The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale — review

The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale takes as its theme the concept of Freespace. With 71 exhibition participants and 63 national pavilions, there’s much to explore. Here we bring you all the highlights — and reflect on how architects from around the world have interpreted the idea of generous, inclusive and humane architecture

Photography by Paul Raftery

For immersive 360VR images of the Biennale, visit


Words by Herbert Wright

The curators’ manifesto for the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale is sunny. In its first line, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Irish practice Grafton Architects say that Freespace, their theme for the Biennale, describes the ‘generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda’, followed by hopeful statements about ‘spatial gifts’, ‘opportunity’, the ‘free space of time and memory’, and more. But the reality, as we all know, is that humanity makes do despite the architecture it lives with — it’s too often the case that the relationship is a struggle.

That’s reflected in a difference between the two halves of the Biennale — not the Arsenale and the Giardini, but rather, on the one hand, the two core Freespace exhibition areas in which Farrell and McNamara selected the 71 architects who participated, and on the other, the national pavilions. They are only the second female architects to curate Venice (after Kazuyo Sejima in 2010) but their choice of participants seems to reflect the male domination of the profession.

Their Freespace exhibition areas — the Corderie in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini — are indeed full of the generosity of architecture. In the national pavilions that generosity continues, but there is also a recurring thread of where architects have failed. Farrell and McNamara believe that ‘everyone has the right to benefit from architecture’, but we sometimes are taken to where that right has gone wrong. Examples range from Soviet-era housing in Romania or dying towns in Ireland to mines and military installations in electricity-deprived countries around the world (as revealed in the USA Pavilion). And given free space of thought, some expose the ‘sense of humanity’ that Farrell and McNamara seek in architecture through the lens of very different fields, from urban anthropology to cartoons and literature.

The central walkway of the Corderie in the Arsenale, where the main Freespace exhibition is installedThe central walkway of the Corderie in the Arsenale, where the main Freespace exhibition is installed

But first, those Freespace zones. In the Corderie, the spine of the Arsenale, Farrell and McNamara bring a sense of free space to the five-centuries-old brick building itself. Entered through a curtain of rope (referencing those made on the site since 1303), there is an unblocked vanishing point perspective between the mighty columns deep into the 317m-long arcade (neatly measured with a scale on the floor marked in metres and Venetian feet). Across its 21m width, it feels calm and uncluttered — exhibits have space to breathe. This is very different from the density, visual spectacles, atmospheric shifts and recurring sense of doom in the Corderie of the Alejandro Aravena-curated 2016 Biennale.

The participants tend to stick to the script, as different installations demonstrate. SANAA’s conceptual curving perspex wall installation, guruguru, encloses free space for all to see, but not access. Toyo Ito’s Virtual Nature veils its similarly shaped free space with a circular curtain, but all can enter and flop on beanbags under chill projections.

The immersive installation centred on Dorte Mandrup’s model of the Icefiord Centre in Greenland evokes the ‘superpower of nature’The immersive installation centred on Dorte Mandrup’s model of the Icefiord Centre in Greenland evokes the ‘superpower of nature’

Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati riffs on the Corderie columns with a forest of white ones, titled Experience of Space, subverting the context and just a little disorientating. Alison Brooks Architects’ ReCasting installation pretty well packs in four pavilions to sit or climb in, and still manages to get a free space in the middle of them. Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects’ installation Somewhere Other, a pavilion of Australian hardwood with walk-in portals, an interior of mirrors by artist Natasha Johns-Messenger and long, sharp angular viewing cones that suggest beak-nosed Venetian masks, is a tour-de-force that draws you into a play of location and perception. By contrast, Danish practice Dorte Mandrup takes you not inside the architecture but way outside it. Its 1:12 scale model of the Icefiord Centre in Greenland is set in a context of unbound Arctic space in an immersive backdrop with changing light and vapours, evoking the awesome elemental drama of what the practice calls the ‘superpower of nature’.

‘Architecture is no longer the spectacle, but is suffused in free space.’ That quote may apply to the Danish project, but comes from Rafael Moneo and about something completely different — his Murcia Town Hall extension, on show and addressing directly the issue of free public space, in this case the public plaza in front of it. His text says some brilliant, illuminating things (‘free space appears when architecture recedes, in spite of its presence’), and exemplifies what’s really going on in the Corderie — mediations and musings on free space rather than the pursuit of a didactic agenda.

The Golden Lion-winning Swiss Pavilion created a funhouse where scale shifts disorientatinglyThe Golden Lion-winning Swiss Pavilion created a funhouse where scale shifts disorientatingly

It’s all a bit more jumbly in Farrell and McNamara’s other stage, the Central Pavilion. This building is very different from the Corderie — rather than a linear arcade it’s a labyrinth, and has been altered extensively since opening in 1894. Farrell and McNamara actually found and reopened a long-hidden window by Carlo Scarpa, revealing the canal behind the Giardini.

Inside, the idea of free space may not cross your mind at all with offerings such as Odile Decq’s designs for a Barcelona skyscraper, or Caruso St John’s show, The facade is the window to the soul of architecture. Its view of facades seems the antithesis of Moneo’s (the practice more than redeems itself with its free space over the British Pavilion, though).

Others address the theme in unexpected, diverse ways, such as BIG’s presentation of its free green spaces around Manhattan’s coast to mitigate flooding, or Assemble’s rich installation of 8,000 brightly coloured clay tiles on the floor of the central neoclassical Chini Room, produced by the community-led, Liverpool-based Granby Workshop, part of the practice’s Turner Prize-winning regeneration of the area.

For Factory Floor, Assemble installed 8,000 clay tiles on the floor of the Central Pavilion’s neoclassical Chini Room, produced by the practice’s Granby Workshop initiative For Factory Floor, Assemble installed 8,000 clay tiles on the floor of the Central Pavilion’s neoclassical Chini Room, produced by the practice’s Granby Workshop initiative

The sense of architecture’s nobility and optimism in Farrell and McNamara’s curation manages to avoid getting caught in past architectural idealisms, which may have seemed heroic in hindsight but often failed the humanity they should have served. Just the trap that the V&A’s collateral show, A Ruin in Reverse, falls into. With its highlight of a three-storey fragment of the Smithsons’ now-demolished Robin Hood Gardens, is this another call to genuflect at the altar of brutalism? Do we need to venerate these remnants like medieval pilgrims would an alleged fragment of the True Cross? Or can we not accept that the grim traffic-island estate is over?

In the overwhelming cornucopia of the Biennale, there are no less than 28 national pavilions in the Giardini alone, 21 nations at the Arsenale, and a smattering of national pavilions showing across the city itself, from Portugal in a palace on the Grand Canal to the Holy See on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And that’s not all. Collateral shows spread outward from opposite the very entrance to the Biennale at the Arsenale (Hong Kong’s Vertical Fabric exhibition presents models of 100 tower concepts, a lot more than Chicago similarly mounted at its biennale last year). In town, a major show Chinese Cities curated by Beijing Design Week seems to counterpoint the theme of China’s official Arsenale pavilion, Building A Future Countryside.

It's worth noting that there is just one national participant from the African continent — Egypt, part of a strong Arab presence at the Biennale. No continent is now urbanising faster than Africa, and the architect’s business of producing future space for people is nowhere more urgently needed. On the same note, the 71 architects selected by Farrell and McNamara for their Freespace shows include no African practice at all, and just three from the Indian subcontinent, including some fine contextual work in the Corderie from Mumbai-based Case Studies, which is headed up by an American.

Somewhere Other, a walk-in pavilion of Australian hardwood designed by John Wardle Architects, draws you into a play of location and perceptionSomewhere Other, a walk-in pavilion of Australian hardwood designed by John Wardle Architects, draws you into a play of location and perception

Contemporary demographic, environmental and social issues are critical in such places. They should get better attention at the first Sharjah Architecture Triennal next year, which, as curator Adrian Lahoud declared in Venice, is themed Rights of Future Generations and whose scope is the Global South. While some countries don’t shirk from the serious issues the built environment faces, many take the more playful chance to express free space in surprising creative ways. The Swiss Pavilion’s funhouse installation, where rooms shift scale as if you were Alice with the Drink Me bottle, actually won the Jury’s Golden Lion award. The British Pavilion with Caruso St John’s platform floating over it is literally blue-sky thinking, and deserved its Special Mention of the Jury. By coincidence, Hungary also float a rooftop platform. Both rely on scaffolding, which Venezuela and the V&A deploy too. Scaffolding literally builds up quite a presence at the Biennale.

The Biennale is like a banquet with such an excess of chefs that the food becomes a cacophony of tastes tending towards random. Can any flavour linger after bingeing at such a blowout? In the end, it may be the power of architecture to uplift that Farrell and McNamara sought in the idea of free space, not just in three dimensions but in ‘time and memory’ as well. But it comes with an underlying anxiety that the poetry of architecture cannot be oblivious to the problems of the real world.

Reality Check

Words by Francesca Perry

Walking down a side street round the corner from the Arsenale, there is a surprising insertion to Venice’s built environment: a large brutalist municipal sports hall with a shuttered concrete exterior, designed by Enrichetto Capuzzo in 1977. On a sweltering May afternoon, the doors were flung open for air; inside, the hall was animated by school kids playing basketball on a squeaky floor — a glimpse of local, daily Venetian life. Peering through the open fire exit, a hand-drawn sign, clearly penned by a child, was taped to the door. ‘NO TOURISTS ALLOWED. THIS IS NOT BIENNALE,’ it read. My heart sank.

Venice is a divided city: tourists versus residents. You see it in the signs like that one, or in big banners outside people’s homes protesting large cruise ships. For the biennales, or simply for holidays, tourists come in their droves, and their Airbnb rentals or behemoth boats contribute to the rapid erosion of this vulnerable habitat, as well as a crippling housing crisis, a public transport system creaking and at capacity, and streets too full to move through.

Though many exhibitors at this year’s Architecture Biennale reflect generally on housing crises and social divisions, few exhibitors seem to tackle this local tension underlying their very presence at the Biennale. But one — unofficial — pavilion got right to the heart of it.

Unofficial project The Unfolding Pavilion popped up at the Biennale in a social housing complex on GiudeccaUnofficial project The Unfolding Pavilion popped up at the Biennale in a social housing complex on Giudecca. Image: ATELIER

The Unfolding Pavilion, a project that pops up at major architecture events in previously inaccessible but architecturally significant buildings, set up shop for five days on Giudecca, in an empty flat of the social housing complex designed in 1984 by Italian architect Gino Valle (IACP). The pavilion installed a diverse range of works from young Italian architects, all belonging to a collaborative network called the Little Italy project, in the vacant home.

‘We are drawing attention to the housing crisis in Venice,’ explains curator Davide Tommaso Ferrando when we speak at the pavilion’s opening night. ‘This installation is in one of the thousands of vacant flats around Venice. People are struggling to find a place to live. Everything is just on Airbnb and prices are going up. Venice is a tourist city, and it’s going to accelerate — the old residents will start dying and their children will just rent those flats out to visitors. The only thing the city is doing is taxing Airbnb — but that doesn’t result in fewer Airbnbs, it just means they become more expensive, and used by a growing elite of people. It’s elite tourism. Venice is becoming a new kind of city.’ As guests in Venice, we are taking up more space. Socially and environmentally, the city is eroding. Venice’s residential population continues to shrink: right now, it is only 56,000. What’s next for the unaffordable, snow-globe city?

Unofficial project The Unfolding Pavilion popped up at the Biennale in a social housing complex on GiudeccaUnofficial project The Unfolding Pavilion popped up at the Biennale in a social housing complex on Giudecca. Image: ATELIER

The Unfolding Pavilion was immersive and fascinating — but I was left anxious over its engagement with the lived life of the housing complex. Was it just millennials drinking beer and exhibiting art in the homes of low-income communities? What was the pavilion’s engagement with the residents? ‘The project started with me walking around the complex and talking to residents,’ Ferrando insists. ‘As the idea developed, I talked to them more. Some have even been involved — and all residents were invited to the opening and discussions.’

Indeed, in addition to the flat installation itself, the programme included multiple moments of debate in the open communal spaces of the housing complex. In the opening discussion, the disdain for the official Biennale was palpable. ‘I think “Freespace” is one of the most vapid pieces of language ever,’ said James Taylor-Foster, Unfolding Pavilion collaborator and curator. ‘It means nothing. It’s void of any political motive — or if politics are there then it’s rarely engaged with. People just wander through.’ This comment — of the visitor passing through — resonated.

Romania’s pavilion mixes research with sensory experience to explore the provision of play space in the country’s citiesRomania’s pavilion mixes research with sensory experience to explore the provision of play space in the country’s cities

It’s easy to get the sense that curators and exhibitors at the Venice Biennales forget the visitor experience of attempting to view, and digest, an entire biennale in one go. As most know, it’s near impossible, even if you’re given a few days to do it. But the mere attempt does cast a sharp light on curatorial approaches to the visitor experience. And in this, the 16th Architecture Biennale, a broad split can be identified between those pavilions that want to create a ‘free space’ for visitors and participants to experience or gather in, and those that want to present various projects and ideas for the visitor to read and reflect on.

These latter pavilions are mostly very interesting — but they boast a glut of information, and require of the visitor a great deal of reading to fully grasp the content, failing to function for a passer-through. The Korean, Irish, Brazilian, Saudi Arabian, Chinese, Italian and German pavilions are some examples. While the presentation of such extensive information might reflect the depth of research behind each project, the reality is that few visitors either have — or choose to spend — enough time in these pavilions to process it all. Pavilion curators would do well to remember that their corner of the Giardini, Arsenale or otherwise, is part of a much, much larger whole — and there is only so much you can ask from a visitor.

All immersion, no binders of information, at the Kosovo pavilion   All immersion, no binders of information, at the Kosovo pavilion

This is one of the inherent drawbacks to the Biennale: it implodes under the same quality that defines it — its size. Because of this it is hard to gauge the impact the show can truly have, when engagement is necessarily patchy and often absent-minded. Meanwhile, pavilions that have a high spatial or experiential impact — the Holy See, Britain, Kosovo, Greece, Indonesia, Nordic — are perfect for visitors, and provide a break from the relentless information, but it’s hard to see how they have a lasting impact beyond a fun memory or a popular Instagram presence.

Pavilions like Romania hit a well-balanced note. It takes a clear topic — play space in cities — that doesn’t need binders of information and creates an experiential pavilion that by its very nature leads people to reflect on the importance of and provision of play space in their own city.

With comprehensive programming, the Turkish pavilion has created an effective, enabling ‘free space’With comprehensive programming, the Turkish pavilion has created an effective, enabling ‘free space’

For those pavilions that offer a ‘free’ communal gathering space — Britain, Thailand, the Holy See, Greece, Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium — the more interesting are those that programme such space comprehensively to ensure it genuinely performs as a facilitatory arena, inviting visitors to actively participate (this is best achieved by the latter three examples). Getting the right balance of content is key to the visitor experience. But how far can an architecture exhibition — mostly attended by people already interested in or working in the field of architecture — really go? It’s a space for discussion, sure. But what tangible change happens, what positive action results from it? Such conversations about architecture’s role in shaping society — about inclusive housing, inclusive space, sustainable urbanism — need to happen with developers, city officials, mayors and national governments shaping planning policy. Architects are preaching to the converted at exhibitions like this.

Some pavilions — such as Brazil’s — overwhelmed visitors with informationSome pavilions — such as Brazil’s — overwhelmed visitors with information

Still, an impact of sorts can be made with the high-profile awarding of the Golden Lion, one of the world’s most prestigious architectural awards. That this year it was awarded to the Swiss Pavilion was a huge disappointment, and missed opportunity. Despite the fact the pavilion’s concept — a showroom-apartment funhouse with disorientating contrasts of scale — has little if nothing to do with the Freespace theme, it is devoid of any trace of political, social, environmental or economic commentary.

Fun for selfies? Sure. Worthy of the coveted award for national participation? Not so much. The jury’s justification for the choice was laughable, praising the pavilion for ‘a compelling architectural installation that is at once enjoyable while tackling the critical issues of scale in domestic space.’

Critical issues are indeed tackled at the Biennale — from the Netherlands’ exploration of slave labour to Venezuela’s celebration of insurgent democratic spaces and Canada’s presentation of indigenous resilience in the face of colonialism — but supersize kitchen counters is not one of them.

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