Annette Dearing and Vanessa Couzens of the AAA decided to take time out from the realities of every day commitments and set out for Europe, to explore the hype and hyperbole of what is arguably one the worlds most prestigious architecture festivals.
Before the exhibition opens to the general public, the preceding two days are set-aside as preview days. During this time Venice becomes a city besieged. This time, not by Germanic, Hun or Lombard forces, no, this invasion is one by the architectural fraternity, dressed in designer black, seeking to showcase their talents, network and generally shoot the breeze with their contemporaries!
With our Vernissage passes (press passes) hot in our hands, we found ourselves facing a quandary – limited time (two days), two major exhibition venues, which included the Arsenale buildings (Artiglierie, Corderie, Gaggiandre, Padiglione Italia and Sale d’Armi) and the Padiglione Centrale Giardini (with 30 permanent national pavilions), as well as exhibitions and events spread across Venice and a cluster of the surrounding islands. (Do we need to say that the Venice biennale is not an event for the faint of heart?) After planning our strategy for seeing as much as possible, we felt equal to the task of planning a small military coup! And yet, what is it they say about the ‘best laid plans’? Expect not to follow that carefully laid out strategy! Instead take a breath, shrug your shoulders and continue that conversation with your long lost pal from Zurich, or president of your sister organisation in Chicago… You’d be surprised by just who you’ll bump into or rub shoulders against in the press of the crowd attending a pavilion opening event or wandering the medieval halls of the Arsenale.
First cab off the rank on day one had to be the Australian pavilion. Theirs was the first pavilion opening to be held in the Giardini and it seemed fitting that the first national opening should be in the pavilion hosting it’s last exhibition. The temporary (?) building designed by Philip Cox completed in 1988, is to be retired and replaced by a new one designed by Denton Corker Marshall (slotted for completion in 2015).
Australia’s theme was Formations: New Practices In Australian Architecture and sort to showcase how architectural practitioners are challenging traditional perspectives of architects and what constitutes architecture. Taking part as exhibitors were2; The Architects Radio Show (Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Christine Phillips, Rory Hyde); Health Habitat (Paul Pholeros, Steven Rainow, Paul Torzillo); Richard Goodwin Pty Ltd (Richard Goodwin); Supermanoeuvre (Dave Pigram, Iain Maxwell, Chris Duffield); 2112 Ai (100YR City) (Tom Kovac, Fleur Watson) and my favourites, who were recent participants of the AAA’s special series of talks, Women: Take On Design,· Archrival (Claire McCaughan, Lucy Humphrey)3.
The exhibition was curated by; Anthony Burke, Head of the School of Architecture at UTS and Course Director for the Master of Digital Architecture; Gerard Reinmuth, one of the founding directors for the architectural practice Terroir and Practice Professor for the School of Architecture at UTS; and Eva Dijkstra and Michael Lugmayr of TOKO Concept Design.
Officially opened by the Commissioner Janet Holmes A Court, the forecourt of the Pavilion was buzzing with an impressive sized crowd, bearing champagne flutes and bedecked in red Formation goody bags. While the exhibition content perhaps wasn't as cohesive as some of the adjoining pavilions, it certainly held high ‘fun factor’ with Richard Goodwin whizzing across the canal on a tensioned wire, Archrivals’ fuss ball machine structures encouraging visitor competition and the Architect’s Radio Show reporting live from the pavilion and out and about in the Giardini.
The Golden Lion for Best National Participation went to Japan for ‘Architecture possible here? Home-for-All’. Curated by Naoya Hatakeyama, Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata (Commissioner: Toyo Ito. Deputy Commissioners: Atsuko Sato, Tae Mori). This was one our favourite pavilions (along with Canada).
Japan’s contribution documented a proposal to offer housing solutions for all the people who lost their homes in the great east Japan earthquake of 2011, specifically in the city of Rikuzentakata. We both felt that the exhibit offered greater accessibility to an audience wider then the architectural community. The interior space is surrounded by heart breaking images of the devastation, with models that map out the progression of thought and experimentation that went into providing design solutions4.
The Arsenale complex houses exhibits by nations without their own pavilions and a series of singular and group (including ‘Common Ground’) exhibitions. This is the section that features many of the ‘Star’chitects. There is an interesting film on Austrian architect Peter Zumthor and there are two exhibits that invite well known architects to display images and objects that explain their approach to design and sources of inspiration. Equaling this out, there has been some attempt with the curating to showcase work by lesser known designers and there is a nice mix of different media to keep things interesting and challenging.
There were also several interesting presentations and panel discussions over the preview days. I was especially keen to attend ‘Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghost Writing the Future’ organised by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects and Hong Kong Arts Development Council. The forum was ostensibly about the planned redevelopment of commercial industrial area into a second CBD for Kowloon. However, I can’t help thinking that it backfired on them when they chose personalities such as Sir Peter Cook (of avant garde Archigram fame5) and French architect Odile Decq as members of the panel! I think that many of us were there just to witness how controversial the speakers could be!
Overall, reviews of the Biennale have been relatively positive. There has been some flak in the press about the accessibility of the biennale to the general public. One can’t help but agree that the somewhat ambitious ethos for Common Ground of contributing to the mending of ‘…the fracture between architecture and civil society’ may be slightly unrealistic. However, personally, I thought that the Venice Biennale was an experience worth the ‘cattle class’, twenty-seven hour flight! It is an opportunity to experience first hand the work of architects that one sees in the media and to explore the work and thinking of designers don't necessarily get the recognition they appear to deserve.
- Article: Vanessa Couzens
- Photographs: Vanessa Couzens
1. Sir David Chipperfield was a Black Talk speaker for the AAA in 2005. To get an overview of some of his work, watch this youtube video.·
2. For a description of the Australian exhibitors see the AAA e-newsletter archive.
3. For a description of Archrival’s Women: Take On Design talk, read our previous newsletter article.·
4. To see Sou Fujimoto talking about the Japanese pavilion exhibit, visit designboom.·
5. To find out more about Archigram, visit their website.