header image

Exploring Common Ground

The Russian Pavilion, at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, harnessed curiosity to transform a large collection of ordinary archival photographs into something magical.

It’s next time again.

Your work requires you to interact with others. Everyone negotiates in their work in one way or another. What works for you? What secrets have you learned that help you get your ideas across? How do you listen, react and then move forward, especially if you and your colleagues do not see eye to eye? How has your success benefited from your ability to negotiate? Can an architect’s process be of any practical use to the rest of us?

There are many parallels between the careers of architects and filmmakers. Both typically require someone else to fund their projects, both ping pong back and forth between periods of intense solitary concentration and then periods of energetic collaboration, both move from project to project often balancing the demands of several simultaneous engagements, both have the challenges of trying to execute a creative vision that sometimes only they themselves can see. There are also similarities of process. Both often work on long term projects, both have similar phases of “production” and both of their processes require creativity and creative collaboration throughout the lifetime of an evolving final product. It is this concept of creative collaboration that has been on my mind the past several months and part of the reason is the work and approach of architect, David Chipperfield.

The head of Nefertiti has a new home inside Chipperfield’s renovated Neues Museum in Berlin. The twelve year project is a triumph of diplomacy. Photo Copyright © 2012, Candida Höfer, Neues Museum Berlin IX 2009, 180 x 138 cm – 71 x 54.5 in., C-print, gerahmt – framed, courtesy of Johnen Galerie, Berlin.

David Chipperfield recently completed a twelve year project in Berlin. His Neues Museum, is perhaps best known as the new home of a single breathtaking object – the head of Nefertiti. This world famous artifact is sort of a “must see” in Berlin, and has been for many years. On a recent trip to Berlin, we ran in to see her, proudly ensconced in her elegant new room, and what everyone says is completely true. “One of the most admired, and most copied, images from ancient Egypt, and the star exhibit used to market Berlin’s museums.” What is equally true is that her new showplace is one of the most fascinating and effective museum projects in the world. Candida Höfer took evocative fine art photographs of the renovation. See her project shown last Spring at Johnen Galerie in Berlin.

Chipperfield had a (literally) monumental task in Berlin. Many Germans enjoy the virtues of being strong-minded and demanding. I can’t imagine the bureaucratic obstacles he had to climb. But he is incredibly articulate and insightful when it comes to describing one of the hidden aspects of his success with the Neues Museum. This was a project that he had been working on for fully half of his 25 years as an architect. The secret of his success? In a word, he credits, “diplomacy.”

There is a team of people from our office who worked on this for ten years–they were present throughout and got incredible experience, … but especially in the political, the idea of collaboration, not as a process of compromise, but as something fundamental to the realization of ideas. The Neues Museum could not have been realized without first of all making the atmosphere in which we could conduct the conversations. There was a sort of diplomacy that was part of this, but not diplomacy in a decorative way, but diplomacy in terms of how you explain ideas to people and how you hold on to those ideas but, at the same time, how you take on board other opinions, and how you include different aspects. So I think that was our achievement more than anything else.”

Wow! I think this should become an entire course-long semester offered to every architecture school in the country.

Every two years, the world’s best architects come to Venice to showcase their latest projects. This year the theme was particularly fascinating.

Chipperfield was also the curator of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. These shows have been getting better and better and this year, in no small measure because of Mr. Chipperfield’s contributions, it was the best I’ve ever seen. Walking through the Arsenale, the gigantic shipbuilding warehouses in Venice that are the home to part of both the Art and the Architecture Biennales, I was struck by the heavy burden Architecture exhibits must support in such a venue. Architectural projects are really complicated. They don’t lend themselves to the six second rule, (this being the average amount of time most visitors spend in front of an artwork in a museum). Before getting to some of the highlights of this year’s Architecture Biennale, Chipperfield’s fascinating theme of “Common Ground” deserves a closer look.

My process as a filmmaker has greatly improved because of my association with architects. At the beginning of my career, one architect explained that just as his clients did not really understand, and did not really care all that much about how he designed their buildings, most of my clients do not care about how I made the films they commissioned. Clients want to know how they fit in. So, he suggested I make a chart defining my process that highlighted the important intersections with my clients.

Another architect pointed out rich patrons can sometimes be a challenge but often their projects have a better chance of being truly great. He felt it was much more difficult to get good ideas through a committee. He said committees, by design, usually embrace the status quo.

I’ve written about Frank Gehry’s impact upon my process on the Vision section of my website, but that only scratches the surface of the countless things I have had the privilege to learn from him over the years. Another major insight he instilled in me is his enthusiastic enjoyment of the process itself. Easy to do when the project is going great. Tough to remember when you are slogging through the obstacles. When you are building something, it is easy to only focus upon the finished work and ignore the enjoyment of the present task at hand. If you are only living for the final ribbon cutting, you are missing most of your life. What is needed is passion throughout. I also felt this same charming attribute in Chipperfield’s writings and I believe this exuberance shows in their finished buildings.

David Chipperfield and his recently renovated Neues Museum, in Berlin. The trials and tribulations of this project gave him new strategies to “get things done” that are valuable to the rest of us.

Chipperfield adds a new twist to the crucial impact of positive architect/client collaboration. Could the tools of the diplomat; mutual respect, deathless charm, tact, optimism, etc. be employed to build better buildings (or make better movies)? “Architecture doesn’t just happen, it is a coincidence of forces, a conspiracy of requirements, expectations, regulations and, hopefully, visions. It requires collaboration and its success is subject to the quality of that collaboration … If we accept this then we must also accept that good architecture is not just dependent on genius nor can it only be achieved only through confrontation and despite circumstances. Individual talent and creativity depend on and contribute to a rich and complex culture of shared affinities, references and predicaments that give validity to and meaning, not only to architecture but to its place in society.”

Such was his vision for the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture. As I walked from exhibit to exhibit I searched for the theme of “Common Ground” and often it was there. This theme is complex, rich and fascinating. There is much more here than “diplomacy.” Here are a few of the projects with particularly interesting ideas.

Peter Markli, a Swiss architect, created this room with Steve Roth. Elegant, elongated, ectomorphic statues blend perfectly with the giant columns in the Arsenale. One of these statues was actually a Giacommetti (but I am not sure which one).  

Peter Markli’s elegant room felt like a gallery of sophisticated sculpture (probably because it was). The sculptor, Hans Josephsohn had just died. He was 92. I subsequently read that one of these sculptures was a Giocometti. What impressed me most was the lighting. The light fixtures were up high out of your line of sight. They were aimed at the old brick walls and dimmed up and down to change the mood as you looked at the figures and thought about how the human form and the columns connected to each other. The relationship of the human form to building design is one of the very first principles of architecture. Vitruvius was perhaps the first to discuss this in his essays about proportion. He felt architectural symmetry and proportion should be consonant with the proportions of a well shaped man. In this case, the form had become elongated, elegant and ectomorphic. With the moody lighting it was if the human body had slowly petrified, dissolving into brick columns that had been in this room since the fifteenth century; Common Ground indeed.

The Architectural firm, FAT, called their truly stunning exhibition an, “Architectural Dopplegängers Research Cluster.” The project was organized by Ines Weizman and provides maybe the most unselfconscious, fun and articulate riff on the theme of Common Ground.

For whatever reason, copying is usually considered to be a bad thing for an architect or an artist. It was refreshing to find copying glorified in a very imaginative exhibit by the folks at FAT, who are based in Britain. They have a beguiling sense of humor and they make their case in a very no nonsense, almost blasé manner. “To FAT, the rhetoric of architectural influence and affinity might be reduced to an apparently banal concept: copying. Instead FAT’s installation reveals copying to be a rich terrain The centrepiece of their exhibition is a large-scale cast of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, a building from the Veneto that could claim to be the most copied building in architectural history, spawning homages and rip-offs across the globe. FAT’s Museum of Copying also recognizes that copying threatens the mythology of recent architectural production, based on ideas of an author’s originality and individual genius. FAT and their collaborators are relaxed about copying: the sources are out there to plunder, and architecture has always done so in the most direct ways.”

Film has its common ground just like Architecture. The Spaghetti Western is the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained.

How does all this apply to making movies? The connections are uncanny. In a recent interview Quentin Tarantino described how he learned a very important cinematic lesson from the Spaghetti Western. Tarantino’s sound tracks are always a knockout. He uses music like a character in the story and he does it brilliantly. Fascinating to hear where he learned how to do this. “Let me just say this just for the record: You can’t really do a Spaghetti Western anymore. Spaghetti Westerns were a thing of their time. But one of the big influences that Spaghetti Westerns have had over me cinematically is how they used music and how they bring it to the forefront. There is a part of me that likes to go in from time to time for those big operatic effects. It’s like we’re telling the story and setting everything up, and then there’s the equivalent of what in a musical would be a big dance number or a big musical sequence. I think I did learn that from Italian movies.” I just love this insight and I use it in my own work. I did not pick this up, however, from the Spaghetti Western. I learned it from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

The Zaha Hadid section of the Architecture Biennale is always a visual treat. By suspending her models in the space you not only felt as though you were looking at gorgeous spaceships but you also were more able to imagine yourself in front of her buildings.

Zaha Hadid’s firm always makes a powerful statement at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. This year, developmental models based on the work of German architect, Frei Otto, helped to explain a few of the inspirations for her fluid structural forms.

Zaha Hadid’s installation had particular resonance for me because of the climatic sequence in a documentary TELOS did about Frank Gehry. In this sequence, Gehry explained how he made computer models of the folds of waxed red velvet fabric to create one of his most arresting designs. He was not, and is not alone in this investigation. Frei Otto, (who did a beautiful roof structure for a major pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo and the roof of the Munich Olympic arena in 1972), uses interconnected triangles to create flowing forms much like the rounded (Geodesic) domes of Buckminster Fuller.  Hadid’s firm explains, “In our installation and exhibition at the Biennale we want to show that – apart from the dialogue with the work of contemporary competitors that existed all along – our recent work connects to a rather different historical strand of research. The more our design research and work evolved on the basis of algorithmic form generation, the more we learned to appreciate the work of pioneers like Frei Otto who had achieved the most elegant designs on the basis of material-structural form-finding processes. From Frei Otto we learned how the richness, organic coherence and fluidity of the forms and spaces we desire could emerge rationally from an intricate balance of forces. We expanded Frei Otto’s method to include environmental as well as structural logics, and we moved from material to computational simulations.” Chipperfield’s theme gave refreshing license for architects to quote each others inspirations.

Toshiko Mori’s exhibit was full of Architectural quotations from the masters. 

Toshiko Mori gave you insight into details most people never truly see. For lovers of architectural details this homage to the masters was a delight.

The creation of architectural space has a boundary. Every architect wrestles with the issue of how you get from the outside to the inside. Toshiko Mori decided to focus on this intersection in a celebration of architectural details that most of us overlook. These window details are as iconic and memorable for architects as Kubrick’s use of Richard Strauss in 2001, is for filmmakers.  “We have framed each detail as a totem – an object carrying an abstract spirit of its own, an animistic character that echoes the personality and signature of an architect. By isolating details and presenting them at half scale, one starts to inhabit this menageries of architectural ideas as one detail starts to speak to another; they echo each others history, precedents and references.”

The Chinese Pavilion is in a building at the Arsenele that was used to store diesel fuel for giant ships. The oil smell is gone but the gigantic rusting tanks remain. China uses this space for both the Art and the Architecture Biennales and what they do in it is made all the more visually arresting because of the dramatic character of the space itself. 

This year, in the China Pavilion, Shao Weiping created a “glow worm” of floating acrylic resin panels with interesting computer circuitry visible on the surface. LED lights embedded in the top of the discs gave this floating spine a mysteriously changing glow. 

Rendering of interior atrium of the Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing. Image courtesy of BIAD_UFo

The China exhibition continued on the theme of how a repeated form can create a new structure. Instead of intersecting triangles, this time the “seed form” is a naturalistic looking ovoid disc that reminded me of the thin leaves of a Lunaria Money Plant. By stacking these discs, or suspending them in space, new forms are created from the repeated pattern. The “Mobius Strip” inspired Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing is one of the building forms that can be created from such repetition. Five artists and architects were represented in the China Pavilion and their curator, Fang Zhenning, found expressive common ground between them all.

One room in the main pavilion of the Biennale was devoted to architectural models by students from all over the world. The title: 40,000 Hours. 

Young architects are a major audience for the entire exhibition. This impressive display of their work is a tribute to their tenacity. 

One of the problems with a show on Architecture is you really do not have enough time or the attention span to properly explore each exhibit. This was never more true than in the overwhelming 40,000 Hours room of architectural models from students. These models were cherry-picked from all over the world. Each of them is a time vampire of love and attention. The quality of the work was impressive. Each model was a little jewel and yet you did not have the energy to appreciate them one by one. They became a collective statement of effort. “This collection of models built by students from architecture schools across the world is both a tribute to their work and a depiction of the extraordinary labour undertaken in those institutions. The title of the room is a rough guess at the amount of hours taken to produce the models and the presentation is intended to evoke a natural resource, a groundswell of imaginative proposition by young architects. The presentation of the models is deliberately anonymous: each one is made of the same material and is about the same size. And while every model was built by an individual student the intention is to foreground the power and potential of the collective effort.”

The Piranesi Variations provided Common Ground for three prestigious architectural groups to explore. Each of them presented their own re-visioning of Piranesi’s plan (done in 1762) for Campo Marzo in Rome. the participants included: Eisenman Architects, students from Yale University, Jeffrey Kipnis with his colleagues and students of the Ohio State University, and Belgian architecture practice, Dogma.

This is a famous and recognizable detail from Piranesi’s etching. It became one clue to orient yourself as you looked at the complicated and imaginative variations.

The detail shown above comes alive in 3D as it turns into a animalistic head with an arching neck in The Field of Dreams. Soda straws create a cloud effect around another one of the building forms.

Common Ground was never better expressed than in a fascinating four part exhibit based on the Campo Marzo etchings of Piranesi. Jeffery Kipnis, the Architectural Theoretician, with whom we collaborated on the documentary, A Constructive Madness (about the creative process of Frank Gehry) was one of the prestigious faculty who created this visionary capriccio.  The tongue in cheek title (one of Jeffery’s trademarks) says it all: A Field of Dreams. IV: Variation: A Field of Dreams, Wherein the Erotics – the Passions, Perversions, and Spectacles of Ancient Rome – so Perfectly Frozen by Piranesi’s Etchings are Reanimated as a Morality Play for Contempoary Architecture. (Dedicated to Le Corbusier and John Hejduk)

An interactive garden brought high quality and soothing music into the landscape. A very literal and innovative interpretation of Common Ground.

Round speakers, disguised as garden statuary, dotted the landscape in this interactive musical garden. The railing is part of the sophisticated sensor apparatus that modulated the performance.

A very popular and fun exhibit combined landscape design with modern and very well-done music. This acoustic garden was interactive. Special sensors examined not only the number of people in the vicinity but also the weather. The composition was modified to take into account all these factors. In lesser hands this would have felt gimmicky. Instead, it was refreshing and joyful. It was impossible not to smile as you walked over the grassy mounds and, like a great soundtrack, the experience was perfectly blended.

Graffiti on the Men’s Room wall reminded you of the market pressures facing young architects as they try to find jobs in a depressed economy.

Architects are often in competition with each other. We are used to the large egos and the “star-chitect” nature of the field. Venice itself reminds you of an earlier time when the architect was anonymous and adhered to commonly agreed to principles revered by a profession grounded in the traditions of the guild. Chipperfield’s theme resonated with these ideas but not in an old fashioned way. Had I not seen and enjoyed his success in Berlin, I am not sure I would have appreciated the profundity of his theme. Thanks to his success in Berlin with the Neues Museum, his next project will be a renovation of the iconic and “untouchable” Mies Van der Rohe, Neue Nationalgalerie museum. This project, also in Berlin, was Meis’ last work and was designed in 1968. It now looks shabby and is in dire need of attention. Chipperfield’s techniques of diplomacy work. They have broad and important relevance to many other fields because they establish perhaps the most valuable aspect of a client relationship – trust.

Until next time with much love,


5 Responses to “Exploring Common Ground”

  1. If you are in Cleveland (might be national, too) and want to see 2001 on the big screen, Cinemark Cinema at Valley View is showing it the night of January 9. Not as big a screen as the Cinemascope screen I saw it on when it was released, but that was special even in that era. It would be an interesting way to start off 2013. Happy New Year!

  2. Dear Tommaso– another tour de force! I so love that you only post things when you have had time to consider and decide on a topic, and then amass material to realize it fully. Each time you post here, I feel the greatness of the “finished” product; as it is brought to completion with clarity and harmony. Bravo! I am also very much interested in and grateful for this set of ideas about common ground, and of diplomacy in architecture. The idea of teamwork, and of building coherence into a project as it is brought from the ideal into the real, is at the cutting edge of what a lot of people have been thinking, I believe. Last night, for New Year’s eve, I was at a prayer and meditation service which was both inter-faith and very coherently and beautifully realized, by some very sophisticated and prayerful people. Fr. Cyprian Consiglio is a Benedictine monk from the monastery on Big Sur, and he has been working in interfaith dialogue for 20 years. His musical gifts helped weave the evening into a deeper coherence than would have been possible with different pastors from each tradition speaking in sequence. By playing a song from each tradition (ahh the one from the Indonesian Muslims!) and then calling for meditation time with the bell-bowl, he dropped all these prayerful people into a deep well of resonance. We were sitting together, and celebrating and yearning for the gift of peace in deep respect for each other’s traditions. A native American spoke of letting the new leaders for the new millennia come forth, from the core of our humanity. Just so, I thought about your exhibit of the young architects, and the “40,000 hours” models. I hope for those young architects that they will receive active listening, and willingness and financing to let their work come from the imagination into the real “common ground”. I want to consider the way the GROUND of our being is common. I want to consider how the soil, (and the air, the water, the light, the weather), acts on these works of art, and creates how we occupy space together. I am humbled by how engaged you are in the world, and in the world of ideas— as I was reading about how you use your Kindle, to read more, experience more, get tastes of new books, new ideas. I felt your presence when I was walking in the Gehry metal sculpture in Bilbao– you had helped me “see” it, and “feel” it; as you talked about his sailing, and showed him moving between the sails filled with air, on his boat, in your movie about his work. I am so grateful that you have enlarged my experience with this show in Venice, which I would never have seen, without your blog posting! On New Year’s, I always think of Vienna, and the Musikverein– and Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz. I think in music we got to appreciate the orchestral power, first. But now, it seems that we are getting to appreciate orchestral power in art and architecture. What Chipperfield and you call diplomacy arrives at what I think of as orchestral coherence. Bravo! Thanks!!

  3. BRAVO. I am always inspired by the depth of the concepts you present which allows us to see them with new insight. They seem always important, really simple and “classic” in the framework of our chaotic world. I like that!

  4. Dear Tom,
    I also wanted to say that I would like to stand under those skirt-like roofs of Hadid’s– they remind me of women standing over the subway vents in NY– when the trains would rush by underneath, the skirts would blow up around their legs. There is a famous Marilyn Monroe shot on one of them. It is amazing that geometric calculations of space can cause such fluid designs!

  5. What a nice way to start the new year with your inspirational blog about architecture..! Thank you for walking us into these very compelling works, with the beautiful photographs..By the way, congratulatuons on the two Emmys won of the TELOS programs out of the three nominations for 2012!
    We live two blocks away from the art museum (LACMA)in Los Angeles…I’ll be happy to take you next time you’re here…they have added a new buiding and more art installations that I believe you’d like.
    Wishing you all the best for this year, and thank you for posting such exciting subjects..!