RA Magazine Autumn 2012
Issue Number: 116
The 13th Venice Architecture Biennale
David Chipperfield RA, Director of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, talks to Hugh Pearman about the ideas underpinning this year’s showcase of leading architects
Sir David Chipperfield RA’s studio occupies two floors of a 1960s office tower by Waterloo Station. Stripped right back to the raw concrete structure of the building, these are temporary spaces: the building is going to come down and Chipperfield has designed its replacement. His London office is busy, as are those in Berlin, Milan and Shanghai. Among other things, he is in demand globally. He is in charge of the phased redevelopment master plan of the RA. But at the time we met, one thing was at the forefront of his mind: the Venice Architecture Biennale.
He is the Director of this 13th iteration of the Biennale, which takes turns every other year with its older art equivalent. Famously, directors are given little time to assemble what is always an enormous exhibition, according to a theme of their choosing. In Chipperfield’s case, byzantine Italian politics associated with outgoing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made his run-in period even shorter: he was officially appointed only in January 2012, for a show which opened on 29 August. ‘It’s a race against time,’ Chipperfield reflects, in the thick of the preparation, as we sip coffee in the studio cafe. ‘And we made things a bit more difficult for ourselves by having a prescriptive theme.’
David Chipperfield RA, Director of the 13th Venice Architecture Bienniale, at its headquarters at the San Justinian Palace, Venice.
His theme is ‘Common Ground’, a term he interprets in various ways – among them collaboration, shared ideals and ambitions, the places that architects and builders jointly inhabit. Crucially, this is not just about architects showing off their wares, sending in their latest model. ‘My feeling is that you have to distinguish between a biennale and a trade fair,’ he says. ‘It must be about ideas. I thought this was a moment to try to create a concept, taking an issue that was in the air.’
The Venice Architecture Biennales are always interesting but notoriously variable in quality, and this comes right back to the director. But if you had to back anyone to pull off a coup, it would be Chipperfield. He has the intellectual strength and the necessary doggedness to knock it all into shape. He has the international reputation – not least as last year’s winner of the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture – to bring in the stars. And the moment he was appointed, he signed up a small team of dedicated assistants, including architecture critic Kieran Long, to give him extra fire power. Meanwhile, his office is littered with working models of the various spaces for the exhibition – most notably the splendid lofty sequence of the medieval Arsenale buildings, which have the ability either to glorify or to overwhelm whatever is exhibited there.
Computer generated image of 'Villa Rotunda Redux', 2012 by FAT. Photo Carlo Biasia/Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy of FAT.
After some early frustrations – accompanied by an urgent need for extra funds – Chipperfield was starting to relax a little when we met. Among participants from more than 50 nations, his invited teams of architects were starting to come up with good, sometimes unexpected ideas. Take the 250 recent architecture graduates from Spain, invited by Luis Fernandez-Galiano. Subject to their country’s economic crisis, they will come to Venice throughout the Biennale and hold models of Spanish architecture from the past ten years, explaining them to anyone who asks. ‘Tragic but also beautiful,’ says Chipperfield. ‘They are showing the reality of their architectural predicament.’ Or Anupama Kundoo from India, who is building a complete, self-funded house inside Arsenale. Or British postmodern revivalists FAT, who have created a surreal cutaway model of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. There’ll be a study by OMA, with texts and images, of anonymous state-sponsored architecture. And the boxes that American architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien sent to 18 colleagues, asking them to fill with things they deemed to be important to them. What will be in them? Chipperfield shrugs. It will be as much of a surprise to him as to everyone else.
Chipperfield’s personal tastes – which he defines by naming two great Iberian architects, Rafael Moneo and Alvaro Siza – are something he has tried to sidestep, also inviting architects of a stylistic bent well outside his poetic-modern camp. ‘We’ve asked people to try to talk about something beyond themselves,’ he concludes. ‘It’s important to re-establish what we share.’
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615