.
Perhaps one of the exciting experiences of working on an exhibition at the Venice Biennale is the pleasure of meeting international practitioners at the forefront of architectural advancement.
Kieran Long isn’t an architect, though he has successfully entered the professional space, becoming an influential global voice on architecture. As the right-hand man of Biennale Director David Chipperfield, Long has been a champion of the Common Ground theme of inclusion, though architecture was not his first career interest.
Growing up, Long spent his time devoted to reading. Books were his passion and went on to study literature at Cardiff University. This, he says, was his pathway into architecture, at a time where theoretical understanding was prominent in liberal arts education.
“I’d be lying if I said I had a deep passion for architecture when I was a teenager. I definitely didn’t. English literature gave me a way in because I had a critical theory background,” he said. “I was educated about books where architecture had imported into its theoretical cannon. I felt that I had a much better education on those books than most architects had. Theory is one tiny portrait of many things they do.” With a strong theoretical appreciation, Long had the courage to engage in architectural debates, and soon architects began to take notice. “It gave me a good place to talk to them and say: ‘Well maybe you don’t fully understand what someone like Derrida is writing about, or what construction is, what post-modernism was to me’.”
In his early to mid-20s, he was being invited to teach and be part of high-level conversations about architecture with friends and colleagues, and acknowledges the profession’s acceptance of him. “I think architecture is actually an incredibly generous profession like that. It allows people in. It’s questioning enough about itself to listen to other people’s questions.”
The same could be said of British architect David Chipperfield for being inclusive enough to have welcomed Long to help him lead this year’s Biennale. “It’s very instructive and interesting that David invited me to be his assistant in this process, considering I’m not an architect. It shows something in David’s openness to that.”
This openness within the profession, together with Long’s sharp, inquisitive mind, has shaped a highly successful career, which includes being a former editor-in-chief of Architectural Review and Architects’ Journal. Currently as the architecture writer to the Evening Standard, he has become one of the world’s foremost architectural critics.
As a journalist, Long finds architecture an incredibly rewarding field to work in and write about because of the educated audience who are listening and the very broad issues involved with the built environment. He dismisses the view that being an “outsider” makes him more independent or influential to his readers, insisting instead that it possibly makes him more broad in his interests, “and I take seriously things that architects are trained not to take very seriously.”
Long says one of the things he has learnt about architecture is that it is a profession of generalists. “You’re all general people. The worst architects are the ones that specialize. It’s a general pursuit and that’s one of its strengths – I was educated a bit in that way.”
Although literary and editorial mastery seem distant from the enclosed world of architectural practice, Long is an outstanding example of how multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary involvement can enhance a profession. The commonalities between critical expressions of writing with designing are not merely accepted, but in Long’s case, embraced by the design community. His communication and engagement has helped build bridges between architecture with the broader public.
“I feel – about being a journalist – it gives you an incredible privilege of just being allowed, professionally, to be just in the world, look at it, describe it to the world, have thoughts about it. But that’s not so much different from what architects do.” Indeed, the architectural ambitions of the Biennale that are common and shared include the common ground between the architect and writer – the Chipperfield-Long partnership.