Dezeen Magazine

Architects risk becoming "urban decorators" - David Chipperfield

With the Venice Architecture Biennale opening next week, here's a full transcript of our interview with its director David Chipperfield, who explains the thinking behind this year's theme, Common Ground.

Chipperfield stresses the need for the profession to address "the 99.99% of the rest of the world which architects are not dealing with." Otherwise he says, architects risk being relegated to being "urban decorators." Update: this interview is featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews, which is on sale now for £12.

Above: an edited video of the interview with Chipperfield, which we originally published in May. See below for the previously unpublished full transcript.

Speaking to Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs, Chipperfield emphasises the need for shared, public space to be higher on the architectural agenda, with less attention paid to impressive one-off projects like opera houses, theatres and museums. "What about social housing? What about office buildings and just normal architecture? That’s more difficult."

He also called for architects to more openly acknowledge the inspiration they draw from each other's work rather than placing themselves apart on pedestals, admitting "we are inspired by our colleagues, I mean maybe only out of the corner of our eye, and maybe we don't want to admit it all the time."

The interview took place in May at the press conference to launch the biennale at the Italian Cultural Institute in London. The Venice Architecture Biennale is open to the public from 29 August to 25 November and Dezeen will be reporting from the press preview and vernissage next week.

Here’s the full transcript of the interview:

Marcus Fairs: We’re at the Italian Cultural Institute in London where today we’ve had the press launch of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2012 and I’m with the curator David Chipperfield. David, tell us a little bit about what the Venice Architecture Biennale is first of all. For someone who has never been there, tell us what is it, why is happens and what your involvement is.

David Chipperfield: The Architecture Biennale was stimulated by the pre-existence of the Art Biennale which has been around a much longer time; I think the Architecture Biennale only started in the late seventies, and took the form of the Art Biennale.

Essentially it’s in two parts; there are the national pavilions. Most countries have national pavilions, Britain has one obviously. The national pavilions are the responsibility of each country to curate and select participants and again in the case of the Art Biennale normally it's a selected artist. However, in the centre of this whole zoo is the main exhibition presentation which is the responsibility of the director/curator, and that occupies physically the three hundred and fifty or so metres of the Corderie Arsenale which is the military basin where boats were built and ropes were made.

So the biennale infrastructure has grown over the years to take up not only that building but the territory around it and actually also take on the responsibility for what’s called the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. So it’s a major exhibition of architecture which should conform to a theme set by the director. The director is responsible for the theme, and then inviting participants to show work or participate under the umbrella of that theme.

Marcus Fairs: And as the curator, as the director, what is the theme that you've chosen for this year?

David Chipperfield: My title is Common Ground and in the context of an architectural biennale clearly it has a double meaning. We tend to use common ground, interestingly, not about physical things. It's now something you hear on Radio 4 when someone says I had a meeting with the prime minister this morning and we have common ground on this issue. So it’s normally a way of describing what two different positions might come together to share. Clearly its origins were physical; there must have been "that’s my ground, that’s your ground, this is common ground". So in the context of an architectural biennale that reference back to the physical is quite clear.

So why I like this title is that it talks about the intellectual - you know, common ground as we use it, in other words what ideas do we share, where can we meet - but it also clearly is a metaphor for the idea of public space, shared space, the collective, and in my opinion that is something that really needs to be back on the agenda. I think as a society at the moment we are inspired by the financial collapse of all those things that we thought were secure. I think it’s inspired us all to think a bit more carefully about the relationship between our position as individuals, our own trajectory, and what we belong to socially as something we might call a collective.

Marcus Fairs: In the past architecture biennales have sometimes been a bit like a zoo, I think you used the word zoo before. And you mentioned in the press conference that architects can be like perfume brands at duty free on a pedestal; singular and isolated. How are you going to try to avoid that happening at this year’s biennale?

David Chipperfield: Well, the whole thing of Common Ground is in a way trying to get everybody off their pedestal and standing on a ground which I think we share. I think this is the presentation of architects, they are responsible for doing this a bit themselves in their sort of need to brand themselves, but I think the media does it and it’s an issue we all have to deal with. I don't actually think it’s quite as true, you know I know a lot of those architects, I’m fortunate enough to sort of share an odd whiskey now and again in a bar in Vienna or Berlin or whatever and you know as soon as we’ve had the first whiskey you realise that we all share a lot of ideas. We share a lot of predicaments and concerns, but there’s no place to articulate those beyond the bar.

So I’d like to show that these talents are grounded in something that connects them horizontally (which is what I would describe as an architectural culture) and I want to give oxygen to that architectural culture and say you know, we are the children of our parents. We have been taught by somebody, those teachers taught us certain things which have informed us. We are inspired by our colleagues, I mean maybe only out of the corner of our eye, and maybe we don't want to admit it all the time but you know what another architect does what an architect of another generation has taught me, what a younger architect has taught me, you know I learn from students that I teach.

That idea of affiliation, of acknowledging where ideas have come from and for us to expose those ideas and share them a bit more. I think it’s a way to be more honest about our common position as opposed to everybody you know shining their wares and putting them on a stand and saying this is what I do, and that's what somebody else does. I want to break those barriers down.

Marcus Fairs: You said in the press conference that it would be about architecture, about architectural culture rather than architects. What kind of projects will be in the biennale? How will the visitor experience - and how will you get across to the visitor - this idea?

David Chipperfield: We’ll that's a challenge. I mean it’s all well and good to say what I’ve said. My ambition is clear and it’s been very reassuring to find that architects are willing to join that idea even if they’re a bit stumped at the beginning to know what to do about it, but there is a willingness to think about that. Of course when I say it’s not about architects I need architects to talk about architecture, so it is about them as well, I’m not trying to suppress them but you know in a way ‘the play’s the thing’ as it were, in Shakespeare.

I want great actors but it's the story which I want to come out, but I do need good actors to do that with. You know the repertoire of actors, the cast, is impressive, and they are all generationally spread from people like Rafael Moneo, Norman Foster, Luigi Snozzi, you know a generation of architects who are now in their seventies down to kids as I would call them, you know 30 to 40. So I think that's, you know, the idea of finding different connectivities, I mean that's very important, and also to remind everybody how these layers are important.

What form it takes? I mean it's a one-by-one thing, each architect is thinking about ways of representing either affinities that they have, inspirations they have, or projects which they might do together as a collaboration with others, or a topic. So it’s a diverse attempt to demonstrate ideas. In a way it hasn't started with image; it has started with ideas and now we’re struggling to make sure that it has an image because there is a responsibility within the biennale to the superficial if you like. It does have to attract one scenographically, it can’t just be good, earnest ideas.

Marcus Fairs: But you've not said to the architects, send us your latest model in a box. You said to them respond to the theme we’ve set, the Common Ground theme, and do something new and specific around that theme.

David Chipperfield: They’re not allowed to send their project in a box; it goes straight back! I mean, that’s not the idea. It may be that some are showing some models of their project in order to illustrate something but I want their contribution to be contextualised by ideas not their CV saying this is my last project, this is how I work, this is who I am, and this is the project that shows who I am and how I do it. I mean that is a context, but it’s not a context I want to show. If someone brings a project or a number of projects - there’s nobody actually doing it in such an explicit way, but there are people showing projects - the reason that project is there is contextualised by an idea.

Marcus Fairs: You mentioned about the economic crisis and the time in which this biennale is taking place. What are your ambitions for it, do you see it as an exhibition that makes a statement about where we’re at in architecture? Do you see it as something that might change the direction or open people's eyes to a new way of working, or simply reminds them of something that's perhaps being missed in contemporary culture?

David Chipperfield: I don't think that you can do an exhibition with an explicit ambition. I’m not out to teach anybody anything, I’m trying to give some oxygen to some thoughts and I think that fronting up to the fact that architecture is probably, as a peace time activity, the most collaborative thing you can do, you know, outside of a war. It’s the thing that galvanises and draws upon the most resources and participation, collaboration. I can't think of anything that does the same... well, film. But even then, to be honest, a film doesn't require the people that live in that area to deal with it so you can go to a movie house and not got to a movie house.

So I can't think of anything that really requires so much buy-in, both in terms of professional buy-in and also from the general public. I think that that's an issue that we have to articulate better because the dialogue and possibilities we have as architects to do things is predetermined by the way that we sit within society. If we isolate ourselves, and we’re regarded with suspicion then society doesn't trust us to do things and also we can't engage society.

I mean we have a confrontational relationship and good architecture is born of collaboration I think. So if there’s an agenda, that's what it is, but it’s not written above the door that this is what I’m up to, but clearly I want us to come clean to say intellectually, physically and even in our built environment we are part of something which is more collaborative that anything else and therefore, let’s look at architecture from that point of view.

Marcus Fairs: You did say in the press conference as well that we don't have much common ground between ourselves and the public when talking about the architecture profession. Could you elaborate on why you think that might be?

David Chipperfield: Because I don't think that we’ve got good methods by which we talk about the diverse concerns that make a building happen. Look at this country: planning is now called development control, you know as if it’s sort of someone with a chair and a whip tying to stop this animal escape; it’s sort of a negative idea of architecture. By the way, I don't blame it for being like that. As an architect one sits on both sides of the table, we are just as furious about bad buildings as normal people are and you know, why the hell did that project ever get built? We’re capable of feeling that probably more than most people. But the level of discussion and dialogue and the confrontation that seems to exist in the process so often you can see it coming and it just dooms the process. You can see that these things are just not coordinating.

I think what one can see, always, is what I call sort of green-field or green-zone projects. You do a museum, you’ve got a very informed board of trustees, a good director, there’s a budget which is reasonable, there’s a clear desire to do the building… that’s not difficult then. But what about social housing? What about office buildings and just normal architecture where people have not assembled themselves around something and said 'we must find a good architect, we must do a good building'. We don't have to worry about those things so much, you know railway stations, opera houses, theatres, museums.

The profession has proved it can do good versions of those; sometimes maybe a bit too spectacular and a bit too iconic but so what? What about the 99.99% of the rest of the world which architects are not dealing with? It’s easy to have a good dialogue about a museum with an informed board of trustees. How do you go out there and have a discussion about other things? That’s more difficult.

Marcus Fairs: And finally, we’re coming out perhaps of an era of the superstar architect and the iconic project and the all the attention that was lavished on those kind of things, but your office has been, I was going to say quietly, but not exactly quietly, but very successfully working away with a much more gentle, beautiful, historically contextual type of work. How do you see the architecture scene today? And do you think we’re at a moment of change away from that kind of star system?

David Chipperfield: We’ll always have icons. I mean we’ve always had icons. From my office I can see Westminster Palace and Big Ben and you think 'what a funny building', but you know how glad one is that is it there. If it was rationalised, and wasn't so fanciful it wouldn't be half of what it is. I don't think icons go away, and I think we need icons sometimes. Does everything need to be turned into an icon? Does an extension on the back of someone’s house need to become an icon? Not because I don't think it’s appropriate, I just think that it becomes slightly irrelevant to the rest of the architectural debate.

I mean that’s my concern, that if what we are doing becomes a bespoke moment that architecture now only becomes those special moments, we become like urban decorators. You know, as soon as someone can afford, can pay for it and the conditions are right we can get up from our beds and do it; I think that’s really dangerous. Therefore, I’m concerned that those projects where one can push give an inspiration to the normal. That's my issue with architecture that becomes self-referential, that it becomes about itself and while it might be a beautiful opera house, it might be a beautiful museum, has it given any clue as to how other issues might be dealt with? I think sometimes that’s not the task, the task is to stand free and alone but you know most of us have to do other things which are not just self-referential monuments. Therefore, I am interested in the continuity of the profession, not just those special moments of opportunity.