Read the first part of AN's feature on the 2012 Venice Biennale by William Menking, "Seeking Common Ground."
How does the global economic crisis connect with the theme of Common Ground?
I don't think it's in a direct way but I certainly wanted a theme that had some relevance to this moment. It's not a crisis biennale. I don't think an exhibition about architecture is agile enough to make precise statements. Clearly the whole theme of common ground was a provocation to the profession to think harder about what we share intellectually and physically in terms of our inspirations, our concerns, and predicaments. The reason I chose this theme is that there is a societal mood shift right now after a period of excessive growth and emphasis on the individual and on the spectacular.
Asking architects to invite other participants resulted in some gaps, how do you account for the absences?
I wanted to avoid the idea that the biennale is primarily about a list. The list becomes the defining thing. I wanted to escape that, but, of course, you can't. Whoever you invite is going to exclude someone else. The invitation does mean something. Common ground is the fragile moment where people from diverse and opposite positions agree that they share some things. It's very easy to have common ground if you choose everyone from the same drawer. I wanted to choose from different drawers. If you can put Zaha Hadid and postmodernist Hans Kollhoff in the same space and get people comparing their thoughts, that's interesting.
How broad can the definition of architecture become and still be architecture?
This is an exhibition of architecture. It is not sociology or urban politics. I am interested in the physical stuff of architecture. Making architecture in South America is very different than making architecture in Europe but that is not an excuse to act as if they are irrelevant to each other.
The fastest changes in global architecture are happening in places like Africa and China, and yet they do not have a big presence here. Why not?
In the time we had it was very difficult to establish connections in those places. For me, while it is true that architects are completely dependent on the societies they work in, I still wanted to stay close to the materiality of architecture. I needed to use practitioners to talk about that. If I was doing a more researched and academic review of architecture tendencies, it would have been fascinating to see, for instance, how colonial architecture in North Africa influenced another generation. But how many issues can you take on? We did try to deal with an informal approach to architecture through groups like Urban-Think Tank who looked at an office building in Caracas full of squatters. It puts on the table another view of what architecture does. I am working on themes rather than a United Nations approach to individual projects. It's clear this is a Eurocentric exhibition—and so is architecture culture today. Clearly, China is a huge issue. My concern was spreading ourselves too thin.
Rem Koolhaas has complained that architects are too often pitted against each other and that is damaging to the profession.
Obviously that's what the whole show is about. When some of us sit around in bars after some competition, even if we don't like each other's work, after a few whiskeys you find you all have a lot of similar interests. If we can do that there why can't we do it professionally? I have so much respect for the talent of architects that I wanted to create a tent where they could show architecture instead of themselves. The free market has confused architects' ability to confess to shared ideas. That has contributed to the lack of commonality. I wanted to take the pressure off and say you are all great architects, we know that. Don't impress me with computer renderings of your latest tower. Instead, explain to us where your ideas come from, how you do what you do, and how you contribute to our common understanding of architecture culture.
What was preparing the biennale like?
I resented not having enough time to see more people. The pressure of time was stressful. It was a little overrun by logistical issues and conversations were always contaminated by trying to balance budgets and timelines. Asking people to ask people didn't work that well. It worked nicely that I went to 20 architects and that brought in 50 exhibitors, but then we started having to plug in the holes. If you are trying to talk about architecture culture now, you have to dig deeper than just who's hot now. The biennale is not an "Architecture's Got Talent" show.
Many projects invoke the past in ways that suggest postmodernism. Is that intentional?
Yes. Postmodernism hit when I was at the Architectural Association. It produced the worst architecture but it triggered an important shift in how we think about modernism so we owe it a huge debt. The biennale at that time really captured that pivotal moment. That biennale was my model. I also want to identify this moment of change as we reconsider the selfishness of the past 20 years.
What worries you most about architecture today?
I am frightened about architecture that is only about formalism. Architecture has to have meaning, not just novelty. The biggest ambition can't be just to be different. When we only talk about what architecture looks like, its color or what's in the lobby, we are just becoming decorators. We have lost confidence in our ability to really do things. The conversation has become too introverted. How come there is such a disconnect between what architects think they are doing and how they wish to serve society and how they really serve society? All good architects think they are making a contribution to society—Why does society think architects are just a bunch of profiteering egotistical joyriders? We want the same things. That's what common ground is about.