The Question of Common Ground, or; Bernard Tschumi and Guerrilla Tactics

by oskar gudehn

1/4 posters, Bernard Tschumi Architects, Venice Biennale 2012

The Venice Biennale of 2012 addresses the theme of Common Grounds, aiming to bridge differences within the architectural profession as well as between architecture and society.

Such a position is both alluring and dangerous; can we join forces, inter-disciplinarily and across political boundaries, for a common goal or is this naïve post-politic propaganda?

David Chipperfield clearly believes the first to be true. “[…] my Biennale will encourage the collaboration and dialogue that I believe is at the heart of architecture […]. The title ‘Common Ground’ also has a strong connotation of the ground between buildings, the spaces of the city.”

Opposed to Chipperfield stands for example Wolf D. Prix, arguing the Venice Biennale to be “[…]no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells […]”. He goes on to state that “While in Russia artists are stubbornly resisting the authoritarian regime, the current director of the Architecture Biennale considers these characteristics to be obstacles for our profession […]”.

It should also be noted that Common Ground, read through a lens of critical Marxism (as understood through e.g. Slavoj Zizek or Foucault), suggests any co-operation to always be on the terms of the stronger, thus assimilating the collaboration into the hegemony and maintaining the power structure itself.

2/4 posters, Bernard Tschumi Architects, Venice Biennale 2012

With this in mind, how do we frame the question of Common Ground? What do we mean by the term; who is included and excluded; bluntly put, is there even a possibility for Common Ground to exist?

In 1976 and 1977 Bernard Tschumi created a series of architecture advertisement posters. For the Biennale of 2012 “Tschumi has reconceptualised the series for the Biennale, tackling the theme of Common Ground head on and raising questions that the work in the show must answer”.

“common ground?
Concept, not form, is what distinguishes architecture from mere buildings.

This fragment of text is accompanied by two pictures, one depicting the canals of Venice, the other the Villaggio Mall in Qatar, an indoor shopping mall and symbolic replica of Venice, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers.

Are we to understand Venice as architecture, by the genuinity by which it was originally constructed, and the shopping mall as non-architecture, due to its cheap symbolism? This is probably close to Tschumis intention. Most architects would define Venice as architecture; few would say the same of a pastiche shopping mall enjoyed by common people.

Casa Del Fascio, Google Street View, screen shot taken 2012-09-07

Next to it hangs a poster with two pictures of Terragni’s Casa Del Fascio, one with the plaza in front of it empty and one with it fully crowded. Underneath it says: “Architecture is not about the conditions of design but about the design of conditions.” A quick analysis of the poster suggests that Casa Del Fascio is architecture because of its designed conditions, the design was what enabled the crowding of the square. Google street view unveils these conditions to have changed by today; time has re-designed the conditions. A square once filled by Fascist supporters is now surrounded by automobiles. Does this mean Casa Del Fascio has turned into less architecture than it used to be?

Let us now depart on a short thought experiment; let us simply switch the text between the latter poster and the first; Venice counter-positioned by Villaggio, framed by the text “Architecture is not about the conditions of design but about the design of conditions.” Can we really say that the designed conditions are so different? Though sprung from different reasons, both are today in similar states (of sustainability issues, of function, of symbolic character, of users and actors, of concept). The only conclusion can be that they are in fact the same. To support this thesis we can quote a third of Tschumi’s posters: “Architecture is not only what it looks like, but also what it does”. Venice and Villaggio do not only look the same, they are doing the same thing too, namely providing a global market with locations for exotic tourism.

The fourth poster in the exhibition, comparing a drawing and an aerial Google maps picture, states that: “Architecture is not so much the knowledge of form but a form of knowledge”.

If we still argue there to be a difference between Venice and Villaggio, the first celebrated by architects and the latter by non-architects, then Common Ground is to be found somewhere in between. If they are read as the same (taking the message of the fourth poster into consideration), Common Ground is the knowledge needed to understand architectural concepts.

The main question framed by Tschumi is about the understanding of architecture, something that is closely tied to the architectural profession. Just as the being of art is defined by the general artistic society; what is architecture and not is decided by architects (considered as a whole). Taken to the extreme, to reach Common Ground is thus to educate those of less knowledge (or rather those of different opinion); to assimilate architectural dissidents.

Wolf D Prix, with his spite for compromise, might be happy with such a conclusion. I am, however, not. If Common Ground is dictated by one part, in this case the small (elitist) architectural society, it is no longer Common Ground.

Tschumi’s work can also be seen as somewhat schizophrenic. The chosen pictures are in general discussing a scale larger than singular buildings. Yet in words he describes architecture, not urbanism or interventions or planning.

poster, Bernard Tschumi, 1976

Comparing this set of reconceptualised posters with some of the original ones from 1970’s a couple of striking differences occur. The new set is weaker both in the quality of the text and in the visionary of concept. If the old set is daring and bold, the new is cliché, based on truisms and void of meaning. At first I saw this lack of quality as a result of the discrepancy between Tschumi’s wish to comment on architecture and the topic forcing him to a larger scale. This dual scale is however something Tschumi manages quite well in his old posters; a shift of scale is not the problem. So in the end, maybe Wolf D. Prix is right; Common Ground might be a too nice (and compromising) topic for an architect who wrote about murder in the streets.

Let us now counter-position the, in my opinion, weak rhetoric of Tschumi with one of the strongest pieces from the biennale, the Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion.

The Biennale can in no way be seen as Common Ground. It’s closed after 18:00, you need to be able to travel to and stay in Venice, you need a 20 euro ticket to enter, the opening (and many events) are closed to the public, the Biennale is a socially homogenous event (where many would not feel included).

During the Venice Art Biennale of 2011 Anon Stateless Immigrants (A.S.I), connected to the loose internet collective Anonymous, performed a couple of guerrilla interventions. “Sold Out” was sprayed on the facade of the Greek Pavilion and “Free Bradley Manning” was written on the lantern roof of the U.S pavilion. By 2012, both interventions were since long removed. However, one intervention still remained.

Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion, graffiti by ASI, from the Venice Biennale 2011, photograph taken 2012-09-01

Due to the labyrinth-like street network of Venice small signs, directing you to main tourist spots or scattered Biennale pavilions, can be found all over the city. Among them one set of signs stood out, the signs leading you to the Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion, a pavilion that obviously doesn’t exist. The piece itself illuminates two important facts about the Venice Biennale: 1) the Biennale is based on the national state as the main unit for participation (probably a rest of its hundred year legacy, from a time when nationalism was of even greater importance), something that makes the stateless by definition impossible to represent; 2) even with the topic of Common Ground, none of the Biennale exhibitions touched upon the subject of refugees, refugee camps, trafficking, forced migration or national borders.

Guerrilla tactics was not an uncommon theme in the Venice Biennale, featured in e.g. the U.S pavilion. There is however a big difference between A.S.I the U.S pavilion, namely the difference between actions and words. The U.S pavilion is not an intervention itself, but simply a representation of guerrilla tactics; appropriation of space, neatly framed and wrapped to be exhibited within the conventional Biennale framework. This might be seen as a bridging of the conventional urban theory and planning and D.I.Y or anarchistic tools for urban alteration, a Common Ground. But note well that as soon as space appropriation is given space it ceases to be appropriation.

Plaque with laws for Piazzo San Marco, photograph taken 2012-09-01

Though it might seem superficial or naïve, the theme of appropriation is in this case of utmost importance. Not more than five minutes away from the A.S.I signs you can find Piazza San Marco, one of the largest public spaces of Venice. A public space that clearly is not very public at all. Sitting in places not designed for sitting, sitting in order to consume food or drinks, biking, skating and playing, causing wilful damage or defacement, listening to loud music and dressing inappropriately are all actions forbidden by local by-laws. Piazza San Marco is not a place for public use or interaction; it is becoming a heavily regulated museum or shopping mall. Venice is commodificating its public spaces; a city-scale form of autocannibalism; it is Villaggio.

Tschumi’s attempt to tackle “[…] the theme of Common Ground head on […]”, mainly serves to show that Common Ground is elusive even at a philosophic level. When taking the contemporary urban conditions of Venice into account, such as the state of the Biennale, the regulations of Piazza San Marco and the Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion, you might even end up with the conclusion that there is no Common Ground at all. Only Contested Ground.