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Venice 2012: chaotic, intense and pluralistic

The existential questions facing the profession are all in here somewhere, writes Christine Murray

It is a pleasure to write this from Venice, a place more surreal than the Invisible City of Italo Calvino’s novel, and all the more beautiful for not being the work of a single master designer, but a series of interventions.

The curation of the Arsenale by David Chipperfield is similarly improvisational and accreted. It has been said that Chipperfield adopted the theme of Common Ground in an attempt to curb the recent tradition of architects using the Biennale as an opportunity for self-promotion, by requesting a specific approach from his invited contributors. If the expectation was that this would result in a more singular show, the exhibition is in fact chaotic, intense and pluralistic. There is a lot to see, and a lot to read, and much of it rewards the effort.

Where Chipperfield has succeeded is in his quest to raise the level of debate in architecture beyond the style wars. It is refreshing to see work from architects not considered part of the Chipperfield school in the mix, such as FAT, Haworth Tompkins, Herzog & de Meuron, Foster and Zaha. What is on display in Venice is not a question of taste, but a series of disparate ideas about architecture, and the making of architecture.

There are more predictable contributors as well, such as Caruso St John, Lynch Architects, Eric Parry, Hans Kollhoff, Alvaro Siza, Thomas Demand, and Märkli, which has drawn criticism from Italians who say the work featured is too narrow in focus and geography (British architects have come out well). This is not helped by the fact that most exhibits are rendered in white or grey, and that a disproportionate number of the participants hail from northern Europe (with a handful of notable exceptions). The monochrome palate makes the raucous and colourful Gran Horizonte restaurant, imported from Caracas and built in the middle of the exhibition by Urban-Think Tank with Justin McGuirk, a welcome respite, along with its accompanying exhibition of inhabited slum high-rise Torre de David.

There is no obvious common ground that emerges as a result of the show. There are, however, shared preoccupations. If you want to know what is keeping architects up at night, it is all here somewhere: nothing to build, and the search for a social purpose for the profession. Taken together, an existential mood permeates Chipperfield’s collection, along with an unhealthy preoccupation with the apocalypse. Ozymandias is writ large in the dystopian visions and architectural failures peppered across the show: Foster’s installation, designed in collaboration with Charles Sandison, begins with global riots and ends with global ruins; models of Herzog & de Meuron’s half-built Elbphilharmonie Hamburg are displayed alongside a film which meanders its vacant corridors; FAT’s exploration of copycat architecture negates the purpose and originality of creation; a Detroit architecture collective reinhabits vacant houses on an empty street – architecture for places without people.

Other displays have an archeological or archival quality – Kollhoff’s elegant archive of models, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s cases of scrawled poems and letters, and Valerio Olgiati’s collected photographs, all displayed inertly under glass. The reality of current British practice is not pictured here; no Shanghai towers, BIM models, house extensions or retrofits. It is a museum for a kind of architectural practice that is dangerously nearing extinction, and is only afforded by a lucky few.

For students especially, a trip to this year’s show is essential. It begs the question: what now for architects?

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