Finding Common Ground

With Common Ground, the theme of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale that opened this past August, exhibition curator David Chipperfield’s goal was “to encourage [his] colleagues to react to the prevalent professional and cultural tendencies of our time that place such emphasis on individual and isolated actions” and “to illustrate the common and shared ideas that form the basis of an architectural culture.” In this conversation, begun in Venice and then continued a week later in the Architectural League’s offices in New York, Rosalie Genevro, the League’s Executive Director, and Gregory Wessner, Special Projects Director, review Chipperfield’s successes and shortcomings before moving on to a discussion of Spontaneous Interventions, the United States submission in the Giardini.

This post was originally published on Urban Omnibus, the Architectural League’s publication on the culture of citymaking.

Gregory Wessner:  I have to admit that my reaction to Common Ground, David Chipperfield’s exhibition in the Arsenale, was influenced by recently visiting, for the first time, the Neues Museum in Berlin that David Chipperfield Architects designed. I thought it was an amazing building, and I was particularly impressed by how deferential the design was: it engages in a genuinely respectful dialogue with what remains of the original 1859 building, with the history and meaning of the site, and certainly with the long list of consultants and others who worked with him. That spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and exchange informs his curatorial point of view in Common Ground, for better or worse. And I thought the show worked best in those installations that captured that sense of collaboration and recognized that architecture is not an end in and of itself. Rather, it is the frame in which human life — whether the everyday or the sacred — plays out.

Urban Think Tank’s installation on the Torre David in Caracas, for instance, comes to mind. That installation blew me away: the photos by Iwan Baan, the video, the café. And its subject is astonishing. On one hand, you could criticize the living conditions and the economic system that forced residents into this extreme living situation. But on the other hand, it’s hard not to admire the sheer resourcefulness and ingenuity with which people have occupied and completed the building. I don’t know if it’s a challenge to architecture exactly, but it’s a powerful reminder that humans have an immense capacity for adaptation. No architect was necessary for Torre David’s residents to figure out what they needed to create homes and a community. It is a fully functioning, vertical neighborhood and no architect was involved.

This installation by Urban Think Tank with Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan, which was awarded the Golden Lion for the international competition, presents the story of Torre David, an abandoned 45-story office tower in Caracas that is currently the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extra-legal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum. | Photos courtesy of Urban Think Tank

Rosalie Genevro: The remarkable thing about the Torre David for me is the utter matter-of-factness with which it seems that people inhabit the building and simply carry on the activities of their daily life and make homes for themselves, even if they have to walk up 11 stories or 22 stories. I agree with your observation about the emphasis on architecture as a frame for daily life, which was particularly striking seeing the exhibition in a city like Venice. Venice is such an unbelievably beautiful ensemble, but, of course, not all of it was designed or built by architects. It was built by builders, by the actions of people working to create an environment for themselves to live in. What’s interesting about the concept for Chipperfield’s show is its apparent modesty: the desire to re-interpret architecture as the setting for life, rather than as individual monumental works.

GW: So if the Torre David is about the everyday, then the installation about the Ruta del Peregrino is about architecture as the frame for the sacred and spiritual. In this project, you have really talented architects making individual gestures along a pilgrimage route in Mexico, but they’re modest interventions in the service of the pilgrimage, rather than for the glorification of the architect.

RG: Right, they didn’t create the pilgrimage; they reinforce the experience of it. Another installation that I haven’t seen anybody remark on, but which I found rather moving, was about Luigi Snozzi. Snozzi is an architect who has had a decades-long involvement with one small Italian-Swiss town, Monte Carasso, and has made it his life’s work to intensify, repair, and solidify the structure of the town. And he doesn’t do it by making faux historic buildings; he inserts buildings where they’re needed for particular purposes in a very contemporary style and they’re beautifully designed. His work is particularly interesting at a time when architecture is so global because he has been willing to be so committed to a particular place – and a small place at that – and has played such a significant role in defining the nature of that place.

Pilgrim Route, State of Jalisco, Mexico | Photo courtesy of Dellekamp Arquitectos

GW: It seems as though we liked this architecture exhibition best when architecture wasn’t its primary subject.

RG: I think the reason both of us found parts of this Biennale satisfying is that it was not simply about architecture for  architecture’s sake. I love architecture, you love architecture, people who love architecture love architecture. It’s incredibly important, but it is not a thing in and of itself; it exists to serve the purpose of life somehow.

GW: The problem, of course, is not with the architecture but with architecture culture and the people who shape architecture culture, including us. It’s a problem with the way we talk about and present buildings, whether through exhibitions, magazines, or books, with the way architects present their buildings in lectures. Aren’t we often at fault for all failing to acknowledge the larger life of a building beyond its role as an aesthetic object?

RG: I think architecture culture is cyclical; the discipline has gone through periods of being more or less self-involved. Any discipline needs to have a sense of itself in order to nurture, stimulate, and provoke its own practitioners. But this can become an issue when the balance gets skewed, when the thing produced — the work of art, the work of architecture — becomes isolated by the overemphasis on its meaning within the discipline itself, and thus its meaning in the larger world is ignored.

FAT’s contribution to the International Exhibition was entitled the Museum of Copying. According to FAT Director Sam Jacob, “copying is both fundamental to how architecture develops and something that threatens its foundational belief in originality.” | Photo via Dezeen

GW: The installations and projects in the show fell loosely into two interpretations of the theme of “common ground.” One is what we’ve been talking about: architecture as the product of dialogue and collaboration; the “coincidence of forces” that Chipperfield talks about in his introduction. The other is how and from where architects draw influences and inspiration, the “common ground” they share among themselves. If I had a criticism of the show, it would be that this second category of projects tended to be a little too hermetic, a little too navel-gazing.

RG: There were some beautiful installations that exemplified that second interpretation of the theme, but I would agree that they were ultimately less satisfying than the ones that placed architecture within a larger context.

Even though I had a lot of positive reactions to individual projects and installations in this show, I’m not sure how the overall exhibition reads to people outside of architecture. It certainty didn’t map out any new territory. It’s not a polemical show, or, if it is, it’s a very quiet polemic. Chipperfield’s instincts were to have it be about modesty and collectivity. But he didn’t shake some of the old habits, like inviting superstars or inviting people who would take it as an opportunity to focus exclusively on presenting their own work. This show was definitely not a radical break.

GW: I suppose the exhibition does partially reinforce the current interest within architecture in activism, participatory design, tactical urbanism, and so on. But then there were certain installations that were really just holdovers from times past celebrating the “genius architect.”

RG: I do think too that there is currently a lot of confusion in the profession; we’re in a period of transition as architects try to figure out what the practice of architecture is right now or what the architect’s place in society is. It’s ironic that the Golden Lion went to the Urban Think Tank installation about the Torre David, because the architects in that situation didn’t act as designers, they were observers and documentarians.

So what did you think of the American pavilion?

Freecell’s exhibition design for Spontaneous Interventions displayed the 124 projects selected by IFUD in an interactive pulley system that directly linked each project to the urban challenge it addresses | Photo by Gregory Wessner

GW: I liked it. I thought one of the best things about it was that all its parts worked really well together: Freecell’s exhibition design, Interboro’s installation in the forecourt, M-A-D’s timeline. All of the design choices worked in support of the content, which is something you can’t say about many of the national pavilions, where the exhibit design often completely obscured the subject of the exhibition.

I think if I were critical about anything — and this is me at my most cynical — I might question whether the kinds of projects in the show have real capacity to effect the kind of change urgently needed today. I wonder whether some of the projects, while admirable, can really take on the big challenges we have to deal with regarding the economy, energy, and the environment.

RG: So, then, a question for you: Is confronting our problems in a large way something that can be done through architecture? Because one way to interpret the projects in Spontaneous Interventions is as strategies people have found to affect their immediate physical environment, strategies that can make them feel like they are able to have some kind of impact. It’s not about large-scale change. It’s about the immediate world around you.

GW: Yeah, this could be an outlet born out of the frustration people have with government’s failure to deal with big questions and issues. People want to feel like they’re doing something, even if the intervention is small — like, for example, transforming a parking space into a garden.

But I also don’t want projects like these to absolve government of its responsibilities. In saying this, I fully recognize that the curators of the show were not trying to make that point. In fact, Cathy Ho, the exhibition commissioner and curator, says as much in an essay in the August issue of Architect magazine: the “micro urban moments,” she writes, “can’t replace the effectiveness and reach of top-down planning.” I think it’s great that citizens and designers are taking the initiative to make positive change in their communities. At the same time, however, and now more than ever, we have to fight for the belief that government has a legitimate role to play, that we don’t all have to go out and initiate these activities. There are some things that we shouldn’t or can’t take care of as individuals. I’m not criticizing any of the projects in the show. I think they’re all legitimate efforts, and I’m sure some are effecting real change in their communities. But they shouldn’t be a substitute for the role of government fulfilling its responsibilities.

Spontaneous Interventions, pulley system close-up | Photo by Gregory Wessner

RG: I think it’s interesting to think about this collection of work in contrast to the OMA installation, which focused on strong works of architecture by unsung individuals working as government architects in the post-war period of optimism in the ’50s and ’60s.

GW: On the subject of government, we were talking earlier about U.S. support for architecture abroad, or the lack of it relative to other countries.

RG: It is amazing to be at the Biennale and to look at all the national pavilions. Of course nobody puts a dollar sign on the door of how much the different governments contributed to their pavilion, but one presumes that in most cases the support was generous, whereas the support the State Department provides to the U.S. Pavilion is probably only a quarter or an eighth of what is actually requires to mount the show. I also thought about this coming back to the United States and going through the unbelievably poorly designed, poorly thought out customs area at the airport. It’s so embarrassing to come through the American customs and passport area, especially in contrast to the foreign airports you have just been through. It can’t be good for the workers who are working there, it’s bad for the citizens returning, it’s bad for foreign visitors coming in. It is completely puzzling why the U.S. doesn’t use the power of architecture to create a better image of itself, at home and abroad.

GW: I suppose the thinking is that these are concerns better left to the free market. If you’re going to present an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, then let private funds make it happen. And if the market isn’t going to support you through donations, then you shouldn’t be there. But why doesn’t American exceptionalism extend to architecture? Why don’t we have the kind of support that other countries are providing to let us present the United States in the best possible light?

RG: When you think about the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, when customs duties were one of the biggest sources of income for the federal government and so customs houses up and down the East Coast were splendid buildings that kind of fit their significance in national life, and now, in the era of intense global travel and business, we don’t pay