Architecture and Politics at the Biennale

September 12, 2012

Michael Kimmelman has written one of the most perceptive reviews of a recent architectural exhibition I have read–see this Sunday’s New York Times. His negative assessment of the current Venice Biennale for architecture is exactly on target. To wit, anyone who really cares about the quality and beauty of our built environment will find very little of interest in this, the most prestigious and venerable of all world architecture forums. Why should this be the case?

Architecture is about the public realm. Public architecture is always a reflection of current political forces. We live in a world in which political change is desperately needed, but such change is nowhere to be seen. Entrenched financial elites control the economy and governments around the globe. Nothing is done or built without their assent or support.

The architectural profession, long associated with revolutionary, avant garde movements, is beholden as never before to these power elites, especially as cultural capital is purchased by the highest bidders in the form of Starchitect designs, academic studies, urban development schemes, and public art. The leaders in our profession have bought into this cultural consumption pattern and little is being done to change the situation, even as the profession withers under a punishing recession.

As Kimmelman points out in his essay, architecture without “Architects” is where real innovation and promise lies. He talks about exhibits that were assembled to feature vernacular design, outlier architects, designers without professional credentials, even squatters in Venezuela. The powerful leaders in the “design professions,” such as the Biennale’s director, David Chipperfield of London, make token gestures toward the coming upheaval in his profession, but are afraid to let the cat out of the bag.

And so the public, looking for signs of creativity and change at the Venice exhibition, sees only tired, hypocritical repackaging of old designs (a Herzog and de Meuron building not yet built) and weak-minded media collages that make obvious statements about our chaotic world, but offer nothing substantive as a remedy. It is sad that architects, who once promised to save society through visionary designs for cities and institutions, can’t even engage the realm of pubic architecture, let alone influence the politics of development around the globe.

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