Venice Architecture Biennale "cannot
get any worse" - Wolf D. Prix

| 21 comments

Wolf D. Prix

Dezeen Wire: architect Wolf D. Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au has launched a scathing attack on the Venice Architecture Biennale, claiming it's "no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture" but places too much importance on celebrity.

In a statement sent as a press release entitled The Banal, he says that participating architects are "playing" while the profession is "sinking into powerlessness and irrelevance" at the hands of politicians, investors and bureaucrats who "have been deciding on our built environment for a long time now".

Prix would have preferred a "look behind the scenes at the decision-making, instead of boring exhibitions", giving controversial plans to redevelop Stuttgart train station, the spiralling cost of Herzog & de Meuron's Elbphilharmonie concert hall and political disputes about mosques and minarets as examples of good topics.

He also criticises biennale director David Chipperfield for encouraging cooperation with the authorities rather than resistance, calling his theme of Common Ground a "compromise" that "cannot get any worse".

Assistant director of the biennale Kieran Long responded by tweeting "I think if Wolf Prix hates you, you are doing something right," while Charles Holland of London architects FAT, who created a Museum of Copying for the Aersenale exhibition, tweeted "Wolf Prix say hello to black kettle. Kettle, say hi to famous pot Wolf Prix."

In his opening speech at the press conference on Monday Chipperfield claimed “this biennale isn’t an X Factor of who’s hot right now”, a sentiment also expressed in our movie interview in which he urges the profession to turn away from iconic one-off projects like opera houses, theatres and museums, and address “the 99.99% of the rest of the world which architects are not dealing with” before they're relegated to being “urban decorators.”

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Portrait is by Elfie Semotan.

Here's the full statement from Wolf D. Prix:


The Banal

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune.
The Titanic sails at dawn.
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You on?”
(Bob Dylan: “Desolation Row”, 1966)

If one did not know that the media constantly exaggerates, one could almost conclude – as the Süddeutsche Zeitung has – that the Venice Biennale of Architecture really is the world’s most important architecture exhibition.

However, I believe that the word “exhibition” is not intended to describe an exhibition in this case, rather that the notion only designates the event per se. In other words an industry meeting, like a product fair. Other critics fail to even question the purpose of the exhibition, rather they immediately conclude that the coming together, the meeting, the networking is the key aspect. That’s that!

I would like to maintain at this juncture that the meaning of the Venice Biennale of Architecture for theoretical arguments has been increasingly losing significance since its beginnings with the Strada Novissima by Paolo Portoghesi in 1980. Even the personal significance for the participants is very low when compared to the Art Biennale. So let us not deny the truth. This event is an expensive danse macabre. In a city of plunder (an exhibition of plunder) hordes of tourists (architects) roll along broken infrastructure in order to satisfy their petit bourgeois desire for education (in the case of the architects: vanity, envy, schadenfreude, suspicions). Even the glamour that the visitors are supposed to feel is staid and faked by the media for whom a star architect is like a film star.

In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning. What a great Architecture Biennale it would have been had they established forums and put out themes which would have provided a chance to look behind the scenes at the decision-making, instead of boring exhibitions. Take for example the dispute about the train station in Stuttgart. The reasons for the cost explosion for prominent buildings such as, for example, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. The political arguments about mosques and minarets, in other words the disputes about the localisation of an idea. Why the market for single-family homes in the USA has collapsed and how power politics is conducted through settlement architecture. These topics would be worthy of discussion – not who is and who is not a star architect.

However, instead of that we face: “People Meet in Architecture” and now “Common Ground”. In other words: compromise. It cannot get any worse!

This situation conjures an image of the Venetian carnival – one can imagine all the architects in Pierrot costumes surrounded by masked critics and dancing the Dance Banale, or, even better, the architects are playing on a sinking gondola like erstwhile the orchestra on the Titanic playing their last song, while outside in the real world our leaky trade is sinking into powerlessness and irrelevance. This is because politicians and project managers, investors and bureaucrats have been deciding on our built environment for a long time now. Not the architects.

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 and he explains in an interview that space must be taken from the genius. One would have to show him Pussy Riots in order for him to finally understand our society.

Furthermore, I consider that the Venice Biennale of Architecture needs to be reorganised.

Wolf D. Prix / COOP HIMMELB(L)AU

  • csparrott

    Bang on. All you need to know about this year can be gleaned from the list of UK participants.

  • Kosovat Shaqiri

    Chapeau!

  • Breadcrumbtrail

    Had to be said.

  • http://bradleybowers.tumblr.com/ Bradley B.

    This HAS been said and is BEING said constantly by other members of the world, who sadly lack the platform that Mr. Prix is afforded… do we only believe that the ship is sinking when the captain tells us so?

    • Tellsitlikeitis

      With all due respect but Wolf D. Prix is not a captain. There is a real world outside the indoctrination camps like Angewandte and Sci-Arc.

  • Rick Lam

    To launch an attack equating “Common Ground” with “Compromise” is but a cynical and self-contradictory whine that does not resonate with the architecture community or our society at large.

    It is the egoistic minds of the star architects who mourn the decline of their self-imposed status, that the power to make decisions is no longer retained on their blackberries in the first class cabin, and is instead shared with the “common people”. The same arrogance created blobs that cannot be cleaned, placed bulbs that cannot be replaced, and built amorphous moment frames that cost the energy to light a city for a month to weld. Architects are not the only ones learned in design, construction, sustainability and maintenance. We should embrace other expertise, as simply as recognizing contractors are better at construction and the owner is better at maintenance. This is why we are all necessary around the table. Common ground is taking a critical stance that the practice of architecture should not be elitist and self-referential. Architects need to get our hands dirty and engage with the collective. It is responsible of architects to answer to regulations and bureaucratic scrutiny; after all, we are not bankers.

    To call for the Biennale and the architectural discipline to strategize resistance against the bourgeois vanity is a clever use of sentiment, but one cannot help but to be reminded of the careers of Stalin and Mao. Forums about decision making, cost, policies, market, struggles, disputes, and resistance are being held every day in countless concerned localities. They are unfortunately not heard from the stratosphere at 30,000ft; nor Venice the single appropriate venue. We are not that globalized.

    Let’s not forget our next great battle is not disciplinary. It is not just form, aesthetics, urban decoration, politics, nor bureaucracy. It is energy. And the only way forward, is together.

    All that said, credit goes to Mr. Chipperfield for omitting that one party invite.

    • ber

      Dropping the names of Stalin and Mao is unfortunately just another way of “framing” and Godwins Law.

      That aside I think Prix and Chipperfield don’t seem to be too far away. Some resistance towards “bourgeois vanity” (and their manifestations in architecture, politics etc.) is something they both agree on.

  • LTA

    I think Mr. Prix is right but by looking at his buildings I really don’t think that he is dealing with any of the problems mentioned.

  • OPA

    Prix. Thought Steirlitz.

  • GSA

    As a participant, I have to say I pretty much concur with Prix. I was really let down by the utter lack of not only critical discourse going on, but the lack of actual architecture going on. It was anemic to the highest extents. A lot of ‘phoning it in’ by the bigger firms. And the Golden Lion was awarded to a project from Caracas that’s been written about and discussed for years by much more capable and interesting minds. And as a half-Venezuelan, the biggest offense was how terrible the arepas were!

  • aleks

    BRAVO! I personally agree!

  • Tellsitlikeitis

    This rant by Prix is about Prix and nothing and nobody else. Everyone who had to endure one of his self-indulgent lectures with weird popcultural references that say everything and nothing knows what I am talking about.

    I am happy that Chipperfield does not dignify this rambling with a response. Goodwins law was mentioned above. Prix called Chipperfield’s department store in Vienna totalitarian and fascist so he loves to throw that at everyone who refuses to do the same erratic singular architecture than he does. He seems to be living in a very distant past called the 60s.

    To abuse Pussy Riot for this bourgeois whining (oh the irony of the bourgeois lamenting the bourgeoisie) of his makes it even more awful.

    • vivi

      Fully concur!

  • karl koch

    Someone is miffed, because he’s not been invited to the party. Sad, wannabe angry old man.

  • Tapani Talo

    Well, the world has changed not just in Venice, Europe, but also in US. What used to be the forum for ideas in New York architectural league is no longer valid, as one of the directors said. New generation is about seeing architecture like music – an iPod with thousands of tunes – without theme, rationale or intellectual focus, except – just liking it. Attention is grabbed ever so briefly by fire flies… media grabbers.

  • grod

    Wolf Prix is as irrelevant in this article as his architecture has been for years. Time to stop paying attention to windbags like him.

  • Marcello

    He is completely right and one of the people to say clearly what they think. Bravo, Wolf.

  • ksdraisi

    Agree with Wolf. The sooner project managers, lawyers, committees and politicians rest their hands, which are squeezing the free minds, the better. The world deserves better.

  • papusie

    “I think Mr. Prix is right but by looking at his buildings I really don’t think that he is dealing with any of the problems mentioned.” by LTA

    I was looking at the latest images of Coop Himmelblau Cinema Centre in South Korea and thinking exactly the same as LTA. Their architectural/engineering bravado is not dealing with any of the problems the architectural establishment is facing today.

    Rather, his designs, seemingly anachronistic, reinforce the very notions that have brought us to the rise of the star architect.

  • DAC

    I think for architecture to be taken seriously again then architects need to seriously understand and uphold the principles of art and science again.

  • Bruke

    This article draws attention to the phenomena that is happening in architecture, which is rather like what usually happens in capitalist societies: the rich get richer the poor get poorer. In other words those who have a celebrity status get more and more removed from reality therefore become meaningless, and those who don’t are pushed to be told what to do by “society” as if they were a bunch of brainless chickens. What’s the way out?