David Chipperfield: Collaborative Design


21 November 2012

With the 13th Architecture Biennale at Venice closing this weekend, Disegno looks at the career of its curator, the architect David Chipperfield.

Collaboration is no stranger to David Chipperfield, so it should come as little surprise that he chose it as the theme for this year's Venice Architeture Biennale, Common Ground. Throughout his career Chipperfield has used collaboration as a means of furthering his designs: inviting opinions from outside of the architectural profession and engaging with the public who populate the buildings he creates.

Born in 1953, Chipperfield trained at Kingston Polytechnic and the Architectural Association in London, before leaving to work for the firms of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. In 1984, he set up his own practice. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Chipperfield's work has never been interested in outrageous organic curves or gravity-defying cantilevers; instead, it is defined by a commitment elemental forms executed in carefully chosen materials.

Chipperfield's early work - a house for the fashion photographer Nick Knight and his own office in Camden, both built in the late 1980s - was criticised in Britain for its aggressive modernity and lack of human scale, and the experience led him to look beyond the UK and to focus his career on mainland Europe instead. Chipperfield made his name in Germany, where his designs for the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach and the Folkwang Museum in Essen, and his masterplan for the Museum Island in Berlin all garnered acclaim.

Then, in 1997, Chipperfield won the competition to renovate Berlin's Neues Museum, a 19th century building badly damaged during the fighting of WW2. There was an irony to Chipperfield's selection that few missed: a British architect had been selected to rebuild what had been destroyed by the Allies' bombs only 50 years earlier. Before beginning the project, Chipperfield collaborated with historians, public advisors, conservationists, engineers and museum authorities about how best to restore the ruined building. Rather than simply replicating what had been lost during the war, Chipperfield decided to create new design elements, many of which stood in stark contrast to the building's original design. It was a controversial approach, with many critics and members of the public calling for the building to be restored to its original state.

Chipperfield however refused to compromise, saying that to do so would belie the years of war that the building had endured. Instead, the museum was to display its scars. Opened in 2009, the Neues Museum's central hall has retained its original bullet ridden-walls. The effect is striking, transforming the room from a space for the exhibition of art into a space for the exhibition of the building's own history.

Chipperfield is often classified as a Modernist, but this is a misnomer. The Neues Museum married the building's original architecture to modern design elements intended to complement the structure's historical elements and this was a design choice typical of Chipperfield. His work may be reconciled to the sever efficiency of Modernism, but it is nonetheless rooted in the classical styles of architecture that stretch back to Ancient Greece. At its best, Chipperfield's work is a collaboration between past and present.

Yet collaboration has not always yielded the best results for Chipperfield. When starting out, the architect used the basement of his office to set up a gallery with the academics Ricky Burdett and Wilfried Wang. Named after the hardest drawing pencil lead, the 9H Gallery aimed to increase awareness of lesser-known Swiss and Austrian firms within London's insular architecture community. One of the firms showcased at 9H was Herzog and de Meuron, who went on to win the 1994 competition to adapt the iconic Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern. Chipperfield was also shortlisted for the Tate project - the only British architect to be recognised - and the commission would have represented a major coup. But partly by drawing attention to the work of Herzog and de Meuron, Chipperfield indirectly lost the project.

While the Tate Modern was a setback, the acclaim for the Neues Museum, saw Chipperfield inundated with nominations, awards and appointments. His RIBA Gold Medal, annual nominations for the Sterling Prize (including a 2007 win for the Museum of Literature in Marbach), knighthood for services to architecture in both the UK and Germany, and recent surge of UK projects - including the Hepworth Wakefield and the Turner Contemporary in Margate - are all signs that Britain is finally waking up to the talent of Chipperfield.

Now, as the first British architect to be selected to curate the Venice Architecture Biennale, Chipperfield has taken the idea of collaboration a step further. Common Ground is a reference to both intellectual and physical collaboration: the overlap between the designed space and the public who engage with it. This year's Biennale was about architecture and architecture culture, rather than architects and it is driven by the belief that collaboration breeds better end results. It is a point best captured by Chipperfield himself: "Architecture, as a peacetime activity, is the most collaborative activity outside of a war."