The Venice Architecture Biennale is the biggest and most important architecture exhibition in the world. With this year’s theme ‘freespace’ – investigating how architecture can go the extra mile to facilitate engagement, appreciation and utilisation by the public – there is no shortage of inspirational projects as well as those whose ideas perhaps get lost in translation
Words by Veronica Simpson
Where the last architecture biennale brought a welcome blast of practical and pragmatic urgency, asking what architecture could do for humanity in crisis (with the theme ‘reporting from the front’) this year’s outing sees curators Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, directors of Dublin’s Grafton Architects, bringing the focus back to the everyday – but the everyday at risk.
As private developers dominate more and more of what used to be considered urban public space, they ask what architecture can do to be more generous, more inclusive, more engaged with the city and the people around it, as well as more respectful of nature and its many ‘gifts’. They have coined their own term for this necessary connecting of people to place – freespace – and invited the 71 participating architecture studios and many more working with the 65 national pavilions1 to articulate their responses.
And 18 months after embarking on the curatorial marathon entailed by steering the world’s biggest architecture exhibition, the duo were if anything more passionate about architecture’s connection with public, with place, and with planet when I interviewed them just before the Biennale’s opening in May (for FX’s sister title Blueprint) – although the challenge of engaging the widest possible audience with what is often a dense, jargonriddled, impenetrable subject to the nonarchitect seemed to be the strongest concern. Farrell told me: ‘We don’t believe that architecture is a rare and rarified discipline that’s kind of a secret cabal. We really want to try and make the most influential art form understood by a wider public.’
A welcome bit of shade comes in the shape of an asymmetric pavilion in bamboo, from Vietnam’s VTN Architects. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
So does this latest biennale deliver? Largely, yes; perhaps more so than any previous one. But best to start your explorations not in the Giardini (the more glamorous, high-profile space of the Biennale’s two sites) but with the Arsenale. Here, in the Corderie – the vast disused rope factory along the northern edge of the city’s former naval base – the 300m-long space is filled almost entirely by practices and projects hand-picked by Grafton Architects and its team of researchers. Among the 71 practices whose work and ethos they felt chimed most loudly with the biennale’s brief, there is a head-spinning breadth of projects and contexts, from both famous names and new discoveries. But while the content is hugely enriching, it has to be said that not all the presentations managed to articulate that content with the greatest clarity. There is – as so often – a surfeit of two dimensional material, in the form of plans, texts, diagrams and drawings, which can get extremely wearing only part-way through the two days most visitors spend touring the site. There are others that seem to have been so seduced by their own sculptural or experimental concept that they inform us of very little. But there are others whose displays trigger engagement, understanding and delight.
Indian practice Case Design sets the bar high: almost the first exhibit you encounter beyond the Corderie’s huge, rope-veiled entrance, its new school campus for the Avasara Academy is both accessible and resourceful. The school is described as: ‘A rudimentary framework which enables a process of dialogue, collaboration and design.’ Constructed on a concrete frame but with a porous lattice of bamboo along its exterior to filter the sun while capturing breezes, its whole sourcing and design process incorporated collaborative and participatory practices: ceramic floor tiles were sourced from the surrounding villages, each of which has a distinctive tone to their clay, so that all the pupils, as they walk around the building, can see elements from their home village. Children were also consulted on ceiling colours, resulting in a vibrant patterning that helps to give character and identity to each area. Many of these ingredients – from woven seats to pigments used in the paint – were brought to the Corderie, for what adds up to be a very tactile, hugely evocative display that was possibly the next best thing to being on the campus itself.
The exhibit Recasting, from UK-based architect Alison Brooks, explores elements of her own housing projects. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
Barcelona-based Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats create a stand that looks from the hallway like a sculptural screen with public seating and raised walkway, but reveals itself to be almost a scale replica of elements from their new Sala Beckett theatre, in Barcelona. Behind the main structure, punctuated by a single circular light well, is a riotous, workshop-style presentation, rich in detail and character, with vivid working models revealing how the practice has reused elements from the half-derelict, original structure from the Twenties, to give a new life as community space and theatre that still respects the spirit of the old.
The instruction of Grafton’s curatorial predecessor, Alejandro Aravena, to ‘make as much nothing as possible’ is certainly delivered through his own practice Elemental’s contribution. Titled The Value of What’s Not Built, not a single model or plan is offered. Instead, several projects are articulated with great clarity and the minimum of fuss and cost, using chalk, string, handwritten notes on folded pieces of paper, and small smartphone screens playing informative videos, all set against a simple, dark-grey wall. One of the most exciting of projects to read about is ‘half house’: given only half what they needed in funding by the Chilean government to construct a neighbourhood of workers’ houses, Elemental built the basic framework, then as much of the external envelope as it could to provide shelter, but which safely allowed people to improvise the rest from scavenged materials.
While one can have too many drawings, there is a real power to the hand-rendered sketch, especially when exhibited at scale, as with South African landscape architect Peter Rich’s presentation. He erected a simple frame on to which he hung banners representing his own drawings, to show the ways in which his collaborative work with indigenous peoples in Africa and China results in structures that express great sensitivity to their community’s aesthetics, cultures and materials.
Many presentations fall foul of the temptation to swamp the visitor with too much information. Some go the other way, with presentations that are conceptually beautiful but seem a little light on content. Niall McLaughlin Architects provides a selection of finely crafted timber models of its projects on a turntable, spot-lit to show the way light moves through the structures with the passing of time and seasons. Paredes Pedrosa’s The Dream of Space Produces Forms offers several monolithic slabs of grey, with apertures sliced out of them in which they represent the space inside its buildings, rather than the buildings themselves.
New York practice Weiss/Manfredi’s Lines of Movement offers an appealing curved, shell-like structure painted black on the outside, white on the inside, and featuring multiple small, luminously white 3D printed models with lines of greenery flowing through them to articulate the way movement and landscapes draw people around both its and several other iconic spaces they admire.
Canada-born, UK-based architect Alison Brooks’ exhibit, ReCasting, is both sculptural and profoundly educational. A sequence of intriguing wooden structures that explore a handful of elements from her own housing projects: canted roofspace, vaulted threshold, cloistered passage and staircase, visitors need no additional invitation to explore its uplifting, inviting forms.
Landscape architect Peter Rich put up a simple frame from which he hangs banners representing his own drawings of work with indigenous peoples in Africa and China. Image Credit: Andrea Avezzù
There are global-status practices here whose contributions suffer in comparison with their neighbours, especially when they take the route of celebrating just one project, in not much detail. New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s educational building, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center – part of Columbia University’s Medical Center – is extraordinary, as the large-scale model shows, but I found the accompanying films showing staged social and academic interactions from different users slightly naff. And this expensive, elitist institution is hardly one that qualifies as Freespace.
Rafael Moneo’s almost brusque exposition on his town hall for Murcia offers nothing more than a chunky bench in front of a large panel featuring a photo of the town hall in its setting, a block of text, and a plan on the floor, at the intersection of bench and panel. But the way this black-and-white plan is shaded to reveal all the freespace this building ‘activates’ though its positioning and sightlines is far more articulate and impactful than any 20-minute video.
Chinese practice DNA shows some exhilarating work with great style and efficiency. Large, wooden models are choreographed around the space at chest height – to facilitate easy strolling and peering – accompanied by filmed interviews that elaborate on how these projects are helping to encourage the now largely urban Chinese to appreciate the Chinese countryside. From a hydraulic national park – a piece of infrastructure that is now also a place for leisure, exploration, and science, with research and teaching facilities – to an elegant, umbrella-like Bamboo Theatre constructed in a remote village, using easily sourced and replicated materials and techniques, it also demonstrates perhaps what is possible when both national ambition and budgets are high.
Gumuchdjian Architects re-envisions how architectural interventions could help activate nature as free space. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
Grafton Architects wanted the qualities of this space – one of Venice’s largest continuous structures – to come alive. Having stripped the building back to its bare bones to make as much as possible of its tall, grilled windows and the light that pours through them, it’s where the arrangement of the different exhibits is least crowded that one is encouraged to step back and appreciate this ‘vessel of light’, as Farrell has dubbed it. Belgian architect Marie- José Van Hee provides one such pause, with the simplest of displays: two simple benches (plus an invitation to sit down), a lamp, two paintings hung by one of the Corderie’s beautiful arched windows, and two copies of a large book by Van Hee, placed either side of a lectern, offering us some thoughtfully curated visual meditations on space and place, with minimal text.
Portugal’s Alvaro Siza also responds to the Corderie with economy and grace. He provides another moment for pause, offering a simple stone curving bench, with an oblong element hovering just over it, which choreographs the movement of light and shadow across this bench from the nearby window; while a tall, curved stone screen sweeps across the space, like a cupped hand, providing privacy for the bench occupants, yet allowing light from that elegant window to spill into the main concourse. In the accompanying text, we are encouraged to appreciate the way the tension between the curves, the arched window and the rectilinear hall creates a sense of space and place.
Germany’s pavilion explores how architecture and community projects are healing the wounds of partition. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
Tread Lightly, a linear ‘festival’ along the Transcaucasian Trail, by Gumuchdjian Architects re-envisions several architectural interventions that could help activate nature as free space, along a proposed 750km trail from the north to the south of Armenia. In a 10-year project, the architects are drumming up support by visualising simple structures, from shelters to bridges, all of which sit gently in the landscape.
Architectural responses to rural or wild environments dovetail nicely with Grafton’s desire to explore treating the ‘earth as client’ within its manifesto, and one of the most striking of these is the exhibit Conditions, around the Icefijord Centre, Ilulissat, Greenland by Danish architecture practice Dorte Mandrup.
Set in one of the world’s most extreme inhabited places, contending with fierce winds and sub-zero temperatures, this proposed social space on the west coast of Greenland combines durability with great lightness. Beyond the Corderie, Vietnam’s VTN Architects provides welcome respite from the heat of a Venetian summer with a pleasingly asymmetric pavilion made of bamboo, a material that also crops up in the Chinese pavilion, at the top of the site next door to the Italian one. While both of the exhibitions expound on the ways that architecture could harness greater engagement with the countryside the Chinese effort seems intent mainly on promoting its own bamboo production industry. But there is always an element of Expo at these events – it’s too tempting for some to seize this opportunity to promote their own endeavours or commercial agendas, while paying lip service to the overall theme. Going all out to deliver, however, Germany’s pavilion is curated by GRAFT and Marianne Birthler, on the theme of Unbuilding Walls, exploring how the wounds of partition have been healed through architecture and community projects, in the 28 years since the Berlin wall fell.
The interior of its grand, neoclassical pavilion – filled with huge, black wall sections that part as you move through the space – features fascinating projects in text and images on the back of each panel, including the Iron Curtain Trail – a 10,000km cycle trail from the Barents Sea to the Norwegian-Russian border, traversing 20 countries. There is also admission of where Germany has failed to heal wounds – villages cleared along the former wall’s perimeter remain empty and desolate, their former occupants unrecompensed for this savage uncoupling.
A proposed social space, by Danish architecture practice Dorte Mandrup, is in a setting of fierce winds and sub-zero temperatures. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
The pavilion also looks beyond its own borders, via a gallery of video interviews with people from other parts of the world – Spain, Belfast, Israel, Cyprus and Mexico – discussing their own experiences of borders.
France also gives an uplifting how-to demonstration, with all the components for possible community centres pinned to its walls – from wheelbarrows to chandeliers, in a display titled Infinite Places. Below this exhilarating pick and mix are actual, community-led projects from the past decade revealed in both plywood models and text along a plywood shelf. Curated by Paris-based office Encore Heureux, it focuses attention on the rebirth of large, disused buildings and sites across the country, proposing that perhaps all places at large should be considered perpetually unfinished.
Britain seems to have won favour with its content-lite presentation: a joint initiative between architecture practice Caruso St John and artist Marcus Taylor, it offers nothing but empty space in the grandiose, neoclassical pavilion but, thanks to scaffolding and stairs placed around its walls, invites you up to a temporary roof terrace, where free tea is served at 4pm. It won a special commendation by the Biennale jury this year.
Australia also makes much of very little. Its striking, modern pavilion at the edge of the Giardini has nothing in it except plants (and seats and a meandering path, which guests are invited to take advantage of). Called Repair, it is curated by Baracco+Wright Architects in collaboration with artist Linda Tegg, and filled with endangered grass species, to show what is at stake when we occupy land.
In the Central Pavilion Bjarke Ingels Group shows its Manhattan floodwater resistance project
The Nordic Pavilion placed four huge balloon-like structures inside the stunning Sverre Fehn-designed (1959) pavilion, which expand and contract in response to changing environmental conditions. Curators Eero Lundén and Julia Kauste designed these inflatables to look like cells; they contain sensors that monitor the surrounding carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity levels.
But Switzerland walked off with the Golden Lion award, for its disorientating House Tour inside its pavilion. The brainchild of a group of young architects from Zurich’s ground-breaking ETH architecture course, it lures visitors into a sequence of seemingly bland rental-home spaces that introduce sudden and disconcerting switches of scale.
Several national pavilions seem to have run out of steam or lacked interest in engaging with the topic in the first place (Belgium’s just seems to be a rant about the importance of adhering to ‘Eurotopia’). Others major on the joys of teaching; a theme that is riveting indeed to architects, architects who teach, and architecture students, but perhaps not so to all other visitors.
At the Nordic Pavilion huge balloon-like structures expand and contract to changing environmental conditions
The central pavilion, like the Corderie, has been stripped of extraneous partitions and window coverings to reveal a more workable, less labyrinthine, exhibition space. It is somewhat confusing all the same – a hotchpotch of individual meditations and collective explorations, which, as elsewhere, are at their strongest where participants respond with physical rather than flat artefacts. One of the highlights on that front is Bjarke Ingels Group’s exposition of its floodwater-resistance project proposing the placement of a series of parks around the edge of Manhattan. A huge model and screens all around the room combine video interviews with floodwater animations.
Belgian practice De Vylder Vinck Taillieu takes a more deconstructed approach, with huge photos of its psychiatric clinic in Melle presented in a large room space, on a wooden stand, like a disorientating set design, revealing how the practice allowed the clinic’s partially ruined buildings on the campus to remain in their derelict state, while inserting contemporary, largely glazed structures inside them; a bizarre but poetic response that conjures the clarity and the delicacy – the gentle renegotiation with the past in order to make way for a more positive future – of the work the clinic undertakes. It won the Silver Lion for most promising young participant.
A further rewarding, contemplative collective effort is provided in the central display Close Encounter. Here Grafton has invited 16 practices among its Irish peers – including Carr Cotter & Naessens, Heneghan Peng Architects and Donaghy & Dimond – and paired them with 16 inspirational projects from various points over the past 100 years that, in their view, deliver that quality of beauty, inclusivity and ingenuity in spades; from Casa Luis Barragán in Mexico, by Luis Barragán, to Maison du Peuple in Clichy, by Jean Prouvé, Eugène Beaudouin, Marcel Lods and Vladimir Bodiansky.
But for me, after the Arsenale, the most uplifting experience was a trip to the Vatican Pavilion – the first time the Holy See has participated in the architecture biennale.
Much was made of very little in Australia’s striking, modern pavilion filled with endangered grasses
Set in the gardens behind Palladio’s exquisite San Giorgio Maggiore church, a trail is set around nearly a dozen simple, replicable, spaces of worship commissioned from leading architects, including Foster+Partners. For me the highlights, however, were Francesco Magnani’s Alpine chapel, Sean Godsell’s articulated tower structure (it lifts its metal skirts to reveal an altar and the tower’s goldlined interior), Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats’ simple, adobe-like temple, and Terunobu Fujimori’s simple wooden hut.
Despite its humble outwards appearance, this last chapel’s interior is something of wonder and enchantment: its wooden structural beams meet at its furthest point in a cross, adorned with shaved gold elements, lit by beams of sunlight from the two clerestory windows above it, which throw mysterious shadows around black ceramic pellets scattered across its wall. Sheer genius.
It demonstrates what has often been said: that architecture can articulate far better than any words or diagrams the power of this fascinating discipline.
The Vatican Pavilion
Showing for the first time at the Venice Biennale, the Vatican’s Pavilion in gardens behind the San Giorgio Maggiore Church is a trail around simple spaces of worship. Included are:
Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats’ contribution was a simple, adobe-like temple. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
A simple, wooden hut from Tenunobu Fujimori has wooden structural beams that meet in a cross lit by beams of sunlight. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
Sean Godsell’s articulated tower lifts its metal skirts to reveal an altar and gold-lined interior. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
Francesco Magnani’s Alpine chapel. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson
The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale runs until 25 November