“The emphasis of the 2012 Biennale is on what we have in common. Above all, the ambition of Common Ground is to reassert the existence of an architectural culture, made up not just of singular talents but a rich continuity of diverse ideas united in a common history, common ambitions, common predicaments and ideals.

In architecture everything begins with the ground.”

David Chipperfield, director


Having had no time to mentally prepare for this trip, I was wondering on my flight to Venice what would await me, asking myself the question, “What is our common ground as architects and designers of space?”

To me the answer is “people.”  We have more in common with each other than all the ideas or products we produce. Even the most contradicting points of view all stem from people with the same physiological features. And all of us privileged to live in the first and second world retire to a similar size room and lie down on a similar, more-or-less comfortable bed to go to sleep every night.

Most of our needs are simple; we work, eat and play. And yet, as architects, we continue to concoct the most complicated ideas about our built environment. We seek the fantastic and unique, often at a large scale, and yet once we inhabit the space, it is the light, smells, sounds and textures of our immediate surroundings which count and which make a difference in our every day happiness.

Thinking about how to organize and feed a world with soon 9 billion people is a critical task, but without reminding ourselves of our very basic needs it can quickly lead to a landscape of “unconscious spaces”.

Since it is almost impossible to take in all of the offerings at the Guardini grounds, especially after a day at the main Arsenale exhibit, I opted to first visit the American and Austrian Pavilions. One represented the land of my residence and the other, my homeland. They could not have been more different from one another.

The American Pavilion was information packed. I could have spent a week there! In a fun way, we were presented with questions and problems, and then answers. The exhibit dug into our individual and common human needs and expectations and presented spontaneous solutions by citizens, artists, activists and professionals, all seeking to improve our built environment. It was informative and clever in its presentation but was lacking aesthetics. I found it uncomfortably claustrophobic in its density of hanging panels.

American Pavilion

American Pavilion

The Austrian Pavilion, beautifully sited at the very end of the park, is a simple, clerestoried and horizontally textured building of wonderful proportions. Once I squeezed myself through the low, narrow, altered entrance, I encountered an otherworldly visual feast of large projected images which moved around the room as if without gravity. I had to read up on how this was related to this year’s theme of common ground, but it was such a pleasure to be there and just experience a sensuous feast of imagery.

Austrian Pavillion 2

Austrian Pavilion

The Russian Pavilion, seemed to achieve both exceptional aesthetics and content in a remarkably innovative way. On the upstairs floor of the pavilion, I entered a textured black and white space entirely created of bar codes. The codes where laser cut into stainless steel panels and then placed onto black, back-lit steps within the room that created a projection of barcodes onto the walls and the dome above. This alone would have been a satisfying experience, but what made it so outstanding was the fact that these bar codes actually contained accessible information. With the help of a tablet (which was provided), I could scan the bar codes to access information about this “i-city.”  It made me think about sitting under a tree and looking up at the leaves, back-lit by the sun with all of their genetic history hidden in each leaf.

On my last afternoon in Venice, out on Isle San Georgio, I came upon the “Life Between Buildings” exhibit. It addressed the same issue as the American Exhibit – humanizing urban space. Presented in an artful, multimedia piece; it was an outstanding example of how to communicate a complex issue and a wealth of information in a memorable way. Only if we can retain and recall what we experience and learn from those experiences will the lesson be useful to us.

There I sat in a pleasurable space, surrounded by a 270 degree presentation that took us to the core of the issue: what is common to us all. It reminded us that what we can see, feel, taste and smell in our immediate surroundings, the places we work and play in, are the most critical pieces to our happiness and wellbeing.

And it is that immediate spatial layer which we at Studio S have made the focus of our practice, all-the-while never forgetting the Ove Arups quote “Building the right things is much more important than building things rightly.”

That is after all why we all love to come to Venice. For a few days all we see and smell and hear and taste is pleasurable.

Walking back to the hotel

My walk back to the hotel

Mary Ann Gabriele Schicketanz

Studio Schicketanz