by David Chipperfield
The emphasis of the 2012 Biennale is on what we have in common. Above all, the ambition of Common Ground is to reassert the existence of an architectural culture, made up not just of singular talents but a rich continuity of diverse ideas united in a common history, common ambitions, common predicaments and ideals.
In architecture everything begins with the ground. It is our physical datum, where we make the first mark, digging the foundations that will support our shelter. On the ground we draw the line that defines the boundary of what is enclosed and what is common. Today our relationship to the ground is no longer so direct, but it remains critical to our understanding of our place and where we stand.
The physical process of enclosure not only protects but also defines inside from outside, private from public, the individual from the community. As the world seems to increasingly indulge the aspirations of the individual, we seem to find the idea of community, the civic, the public, the common, more difficult to define.
We still long for the things in a city that suggest collective identity: great institutions, a downtown, piazzas and places of public theatre. Our cities can be interpreted as the physical form of a dynamic struggle between the individual and the collective. The radical visions proposed and realised by the modern movement never replaced the conventional images we use to represent our idea of public and private: the street, the square, the arcade, the boulevard.
Our contemporary, ambiguous public realm of consumption, travel and leisure, is shaped by criteria that tend to contradict the impossible but irresistible idea of a formally expressed, meaningful societal order.
The territory of architecture has been reduced in many cases to conforming to regulations, maximising size and density on a given site, and achieving some vague sense of compatibility with the context.
Against this background we try to maintain ideas about the public realm, but they manifest themselves most frequently in choreographed retail opportunities for office workers or leisure shoppers. In this inevitable and never ending struggle to give identity to spaces that conform to ever more subtle shades of grey between private and public, the tools and words we use can seem crude and ungainly.
Common ground (as opposed to public space) infers a territory that is shared within a context of difference. The theme identifies the search for the shared within the apparently diverse, and helps us to imagine strategies to deal with our common predicament and our strangely persistent need to feel part of a world bigger than the one required for our individual comfort.
Common Ground of course also refers to the ideas that we share about architecture, within and beyond our own professional boundaries. The title invites us to consider how these shared perceptions, concerns and expectations may be better directed.
Architecture requires collaboration. It is difficult to think of a peaceful activity that draws upon so many diverse contributions and expectations. It involves commercial forces and social vision, and it must deal with the wishes of institutions and corporations and the needs and desires of individuals. Whether we articulate it or not, every major construction is an amazing testament to man’s ability to join forces and make something on behalf of others. The fact that this effort is so often regarded as negative rather than amazing is a communication failure on our part.
The role of the architect is at best one of critical compliance. Architects can only operate through the mechanisms that commission them and which regulate their efforts. Our ideas are dependent on and validated by the reaction of society. This relationship is not only practical but concerns the very meaning of our work. In the increasingly complex confrontation between the commercial motivations of development and our persistent desire for a humane environment there seems to be little dialogue. If architecture is to be more than the privileged, exceptional moments of our built world, we must find a more engaged collaboration of talents and resources.
Good architecture gives examples and inspires us. It doesn't happen naturally: it requires a conspiracy of circumstances and participants. While architects can provide ideas, the relevance and importance of these ideas depends on an engagement with society. The tendency to define the role of the architect as either an antagonist or a service provider only reinforces the problem and sabotages the potential of architecture itself.
Architecture has always been an act of resistance, resistance to the elements and the forces of chaos. Architecture offers refuge and can create a world within a world, giving order and meaning through the significance of its efforts. Surely it is the commonality of these efforts that rewards us all?
Within the context of the Architecture Biennale, ‘Common Ground’ evokes the image not only of shared space and shared ideas but of a rich ground of history, experience, image and language. Layers of explicit and subliminal material form our memories and shape our judgements. While we struggle to orient ourselves in a continuously changing world, what we are familiar with is an inevitable part of our ability to understand our place. It is critical that our expectations and our history don’t become a justification for sentimentality or resistance to progress. We must therefore articulate better our evaluations and prejudices if we are not to regard what has come before as something to escape and if we are to give value to a cumulative and evolving architectural culture rather than a random flow of meaningless images and forms.
The theme of ‘Common Ground’ allows us to engage with these themes, provoking us to think about the physical expression of our collective aspirations and ideas of society. It reminds us of our shared history and encourages us to think about the collaborative nature of architecture and the extraordinary potential of its collective process.
I am grateful to the participants who have so eagerly engaged in this demonstration of the shared, the common and taken time to engage in dialogue and present their ideas.