The theme for the 13th Venice Biennale as defined by David Chipperfield is Common Ground. Common ground has a wide range of interpretations from the very process of architecture and its language of communication to the operation of architecture as a framework for everyday life. The city of Venice inevitably permeates as another “common ground” and contextual layer of the experience in the Bienniale's installations that will be on view from August 29 to November 25. And of course the pavilions themselves, built mostly within the early modern period of the 20th century, serve as a counterpoint to the definition of our contemporary condition. These three elements—the city, the pavilions, and the installations—combined with an incredible gathering of individuals and dialog make the event a fantastically rich experience.
Several of the pavilions interrogate the specific site of the Biennale itself as a foil to reveal today's common ground. The Nordic Pavilion has invited 30 young Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish architecture firms to respond to the poetic site of the Sverre Fehn–designed pavilion that is now 50 year old under the title “Light Houses.” The Finnish gem of a pavilion designed by Alvar Aalto in 1956 is also site for a group of Finnish architects to exhibit new forms in wood. Aalto's beautiful and experimental pavilion, originally intended as a temporary pavilion to be dismantled and reassembled, has just been reformed in wood following its destruction last year in a storm by a fallen tree after standing for 56 years. The renovation of the Aalto pavilion is one of the most subtle and remarkable works in the biennale, completed by a young Italian architect Gianni Talamini.
This year, many of the curators have chosen to open the playing field to a larger group of contributors to uncover the common grounds in 2012. The U.S. pavilion has condensed 124 projects into the exhibition. Framed under the title “Spontaneous Interventions,” the exhibition explores projects aiming to claim or reclaim part of the urban fabric for common ground experiences: parklets, urban farms, and bike paths. The main space for the pavilion is a simple exterior lounge where ongoing discussion can take place on the subject, including a series of symposiums during the opening.
Many of the installations make use of local elements from the Venice landscape such as park benches commonly used in the Biennale’s park grounds or temporary sidewalk used when the city floods, allowing the city and every environment seep into the installation. The German pavilion explored this topic directly by showing only projects that reuse existing buildings.
The most successful installations are large-scale interventions that directly engage the exhibition spaces where they are installed whether they are in the pavilions or the Arsenale. These installations are immersive and create an atmosphere that engages viewers on a multi-sensory level and create transformative visual and social experiences.
Petra Blaisse's installation brilliantly creates an incredibly beautiful and, in her words, “flexible and relatively cheap” intervention that radically transforms the Dutch pavilion originally designed by Gerrit Rietveld. Using simple fabric, a curtain track, and automated switching to choreograph a series of moving curtains on a 35 minute loop, she has created a seemingly ever-changing space that transforms the atmosphere, acoustics, climate, and social interaction.
The collaborative installation by Venezuelan architects Urban Think Tank, writer Justin McGuirk, and photographer Iwan Baan has created a “stealth architecture” that is so thoroughly integrated into the Arsenale exhibition space that one might at first confuse it for a rest stop within the exhaustive exhibition. Their installation transforms the space into at once a gallery, an authentic Venezuelan restaurant, and active social space, complete with music and a party-like atmosphere for the common ground of discussion on the subject of informal occupation of the formalized space of the city. The case study for discussion is Torre David, a 45-story urban development failure in Caracas that has since been transformed by 750 families into a successful informal settlement. The project provides a new model for transforming the urban environment for an often-neglected percentage of people.
The Brazilian pavilion has intelligently paired an installation by Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan adjacent to a recreation of the 1964 installation “Riposatevi” that was originally created by the planner of Brazilia, Lucio Costa. The Costa installation includes a collection of brightly colored hammocks, guitars, and flags, with Acosta's sharp commentary that "the same people who rest in hammocks can, whenever necessary, build a new capital in three year's time." Kogan’s installation creates an mysterious black monolith that draws you in with the sounds of everyday life, and, upon closer inspection, reveals peepholes showing short films by the architect acted out in one of his beautiful houses that gives us a peak into the fictional domestic secrets of the owners and their staff, revealing the common ground of domestic space.
The Japanese pavilion presents a hybrid of environmental installation made out of cedar logs and in process working models and site studies for housing on the site of the March 2011 Japan tsunami. Toyo Ito has used the framework of the biennale to create a program for providing homes for all those who lost their homes in the tsunami.
In all, the Biennale offers an incredibly diverse and dense display of ideas and responses that aim to provoke us to reconsider the role of the architect and the ways in which we create public life for citizens of the contemporary environment. The 2012 focus on dialog, context, collaboration, architecture without architects, reuse of existing buildings, and guerilla forms of architecture suggests a solid shift away from the old model of Starchitecture towards a new model of collective responsibility in design.