Was the Biennale Very Political? Or Not Political Enough?

The Torre de David Café by Urban Think Tank + Justin McGuirk + Iwan Baan. According to Kimmelman, the Biennale’s “coup de théâtre.” According to us, a flawed and yet important exhibit. © Nico Saieh

Yesterday, Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for The New York Timesunleashed his anticipated take on this year’s Biennale. Usually, we find ourselves almost perfectly aligned with Kimmelman’s socially-oriented perspective (in fact, we lauded his approach in “The Architect Critic is Dead“); this time, however, we found ourselves almost entirely at his opposite.

In our Editorial, “The Most Political Biennale Yet,” we contend that “Common Ground” represented a stepping stone in the Biennale’s evolution: it revealed an unprecedented engagement with reality and reflected, for the first time in any substantial way, architecture’s movement away from “starchitecture” and towards urbanist solutions. Was it perfect? No. But it was engaged.

However, Kimmelman’s take suggests that all that progress simply wasn’t enough. In fact, the exhibits we cite as evidence of the Biennale’s progress, Kimmelman cites as exceptions in a festival still overly obsessed with architecture’s big names.

What do you think? Was this Biennale very political, or not political enough? Was Kimmelman too harsh? Were we too forgiving? Or are we both off-base? Read on for a few select quotes from our Op-Eds, and give us your opinion in the comments below.

Ateliermob’s work in the PRODAC neighborhood. Kimmelman considered their exhibit “a gem in the rubble.” © ateliermob

KIMMELMAN: With a sea change (partly generational, mostly philosophical) overtaking architecture, and attention turning from glamorous buildings and celebrated designers to broader issues like urbanism, public space, social responsibility and collaboration, “Common Ground” is well intended but, alas, a missed opportunity.”

ARCHDAILY: I would argue that this year’s politicized exhibits and forums were a vital step in the Biennale’s evolution and reflected a sea-change happening in architecture itself [...] after years of architectural self-indulgence, the Biennale began to touch ground, to concede our altered reality, and incorporate (to use Prix’s words) “lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture.”

KIMMELMAN: the urbanist gloss notwithstanding, the show mostly just glides over issues like public housing and health (there’s a paper-thin section on social housing), the environment, informal settlements, economic decline and protest. It pays almost no attention to the developing world, to designers from Africa or China, and precious little to female architects, aside from Zaha Hadid, who, like Peter Zumthor, Renzo Piano, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi and a surprising number of the old boldface names, hogs much of the spotlight.

ARCHDAILY: Chipperfield’s Biennale encouraged collaboration and aimed to disassemble the “starchitecture” culture of Biennales past; to shift focus from the individual architect to the architecture itself. And it was a more socially-oriented, public architecture at that – as the theme “Common Ground,” referring not only to philosophical “common ground” but also to physical “common ground,” led to an exploration of the public spaces we all share. Exhibit after exhibit addressed architecture’s (oft-forgotten) purpose: to account for the needs of the human inhabitant.

A Model of the Japanese Pavilion, curated by Toyo Ito. We found this pavilion to best address the issues of architecture today. Kimmelman favored the Torre de David Cafe and the US Pavilion on Urban Interventions. © Patricia Parinejad.

KIMMELMAN: The exhibition still positions architects as producers of surplus value through aesthetic quality, less so as players at the decision-making table, organizing cities and communities.

ARCHDAILY:the majority [of exhibits] displayed an optimism tempered with realism, admitting both an awareness of our economic reality as well as the architect’s potential role as facilitator, an expert who can use his/her knowledge to aid a community.

KIMMELMAN: That many of the projects here skirt authority and don’t involve architects suggests not that architects aren’t important or that cities don’t depend on top-down plans. It suggests that cities and architects still have a ways to go to catch up with an increasingly restless public’s appetite for better design and better living.

ARCHDAILY: [This] is exactly what this year’s Venice Biennale was – and should be. Not just a display of architectural ingenuity but a “fresh look, from the [common] ground up, at what architecture really is.” Even if was at times reductive or idealistic, the Biennale grappled with our political reality, reflected our cautious optimism, and put forth the question of our decade: what purpose do we serve?

Story via The New York Times

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Was the Biennale Very Political? Or Not Political Enough?" 12 Sep 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=272632>

2 comments

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    Kimmelman is talking about the exhibition curated by Chipperfield which does not include the national pavilions, that are in fact much more political than usual. You are both right. :)

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