Breaking New, Common Ground at the Venice Architecture Biennale

Breaking New, Common Ground at the Venice Architecture Biennale

Designed by San Francisco art and design studio Rebar, Bubbleware modules can be reconfigured and adapted for all kinds of collaborations on a city street. Credit: Rebar

The deepening economic crisis is forcing architects, at least in the Western world, to re-examine fundamental issues such as what to build (if at all), where and for whom. Under the curatorship of English architect David Chipperfield, the theme of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice is “common ground.”

“Never before has the Biennale had such a strong social thrust; never before was it such a mea culpa on the part of the profession. All good architects sincerely believe they are contributing to society,” said Chipperfield at the opening press conference. “But society is mistrustful. It sees them as self-promoting, autobiographical animals.”

Architect Lord Norman Foster’s spectacular installation in the Arsenale, the thematic section of the biennale, is all about people; the buildings are the décor for a shared experience. At a heart-stopping pace, images flash around the four walls, images of people sharing experiences that range from the ecstatic to the traumatic: A pilgrimage, a goal in the stadium, a charge by the riot police. Meanwhile the names of hundreds of architects from all ages and places — from Roman Baroque builder Borromini to America’s postwar skyscraper designer Gordon Bunshaft, from Harvard’s Josep Lluís Sert to visionary Buckminster Fuller — swirl in a white-on-black graphic projection under our feet.

“Impatient capital is running the world and architecture has become a slave to it,” remarked urbanist Rahul Mehotra of Harvard’s GSD in a panel discussion. At the moment there is not much capital around, impatient or otherwise. The Biennale shows how in many places ordinary citizens are now bypassing professional architects and planners and are taking the lead in shaping their own environment.

Paradoxically, as the quantity of the production goes down, the quality of the presentation goes up. Sleep-inducing models and axionometrics have made way for moving images, soundscapes, sculptures and social media. The American pavilion, with a show entitled “Spontaneous Interventions:Design Actions for the Common Good” and themed to highlight DIY attempts to solve urban problems and create amenities for the public, is particularly successful in this respect. The work paid off — the innovative dabble into tactical urbanism was rewarded by a special mention from the Biennale’s international jury.

Designers Carey Clouse and Zachary Lamb, collectively known as Crookedworks, made mobile urban chicken coops out of supermarket carts. Credit: Crookedworks

The designers of the exhibition relied on similarly clever strategies — Freecell’s banners, M-A-D’s timelines and Interboro’s outdoor mini-auditorium — to make the 124 (!) projects attractive and accessible. Why so many? I asked David van der Leer, who together with Cathy Lang Ho and Ned Cramer co-curated the pavilion. “We want to show that this is a movement”, he said.

And a movement it is. All 124 are examples of ‘micro-urbanism’ — Aurash Khawarzad’s chair bombing, Evan Gant and Alex Tee’s DIY bikelanes that project as a light that travels with you as you bike on a dark street, Carey Clouse and Zachary Lamb’s supermarket cart chicken coops, Dorothée Imbert’s and Paula Meijerink’s small gardens on paved parking lots — heartening things that anyone can do if you band together and get your hands dirty.

As with any form of backlash, there is a danger that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater. Daniel Burnham, designer of the grand Plan for Chicago in 1909, is famous for his injunction, “Make no small plans.” Is there, among the urban beehives and the guerrilla bike lanes, still room for big thoughts and ambitious world-changing ideas?

There is. And there is room for beauty and for poetry, too. Alvaro Siza wraps a space of red walls around three trees in the Giardini. The Polish pavilion shows how to make do with what is already there by creating a sound installation in the bare gray interior of its pavilion. And the Dutch have hung a moving curtain by Petra Blaisse in their pavilion — no answer to the tough economic and financial choices of the moment, but an ephemeral reflection on the experience of space. As if to say: Let’s not forget that this, too, is what architecture is about.

Tracy Metz ( is an American-born journalist and critic based in Amsterdam. She writes for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and is an international correspondent for Architectural Record. She was a Loeb Fellow ’07 at Harvard’s GSD.

Tags: economic developmentarchitecturetactical urbanismvenice

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