Biennale Architettura 2012, Part 1

John Hill
Published on
Aug 28, 2012

All photos by John Hill / 
The 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, directed by English architect David Chipperfield and titled Common Ground, is open to the public from August 29 to November 25, 2012. In a press conference two days before the public opening, Chipperfield described the theme as running counter to the promotion of individual talents. He stated that architects believe they are contributing to society, but society does not see it that way. The "common ground" that Chipperfield levied to contributors was the common ground among the profession but also that between the profession and the public. Ultimately Chipperfield wants his Biennale to give the public a better means of understanding architects' concerns, interests, and commitments.

raditionally the Biennale is comprised of two parts: the director's exhibition in the Arsenale and the national pavilions that have independent, but sometimes overlapping agendas. The following photos and first-hand descriptions take Chipperfield's ideas into account, particularly in terms of the displays found within the Arsenale, to see if Common Ground come across in the many contributions to the Biennale.

(To see our second installment of our Venice Biennale coverage, focusing on the national pavilions in the Giardini, click here.)
Entrance to the Arsenale and the Corderie building 
Upon turning the corner to the entrance of the long Arsenale building, one is not struck by the scale of the building as would be expected. Instead the insertion of a white wall, the show's title simply written upon it, gives a sense of calm or relief, aided by the sparse displays on the walls and in the space. Yet this is a sensation that wanes once breaking through the gallery-like space into the next "room."
Installation by Norman Foster with Carlos Carcas and Charles Sandison. 
The white and calm of the first space is countered by the black walls and chaotic imagery in Gateway, created by architect Norman Foster with director Carlos Carcas and artist Charles Sandison. Four synchronized projections juxtapose photos of architecture with those of protest, picking up on the commonality of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements last year. Two of the building's huge circular columns stand in the middle of the space, where they are "painted" with constantly moving patterns of light. The viewer becomes part of the display as well, as the same patterns trace the bodies in space. It is chaotic yet extremely powerful in its immersion and clarity of purpose.
Farshid Moussavi's immersive installation 
In general, contributions to Common Ground veer between two extremes: Displays of objects (models, drawings, installations) and immersive spaces. This makes a voyage through the Arsenale a push and pull between these poles. The second immersive space that one enters is Farshid Moussavi's contribution. Again, multiple displays are the means of creating cohesion, here aided by the fact that each projection is a simplified structure. These come from a studio that Moussavi ran at Harvard GSD, and which should look familiar to people who have seen her earlier Function of Form book. While not really new, the juxtaposition of whitewashed vaults, as shown here, and other structures works well alongside the Arsenale's brick columns.
The space documenting Herzog & de Meuron's Elbphilharmonie Hamburg 
Following immediately after Moussavi's installation is a room devoted to Herzog & de Meuron's Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, now under construction. While obviously on the object/artifact spectrum of things, the display curiously uses two means of explaining the project: Large conceptual and sectional models in gray foam and wood, and a timeline of newspaper clippings about the project. By pitting the models against the press, the architects are attempting to express the relationship between their creation and its realization; or to put it another way, it's about the melding of art and politics.
Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher's Arum installation 
Further down the Arsenale is a room devoted to Zaha Hadid Architects. Following the grid of the building's columns, the display is a triptych of sorts: Process models on the right; large, floating white blobs opposite; and the large "Arum" installation in the middle. The last, done by Hadid with Patrik Schumacher, is a pleated metal funnel that admits entry through a small slit at the bottom. Arum may get all the attention from its location and size, but the flanking models are especially nice, and the slick white surfaces stand out particularly well against the building's raw brickwork. Chipperfield's inclusion of who he calls "protagonists" (and who others call starchitects) in the exhibition may run counter to the theme, but it attempts to open architecture to the public by displaying objects that elucidate its process. Whatever the case, this room clearly says, "Hadid."
A full-scale reproduction of Anupama Kundoo's Wall House 
Following Hadid the Protagonist is its polar opposite, a full-scale reproduction of the Wall House, designed by Indian architect Anupama Kundoo. Wood and brick are accompanied by vaults constructed from clay pots and even plastic cups. The whole environment, which can be traversed on two levels, is about design ingenuity through minimal means. It seems intentional that Hadid and Schumacher's computer-aided installation is placed next to the Wall House's handmade construction. Whatever the case, what comes across greatest in the "house" is its openness, its vague distinctions between inside and outside, which applies to the original as well.
Urban Think Tank's installation on Torre David 
Just past the Wall House is the bustling heart of the Arsenale, an installation from Urban Think Tank and Justin McGuirk that looks at Caracas, Venezuala's unfinished but illegally occupied Torre David through photos by Iwan Baan. What makes this area bustling is not the neon signage forming an entry arch between columns, it is the insertion of a cafe into what would otherwise primarily be a display of photos. At lunchtime the sounds and smells were strong enough to be sensed even beyond the Wall House. It is as if the curators wanted to bring the lives of the people occupying the Torre David to the Biennale itself, not just images that others might use to judge.
Valerio Olgiati's large table with architect's Pictographs 
One of the highlights in the Arsenale is the "Pictographs" installation, curated by Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati. A large table sits in the middle of the space paralleled by a white drop ceiling. A linear light fixture illuminates the small images on the table, inspirational images selected by the various architects that Olgiati brought together. The size of the images, the height of the ceiling, and even the height of the table work together to make it an intimate experience. One gets close to "views into the mind of the architect's visual world," as Olgiati intended. Also, the space effectively balances the exhbitions two poles of display, acting as both an immersive environment and a collection of artifacts.
The Kuwait National Pavilion 
About a third of the long, L-shaped Arsenale is used for national pavilions, for countries that do not have freestanding pavilions in the Giardini -- a second installment of this Insight feature will focus on the latter. Three of the countries found in the Arsenale are first-time participants in the Biennale: Kuwait, the Republic of Kosovo, and Peru (Angola is the last of the four first-timers, but it is located off the Biennale grounds). Kuwaits's area, like the Torre David display, attempts to bring some life to the exhibition. This happens primarily through the sounds channeled into the suspended speakers ringing the space. It works effectively well in the otherwise bare room, drawing one toward certain areas where more can be gleamed through illustrations on the floor.
The Republic of Kosovo National Pavilion 
The Republic of Kosovo's pavilion is a small, dark space that easily draws one attention to the images of the young country (only four years old) on the wall and above the floor. These images focus on the country's rich historical architecture, asking how architects should respond to a context largely untouched in the country's struggle for independence; what will be Kosovo's future form? Called "The Filigree Maker," the pavilion's other main ingredient is a network of thin wires that suspend the displays and constantly filter ones view of Kosovo's architecture.
Peru National Pavilion 
Peru's pavilion takes the Olmos hydraulic megaproject as the impetus for an architectural exploration of a new city in the country's North. Twenty of the country's architects created individual designs for transforming the desert into a new urban landscape, but a consistency of display -- especially the "huaquetas" pottery -- starts to show commonalities among the bunch. They attest that it is impossible to create a city from one project, so each contribution is seen as a moment that works together with the others.
Irish National Pavilion 
At the opposite end of the Arsenale from Norman Foster's immersive installation -- quite a long walk -- is Ireland's national pavilion: Shifting Ground (Beyond National Architecture). Within its space, curators Heneghan Peng Architects have similarly created a mood rather than a collection of objects, which is fitting given their theme. Number and geometry are the focus of the site-specific installation, whic invites visitors to balance their weights on the teeter-totter-like benches running between the pixelated graphics. By this point in one's trek through the Arsenale, a place to sit is welcome, even if it is ever-shifting, like the content in the exhibition.

John Hill

A second installment of this Insight feature, focusing on the national pavilions in the Giardini, can be found here. coverage of the 2012 Venice Biennale:

Part 1: International Exhibition at the Arsenale

Part 2: National Pavilions at the Giardini

Extra: International Exhibition in the Central Pavilion

As La Biennale di Venezia describes it, "The first exhibitions dedicated to architectural subjects were realized in the period 1975-1978 by the director of the Art section, Vittorio Gregotti. The Architecture section was established in 1980: director Paolo Portoghesi for the first time opened to visitors the Corderie dell'Arsenale venue, turning it into a 'strada novissima'"

The exhibitions, directors, and themes, leading up to the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, Common Ground, directed by David Chipperfield are as follows:

Paolo Portoghesi
1st International Architecture Exhbition
The Presence of the Past
July 27 - October 20, 1980

Paolo Portoghesi
2nd International Architecture Exhbition
Architecture in Islamic Countries
November 20 - January 6, 1982

Aldo Rossi
3rd International Architecture Exhbition
The Venice Project
July 20 - September 29, 1985

Aldo Rossi
4th International Architecture Exhbition
Hendrik Petrus Berlage: Drawings
July 18 - September 28, 1986

Francesco Dal Co
5th International Architecture Exhbition
Forty Architects for the 90s
September 8 - October 9, 1991

Hans Hollein
6th International Architecture Exhbition
Sensing the Future - Architect as Seismograph
September 15 - November 17, 1996

Massimiliano Fuksas
7th International Architecture Exhbition
Less Aesthetics, More Ethics
June 18 - October 29, 2000

Deyan Sudjic
8th International Architecture Exhbition
September 8 - November 3, 2002

Kurt W. Foster
9th International Architecture Exhbition
September 12 - November 7, 2004

Richard Burdett
10th International Architecture Exhbition
Cities: Architecture and Society
September 12 - November 7, 2006

Aaron Betsky
11th International Architecture Exhbition
Out There: Architecture Beyond Building
September 14 - November 23, 2008

Kazuyo Sejima
12th International Architecture Exhibition
People Meet in Architecture
August 29 - November 22, 2010