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Venice Biennale: First Impressions

Aric Chen digs through the multiple layers of David Chipperfield's Common Ground exhibition in our first post from Venice

By Aric Chen
August 27, 2012
Photo © Li Di
Anupama Kundoo's Feel the Ground. Wall House: One to One at the Arsenale

Despite beginning and ending with gusts of rain, yesterday’s first day of previews at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale mostly cast a sweltering sun over Common Ground, the main exhibition at the Arsenale. At first reckoning, the theme, chosen by exhibition director and UK architect David Chipperfield, doesn’t sound all that different from Kazuyo Seijima’s intriguingly prosaic People Meet in Architecture from 2010. But while Seijima’s Biennale will be best remembered for its immersive installations by Olafur Eliasson, Antón García-Abril and others, Common Ground places objects, documentation, and imagery at the center of architecture’s buzzing hive of current preoccupations.

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There are lots of artifacts, both found and otherwise: an abstracted kiosk among stacks of newspapers and paper cups (by Case Study Vogt and ETH Zürich), doodads bought in London shops (Haworth Tompkins) and knickknacks from a religious pilgrimage in Mexico (master planned by Tatiana Bilbao, Derek Dellekamp, and Rozana Montiel). The overriding sense is that of an archaeology of memory, whether collective or fragmented, and devoid of singular narratives. Indeed, FAT’s Museum of Copying, Farshid Moussavi’s Architecture and Affects, Valerio Olgiati’s Pictographs, and Hans Kolhoff’s Tektonik all seem to be sticking their shovels in an excavation of (mostly Western) architectural references, all the while churning the strata to mix it up. Sometimes it works, though other times it verges on stodginess.

Meanwhile, the perennial question of how to exhibit architecture appears to reach its natural conclusion; there are a number of full-scale, 1:1 models, of houses in Detroit (Schaum/Shieh and four Michigan firms) and India (Anupama Kundoo). And the spirit of the Occupy movement seeps in with projects like Norman Foster’s projections of protests and riots, and Torre David/Gran Horizonte (Urban-Think Tank, Justin McGuirk), a temporary, arepa-serving restaurant standing in for an unfinished office tower in Caracas that’s now home to a community of squatters.

But while Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher’s studies of tensile and thin-shell structures are eye-catching and impressive, it's the starchitects who generally fall short, presenting what often feels like little more than advertisements for their latest projects. At the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, where Common Ground continues, one has to look as far back as Breuer and Wright (Toshiko Mori’s Dialogue in Details), and even Piranesi (Peter Eisenman, Jeffrey Kipnis and Dogma’s The Piranesi Variations), for any real inter-generational dialogue.

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