My visit to the 2016 edition of the Architecture Biennale was a special one. For the first time I was actually fully prepared before leaving. I dived into Alejandro Aravena’s statement as soon as it was available, I researched all the national participations to prepare the previews on my site and I can’t even count the number of articles I read. In previous years, I only read a few articles and explored everything on the spot. The good thing is that my understanding of what the pavilions intend to show is now much better, which – to be honest – is not always easy if you haven’t done your homework beforehand. The disadvantage is that I had high expectations, which were unfortunately not always met.
The Architecture Biennale is organized in two main areas, i.e. Giardini and Arsenale, and there are also several pavilions and collateral events spread over the city of Venice. For each of these areas, I have listed below my 4 favorite projects, as well as some additional not-to-miss pavilions. If you want to know more about each of the pavilions in this post, you can find more details and pictures by clicking on the links. This will bring you to the updated (from preview to review) country page. The picture on top of this post ‘Architecture matters to everyone’ explains with a short statement why you should attend the Architecture Biennale. It is part of the French exhibition ‘Nouvelles Richesses’.
We started our visit to the Architecture Biennale at Giardini. We were very lucky that there were not too many visitors, so we didn’t have to queue to get close or to take pictures. We spent a full day exploring the 29 national pavilions and had to limit our lunch to a quick snack to ensure we could see everything before closing time.
TIP: I’m not sure if you can predict when it will be least busy, but I assume that weekdays outside the holidays are your best option. Also, make sure to buy your tickets online, so you can skip the lines at the entrance.
Our visit started on a very positive note with the ‘Unfinished’ pavilion of Spain. Curators Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintans received the Golden Lion for Best National Participation and this is well deserved. The pavilion reveals the impact of the economic crisis on the architecture in Spain, where many buildings are only partially constructed and hence unfinished. Large pictures from different projects are framed in wood and attached to metal structures. This layout refers to a construction site, while the combination of different heights also resembles a city skyline. It’s quite impressive. The beautiful pictures invite you to read the details about the projects. Hence, you could easily spend a lot of time in here. Spain is one of the pavilions that successfully translated the ‘Reporting from the Front’ theme into a beautiful layout, with the right level of information to make it interesting without getting boring. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
The Australian pavilion on the other hand has the most original layout. The female curatorial team installed a pool inside the pavilion, which was used for the first time for the Architecture Biennale. The chairs, which were produced by Indigenous Australians, and the large wooden bench encourage you to sit down and listen to the pool stories of famous Australians. It is a very relaxing environment with different shades of blue. The link to the overall theme is however rather limited. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
The Korean pavilion focuses on the ‘floor area ratio’ and the battle of the architects of quality versus quantity. They bring a lot of facts and information to the Biennale, and have colored all relevant items red to attract your attention. Even without a background in architecture, I did spend quite some time reading the graphs and charts and I found it very interesting. As an example, the fact that celebration parties are organized when a building receives the permission to be demolished is something I will never forget. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
The Netherlands positively surprised me with the ‘Blue’ exhibition. The UN peace missions across the world are looked at from an architectural point of view. It shows how they evolve over time, from the emergency start, up to the moment the situation has been cleared and the site is returned to the local citizens. Stories related to personal objects give it a lasting impression. Make sure not to miss the story about the cheese knife, which will make you realize how important a link to home is for the soldiers (or if you don’t intend to visit, drop me a line and I will tell it to you). You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
If you don’t have enough time to visit all the other pavilions, make sure to add the following ones to your list as well.
- Belgium: Large pictures of projects are accompanied by full size replicas of fragments shown on these pictures. The goal is to demonstrate the craftsmanship used to create them.
- Poland: Videos amidst scaffolding show the challenges of the Polish labor force in the construction industry all over Europe.
- Russia: Replicas of the statues of the VDNH, a large exhibit of Russian glory, and a 360° video immediately transfer you to this cultural centre in Moscow.
There are also some fun things to do at the Giardini pavilions. You could play with the wooden puppets of Romania, stamp your own passport in Finland, take a rest in the Nordic sofas and drink water from your own Biennale bottle in Hungary. You can’t be serious the whole day 😉
The ‘Reporting from the Front’ exhibition in the main pavilion highlights 31 projects. These are selected by Alejandro Aravena and his team and have a close link to the overall theme. The two projects that appealed most to me, clarify the importance of architectural intelligence to defend human rights. The first one shows how forensic architecture is used as evidence for international prosecutors. Based on videos and images from the impact of a bomb, the team can indicate where it was launched but also where people stood before they were hit. The second project is the ‘Evidence room’, which investigates how architecture was (ab)used to construct the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
DID YOU KNOW? The Biennale provides free guides at the ‘Reporting from the Front’ exhibition in the main pavilions (both in Giardini and in Arsenale). They approach the visitors pro-actively to give additional information about the projects and installations. I was positively surprised by this, as the role of ‘a host’ was one of my main concerns prior to my visit (read more on this in my post: ‘Behind the scenes of the Venice Biennale pavilions’). The guides are trained by Alejandro Aravena himself and they are very enthusiastic. Make sure to use their knowledge as it really adds value to your visit. If you want, you can also book a guided visit via the website of the Biennale.
Overall, the quality of the pavilions and installations in Giardini is, in my personal opinion, extremely varied, ranging from exceptionally good to too difficult to grasp.
Our second day was focused on Arsenale, the former shipyard of Venice. The longer opening hours allowed us to really experience all the installations and to make the transfers to Arsenale Nord and to Certosa (more on this in the next part).
TIP: The Arsenale closes at 8 PM on Friday and Saturday (instead of 6 PM), which allows you to use the additional 2 hours for a trip to Certosa. The latest return shuttle is already at 5.20 PM, so you have to schedule your visits accordingly.
1. Curator’s room
Again, we started our day very positively with one of my favorite spots, i.e. the curator’s room. First of all, it is beautifully designed with materials recuperated from last year’s Art Biennale. Second, Alejandro Aravena and his Elemental team have documented the preparations of the Biennale. Videos are projected on small screens and show the team meetings, the info session with the countries, their first visit to Venice, up to the installation and press conference. Even sketches and notes from disapproved ideas are on display. It feels a bit like opening a secret door and discovering a hidden treasure. I might of course be biased as I wrote a post that takes a look behind the scenes of the Biennale, but I could have spent a couple of hours in here.
2. Reporting from the Front
The ‘Reporting from the Front’ exhibition in the Corderie was of very high quality. There are several informative projects, such as the comparison between the construction cost in Ecuador and in Venice. The visualization of the cost per project with bags of eurocents on the ground makes a very strong statement, much more than a simple graph could have done. Another interesting concept was that of the ephemeral cities. Cities might change drastically for a temporary reason such as a celebration, a festivity or a market. Hence, they are unstable and the infrastructure needs to cope with this momentary population growth.
There are also very impressive models on display, such as the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow from Matrex, the Punta della Dogana from Tadao Anno, or the Hilariopolis model against dullness in mediocre real estate in Romania.
The pavilion of Peru in the Sale d’Armi won a Special Mention as National Participation for ‘Our Amazon Frontline’ and should not be missed. The Plan Selva is an architectural project for schools in the Amazon rainforest. Texts, infographs and models are displayed on lecterns to explain the details of the project. You can also build your own school with small wooden blocks, while listening to Peruvian music. The concluding piece is the installation of school furniture hanging on cords from the ceiling. Similar to Spain, the team of Barclay & Crousse succeeded very well in combining the overall theme with interesting information in a beautiful setting. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
Another enchanting pavilion on the same floor is ‘Space to Imagine, Room for Everyone’ of Singapore. 81 image lanterns show pictures from public houses in Singapore and a small model of the building. The surrounding light is turned off every 15 minutes, which really gives it a magical touch. If you take your time to look at all the families, you will see the lights turn on and off a couple of times. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
Again, if you don’t have enough time to visit all the other pavilions, make sure to add the following ones to your list as well.
- Italy: The largest pavilion in Arsenale is filled with smaller building blocks and several ‘containers’ to present a wide variety of projects in Italian outer cities. The ‘Taking Care’ message is transmitted using cartoons.
- South Africa: ‘Cool Capital’ shows citizen projects from the guerilla biennale in Pretoria. For instance, the beautiful chairs, decorated with historical moments and famous people, are used to impart the city’s culture to the visitors of the theatre.
- Norman Foster: The fluid form of the drone port, which is installed outside, is created with special bending techniques. It can be assembled with limited technical knowledge and tools can therefore be used in remote areas. The form can also be extended to create large meeting areas, such as the example inside the Corderie. A video with details on the project is projected in one of the shelters of the Giardini delle Vergini.
Other beauties in Arsenale include the bamboo path symbolizing the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea from Shigeru Ban, the baştarda vessel made from waste materials from the port in Istanbul (Turkey), and the infographs on the urbanization of cities in preparation for the Urban Age Conference in Venice on July 14-15.
Overall, this part of the exhibition appealed more to us than the one in Giardini.
CITY OF VENICE
The national pavilions and collateral events outside Giardini and Arsenale are spread all over the city. They are located from Cannaregio in the north to Giudecca in the south, and even in the industrial port Marghera and on the islands Certosa and San Servolo.
TIP: If you plan 2 days for these pavilions and events, you don’t have to limit yourself to the Biennale. Take your time to discover and enjoy some lesser known parts of Venice.
1. New Zealand
My favorite pavilion within the city is without doubt the one from New Zealand. The exhibition ‘Future Islands’ in Palazzo Bollani shows futuristic looking islands hanging from the ceiling. Each island represents several projects, both realized and conceptual. The white islands against the white walls create a very special atmosphere, which is reinforced by the singing of the Maori. You really cannot stop looking at all the details on the islands. The only (limited) downside is the lack of visible information about the projects, for which you need to consult the catalogue. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
The pavilion from the Baltic States is the sports centre of Castello, the neighborhood around Arsenale and Giardini. The Palasport is a huge concrete building hidden between typical Venetian houses and otherwise not easy to visit. It gives you a view of a totally different Venice, i.e. one where people live and children do sports. The exhibition is constantly rearranged depending on the ongoing activities, such as a girls’ gymnastics competition while we were there. This gives it a very special touch. I only regret the gymnasts weren’t there at that time. You can find a more detailed review and additional pictures by clicking here.
3. Forests of Venice
The ‘Forests of Venice’ is a collateral event where you can easily drop by after visiting Giardini. It is in an old greenhouse and its garden, between Giardini and Via Garibaldi. The exhibition brings ideas for a future enlarged Venice, with new islands and new types of housing. I especially loved the idea of turning the ground floor into a ‘water play area’ which could be very useful in case of acqua alta (read my post ‘The love-hate relationship of Venice with water’ for more information on this topic). There is also a cosy bar (open until 8 PM) where you can have a drink while you contemplate your day with a glass of prosecco or a spritz.
4. Horizontal Metropolis
Finally, but certainly not the least, is the exhibition ‘The Horizontal Metropolis’ in a shed on the Certosa island. It compares Venice with other cities such as Lausanne or Boston and uses large atlases to explain all the details. To be totally honest, the visit to Certosa was the part that helped it make it to this list. The Biennale organizes a free shuttle every 20 minutes, which brings you in 5 minutes from Arsenale to Certosa.
TIP: While you are there, you should take the opportunity to explore the island. It is rather small and has only a marina, one hotel/ restaurant/ bar and lots of green and bunkers. At the back of the island, you find a small beach. You won’t need more than an hour to see everything.
To summarize, the 2016 Architecture Biennale is certainly worth your visit, whether you are professionally active in architecture or not. If you want to visit, you should ideally plan 4 days. This will give you enough time to visit the pavilions and collateral events at your own pace.
My personal favorites are Spain (Giardini), Peru (Arsenale) and New Zealand (Venice). These countries managed to bring an interesting report from their home front in a beautiful setup.
This is of course subjective, so I would love to hear about your favorite pavilions. Feel free to add them in the comments below.
In the meantime, you can read more about the Biennale on The Venice Insider internet front, find some ideas for architecture related events in Venice in my guide or learn about some hidden gems in the Castello area around Giardini and Arsenale. If you want to completely immerge yourself in the exhibition, you could also order the catalogue of the 2016 Architecture Biennale online. The 668 pages of text and images weigh quite heavily, so you might want to leave the carrying up to the postman instead of dragging it in your luggage. Many pavilions have also published a book for this occasion. You can find these in the preview of each pavilion.
If you are planning a visit to the Architecture Biennale and would like to discover Venice at the same time, I would be more than happy to help you. Click here to find out how you can make your trip more fascinating.
I will publish more posts on the Biennale in the coming weeks. Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter if you don’t want to miss out on these.
Enjoy your visit!
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