If David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, hoped to charge this year’s Biennale with a strong sense of social responsibility through the title “Common Ground,” he inadvertently set the agenda as “no avant garde and lots of déjà vu.” One of the most curious things to come out of show is its lack of any protagonists. Where one usually finds a great deal of promotion and style mongering, or simple adulation of the work of a star designer, we have a series of displays organized by relatively famous architects who were asked to invite an outsider, not necessarily an architect, whose work was in sympathy with their own.

This led to some surprising collections, such as Swiss architect Peter Märkli’s installation of five sculptures of standing figures by Hans Josephson that seem to be tree trunks about to take human form, plus a sixth sculpture by Giacometti. Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza placed four tables behind an undulating white curtain; on the table tops, where he gathered a collection of sketches by architects of their ideal house.

The most stunning of these collections was placed at the very end of the Arsenale in the Casa Scaffali—an ancient structure full of shelves—in which the curators Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, stacked a series of boxes sent to them by 35 fellow designers. They asked their friends to send them special objects and things that they keep on their desks for inspiration. The result would have made an entire Biennale by itself and says something about working within the constraints of a 1-by-2-foot box.

In the spirit of a Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities), here you will find Peter Zumthor’s bottles of powdered colors; Richard Meier, FAIA’s neatly stacked, shredded architecture magazines; Sheila O’Donnell, Hon. FAIA, and John Tuomey, Hon. FAIA’s blue folding chair, used for going outside to paint watercolors; Francis Kéré’s red soil from Burkina Faso; and Toyo Ito, Hon FAIA’s numbered stones from earthquake stricken Sanniku. Peering through the shelves was like discovering some well-kept Masonic secret, a new Crystal Chain letter delivered in gray coffin-like boxes.