VENICE, Italy — "Common Ground," the title British architect David Chipperfield chose for the 13th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, suggests a generous and expansive, if somewhat tame, strategy for organizing what still ranks as the most important architecture exhibition in the world.
And in fact that feel-good two-word phrase, defined in endlessly elastic terms by Chipperfield and his curatorial team, has allowed him to use this biennale to bind together a number of themes that have dramatically reemerged in architecture in the last three or four years.
The exhibition, which opened to the public on Wednesday, focuses in particular on the city (the urban commons) and on history (the threads that connect generations of architects across time).
The approach surely appealed to Chipperfield in part as a way to bridge the gap between his own generation — he was born in 1953 — and that of the architects now in their 20s and 30s. Many of those younger architects are eager to tackle issues related to urbanism and public space in their work and are busy reinterpreting the postmodern architecture of the 1970s and '80s, which brought history, memory and the quotation of older styles back into the architectural conversation.
But the exhibition itself, despite that determinedly optimistic and wide-ranging approach, feels limited, exclusive, stiff, starched and a bit cloistered. And for a show that is so keen to question the value of architectural celebrity — Chipperfield writes in the catalog that he wanted it to "emphasize shared ideas over individual authorship" and reject "solitary and fashionable gestures" — this biennale includes an awful lot of stars, many of them longtime friends and colleagues of Chipperfield's.
Though Chipperfield makes a big show of casting a wide net with this biennale, mostly what he's caught with it are the kind of big fish immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the architectural scene of 20 or 25 years ago. The architects featured most prominently include Norman Foster (given two separate rooms to work with), Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, Peter Zumthor, Bernard Tschumi and Jean Nouvel.
Some of them move in new directions — Nouvel contributes a terrific proposal for reinventing Parisian highways and overpasses as public green space — but for the most part the ideas are as well-known as the names. The language of the wall text and catalog feels like a throwback to the 1980s, with references to collage, tectonics, pastiche, memory, continuity and mannerism.
Occasionally this sense of déjà vu is no problem at all, as with a superb and very simple roofless structure by Siza painted burgundy and installed outdoors. Even if it looks a lot like his full-scale buildings, it's a welcome reminder of his vast talent.
Elsewhere the content begins to feel airless and precious. There is a little bit of humor and irony in this biennale, including a series of installations about architectural copying by the smart London firm FAT, but not nearly enough. There is some color but not much.
In the final room of Chipperfield's installation at the Arsenale, the old shipbuilding yards, there is a wall covered with drawings by Moneo of projects for Madrid, enclosed in beautiful wooden frames. The work is remarkable, even virtuosic, but you have to wonder what the point is supposed to be: That nobody draws this way any longer? That standards have fallen? That the computer has ruined everything?
It's at moments like these — and in a few other spots in the Venetian Giardini, or gardens, where the other half of the main show is located — that you begin to think about what Chipperfield has left out. It's a fairly long list.
The most obvious omission is any sustained consideration of the developing world. There is an installation by the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo — in the form of a small two-story brick house — but it stands so clearly outside of the flow of the rest of the show that it feels like an afterthought.
There's also very little about digital design or the environment. Female architects play a minor role. And the show's political content is feather-light.
It would seem impossible to launch a show in Italy called "Common Ground" in the late summer of 2012 and not address, directly or indirectly, the experiment in political and economic common ground called the European Union, which has been in severe crisis all year. But Chipperfield seems to have pulled it off.
As is often the case at the biennale, it's the installations by individual countries, which are scattered in national pavilions at the Giardini and organized separately from the main exhibition, that display some of the nimblest curatorial thinking. The whip-smart Israeli pavilion, overseen by Milana Gitzin-Adiram, Erez Ella and Dan Handel, is about a more complicated sort of common ground: the endlessly fraught relationship between the United States and Israel and how in the last four decades it has played out in cultural, political and architectural terms.
The American pavilion, organized by the Institute for Urban Design and overseen by Cathy Lang Ho, Ned Cramer and David van der Leer, features a rich collection of small-scale, often anonymous or collaborative designs meant to reinvigorate or reimagine small pockets of American cities. (Among several clever contributions from Los Angeles is the Parkman Triangle Park, where the firm Urban Operations exploited some loopholes in city guidelines and relied on 100 volunteers to quickly transform a small wedge of concrete in Silver Lake into a miniature green space.) The installation, by design studios Freecell and M-A-D, makes crisply legible a collection of projects whose diversity and number might otherwise have been overwhelming.
Chipperfield and his collaborators on the exhibition, including the British critic Kieran Long, have undoubtedly tapped into something significant with their "Common Ground" theme. The renewed interest among architects of several generations in politics, protest and urbanism has brought a new energy to the profession and ended a period of nearly two decades in which its leading figures were deeply estranged from real-world problems.
And the way younger designers think about history, memory and intellectual recycling is poised to change architecture in some profound ways. For architects in their 20s and 30s, born into a digital age, architectural culture no longer spins in cycles of fashion and taste but exists as an endless menu of à la carte options to consume at will.
Just as they can pull up nearly any movie ever made or album ever recorded, they dip into architectural history, effortlessly pull out buildings, theories, images and texts and reuse or remake them in a carefree and pragmatic way. As the wall text accompanying the installation by FAT puts it, "FAT and their collaborators are relaxed about copying: the sources are out there to plunder."
This approach to history and memory is very different from the one the postmodern pioneers Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Charles Moore and Aldo Rossi brought to architecture in the 1970s and '80s. Those architects were rebelling against what they saw as the dogmas, arrogance and failures of modernism.
But the nascent postmodern revival, if we can call it that, is less a movement or a philosophy than a natural and perhaps predictable reflection of this rising generation's carefree attitude about borrowing from the past.
Chipperfield's exhibition, though, never explores the implications of this important shift in much depth. In many sections it is happy instead to relive the past glories of its leading protagonists. And its treatment of urbanism, almost entirely shorn of political ideas, is tentative.
The rhetoric of this biennale is all about engagement. But what's on the walls looks more like retreat.