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Chipperfield’s quest for Common Ground at the Biennale is admirable; the British Council’s, perverse

Paul Finch’s letter from London: When Berlusconi thought he had hired Norman Foster…

The first of Jonathan Meades’ three-part series On France, broadcast on BBC4 last week, was a reminder of just how brilliant a cultural commentator he is, at the very top of his game, deploying devastating wit in almost surreptitious asides, and as ever larding his narrative with architectural example and allusion. Impossible to categorise, I can only recommend you get access to the programme if you missed it. Programmes like this make the licence fee look trifling.

As might be expected, Meades took a couple of sideswipes at ‘Modernism’, (in a broadcast you never know if the ‘m’ is capitalised). But in its defence he noted the way that its universal nature was/is something we should admire for being an alternative to frozen architectural styles that reinforce notions of identity based on race, region, religion or nation. Modernism represents that which makes us individuals as opposed to groups, and an environment we can respond to in our individual ways.

By coincidence, the theme for David Chipperfield’s Venice Biennale was announced in the same week. Common Ground is a truly powerful starting point for an event that is universal but, given the many national pavilions in the Giardini and outside it, is inevitably about difference too. That tension will provide, I am sure, an inspirational event – perhaps the best for a decade.

The Italian government must be congratulated for staying serious after some nonsense from Silvio Berlusconi about who was going to be in charge. Berlusconi, I am told, was baffled when the distinguished academic Kurt Forster curated the Biennale in 2004. The comic-opera president was under the impression he had given his approval to Norman Foster…

Reflecting on what architects and architecture have in common, as opposed to what divides them, will provide an opportunity to examine architectural culture and explore the qualitative as a social good, rather than the precursor of satisfactory ‘return on investment’ statistics. Chipperfield set out his position on this with a short but impassioned speech when he received the Gold Medal two years ago, and much of his own work has included propositions about the nature of architecture and architectural history.

To what extent are those issues relevant to the entire spectrum of architectural production? Is there really a common language for architects of different regions, countries, races or religions? On the basis of our experience with the World Architecture Festival (now in its fifth year) I am sure the answer is yes, but to have the proposition made the basis for the Biennale will produce a marvellous testing ground.

Given that national pavilions are invited to reflect on the curator’s theme and use it as a mainspring for their own offering, the British Council’s response seems extraordinarily perverse. Far from celebrating commonality and its potential benefits, the British pavilion will be filled with examples of how people overseas do certain things so much better than us. It will be another ‘Britain is useless’ moan, rather like the damp squib on housing in 2008. It doesn’t have the wit and engagement that characterised Muf’s pavilion design in 2010. Given the unbelievably mean budget, perhaps the British Council could have explored the theme of ‘getting something for nothing’ that has certainly taken hold in British architecture in recent years.

Thinking about it, the idea for the British pavilion is so weird that it may turn out to be interesting, though I am not holding my breath. Happily, the great thing about Venice is that there are always plenty of really good national pavilions – and of course the main curated spaces, which look certain to be showstoppers thanks to the intelligent choice of theme. I hope Jonathan Meades is invited to give a lecture to mark the opening.

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