The 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice invites its visitors to enjoy Freespace in the broadest sense of the word. This theme has been set by the curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. They asked the participating architects and countries to come up with ideas for the use of public space and to emphasize the role of architecture in the choreography of daily life. During my visit last week, I have seen stunning exhibitions which perfectly translated this concept in an attractive installation. The finest examples for me are the Pavilions of the Holy See, Germany and Albania. On average however, I personally found this edition of the Architecture Biennale less impressive than in previous years. Architectural Digest has put this aptly: “brilliant architects do not necessarily make good curators”.
In this post, I will share with you my 7 favourite pavilions of this year, which combine the Freespace theme with an exquisite or imaginative design. My detailed reviews, including additional pictures, of each of these pavilions are available via the links below. In a next article, I share with you another set of 6 impressive installations. These socially responsible projects are not only an asset for their local community. On top of that, they are beautifully presented at the Biennale.
When planning your trip to the Biennale, make sure to foresee enough time. Take into account that you can easily spend a full day in Giardini, one in Arsenale, and at least 2 days to see the pavilions in the city. There are also several large exhibitions ongoing which are worth visiting such as ‘1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim’ at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (more information in my post ‘The artistic legacy of Peggy Guggenheim in Venice‘.) or ‘The Explorers, Part One’ at the V-A-C Foundation which opened its doors last year.
Holy See – Vatican Chapels – San Giorgio Maggiore
The Holy See is participating for the first time to the Architecture Biennale and has installed its pavilion in the large park of San Giorgio Maggiore. Curator Francesco Dal Co asked 10 internationally recognized architects to design a chapel for the exhibition. My very high expectations of this pavilion have certainly been met.
Coming from the vaporetto, the park is located on the other side of the island. The 5 minutes’ walk takes you along the marina and the Stanze del Vetro museum with the Qwalala glass installation. In the park, I almost immediately noticed a structure with large steps and kind of a bridge, hidden between the trees. I still have no clue what it is, but it turned out not to be one of the chapels for the Biennale. I therefore consider it my personal 11th Vatican chapel.
As soon as you reach the part with the chapels, you don’t know where to start. Everywhere you look, you notice a chapel popping up from between the trees. They all look very appealing so you have to discover them more closely. Each chapel contains two fundamental liturgical elements: the ambo (pulpit or lectern) and the altar. The 10 chapels vary from open metal constructions over half-open wooden chapels to totally closed pavilions. They are all totally different, so it’s hard to compare them. If I would have to choose, the wooden sanctuary of Norman Foster would be my favourite.
I do hope all the chapels will be relocated to a beautiful place, where they can bring people together in a new free space. Each chapel tempts to pray, meditate or just relax, and this will be even more so when they will be set up in a different context without Biennale visitors around. I think they can also appeal to people from other religions or non-believers. Pope Franciscus can be very proud of this impressive pavilion which was led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. I think it’s a great promotion for the catholic church and their values of human fraternity of being together in a free space.
You can find my detailed review with additional pictures in ‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Holy See‘.
Germany – Unbuilding Walls – Giardini
The German pavilion uses the former inner-German border to examine the effects of division and the process of healing. The curators, GRAFT and Marianne Birthler, demonstrate how the newly available public space on the former border strip can be used in a positive way without destroying the memories of the past. A selection of approx. 25 architectural projects shows how this void in the middle of a new capital evolved since the collapse of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago.
The exhibition does not only fit perfectly into the Freespace theme, the layout of the pavilion is also powerful. When you enter the main area, you only see huge black parts of a wall, hence, you cannot see what’s behind. This symbolizes the feeling that Germans must have had when living on one side of the border. The projects on the former border strip are described with words, pictures and video on the white back of these panels. The difference between the black and white sides immediately sets you in the appropriate mood, i.e. dark and fear versus light and joy. In the side rooms, you can watch the video testimonies of people from all over the world who still live in a divided country.
The entire set-up is well thought-out and makes you think about the effects of war, but also about the resilience of people to create a beautiful new area and to adapt to new ways of living.
You can find my detailed review with additional pictures in ‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Germany’.
Albania – Hapësira Zero Space – Arsenale
The pavilion of Albania had already surprised me at the Architecture Biennale 2014 with ‘The column’ of Adrian Paci. I have to admit this was again the case this year with their fifth participation. Curator Elton Koritari interpreted Freespace as the liberation of the space on the ground floor of the capital Tirana after the fall of communism. The citizens took the city in their own hands and started their own business from their homes, creating a city where everyone serves something to someone. The active participation and the sense of community are reflected in the modification of the ground floor from a private place to an open public space.
The installation shows a series of original doors taken from buildings in Tirana. The fact that you can open them symbolizes an invitation to discover what’s behind. Amongst the doors, hundreds of small frames show pictures of small businesses or activities in the city such as a cafeteria, a shoemaker, a barber shop, a tailor or a butcher. The concept of Freespace is in this case not merely a matter of the use of a location, but more about the freedom of mind and the possibility to decide for themselves how to live their lives.
The Albanian exhibit is very intruiging. At first sight, you might find it hard to grasp, but once you get the story behind it, you will find it difficult not to look at each of these frames to discover yet one more story. It’s a pavilion where you can easily spend a lot of time if you want to.
You can find a detailed review with additional pictures in ‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Albania‘.
Russia – Station Russia – Giardini
The Russian pavilion focuses on the importance of train stations as a public space. The exhibition explores the past, present and future of the Russian railways and how they traverse the vast and often empty expanse of the Russian landscape. Commissioner and curator Semyon Mikhailovsky, supported by JSC Russian Railways, immerses you in the world of exuberant train stations around Russia. Even though there are plenty of beautiful train stations in Europe, several stations in Russia bring that concept to a higher level.
The main room of the pavilion shows models of different railway and train station projects around Russia, both realized and conceptual. It gives you an idea of the magnitude of some of these projects. The model of the Sochi station for instance, which was built for the Winter Olympics, shows this at a single glance. It became Russia’s first railway station certified in accordance with environmental BREEAM standards, because it utilizes environmentally-friendly technologies, such as energy-efficient lighting, water consumption monitoring system and solar panels.
Russia has also the longest train ride in the world. The Trans-Siberian Express takes 7 days to cross 9,300 km. You can take part in this journey from Moscow to Vladivostok by watching the 7 minutes short film by director Daniil Zinchenko, which captures the 7 days in high speed.
Finally, in the room below, you can discover ‘The Crypt of Memories’ with lockers from an old luggage room together with abandoned suitcases. In some of these robust looking steel cabinets, you can read the travel stories of famous train travellers such as David Bowie. Unfortunately, these texts are quite hard to read in the dark, but the set-up is stunning. You feel like you’re transported back in time.
You can find my detailed review with additional pictures in ‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Russia‘.
Romania – Mnemonics – Giardini
The prize for the most fun pavilion certainly goes to the playground of Romania. The 6 multi-disciplinary team members (Romeo Cuc, Mihai Gheorghe, Irina Petra Gudana, Roxana Pop, Raluca Sabau, Vlad Tomei) brought together their childhood memories and their wish to watch the city transform for the better. The pavilion shows a scenography of the free space between the apartment buildings of Romania’s cities. This generous space has no rules and is a strong piece of collective memory for the kids of the past few decades in Romania. It’s an area where children play and build their memories, and which mixes friendships, games, mishaps and fun stories.
A sign at the entrance of the pavilion tells you to use the entire installation, so don’t be shy to do so. It often requires only one daring person before the other visitors will follow. You can sit on the swing, play ping pong or try your soccer skills. Afterwards, take some time to read the cards on the walls. The front shows an infograph of a children’s game, but I personally liked the answers to ‘why did we play this’ on the back the best.
The original installation makes it clear that presenting facts and research shouldn’t be dull. The team was very creative to present topics related to children in a way that’s also fun for adults. And by playing around, I’m sure you will realize much more how important it is to have free space for children than by reading a long statement about the impact of open air on the health and happiness of children.
You can find my detailed review with additional pictures in ‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Romania‘.
Switzerland – Svizzera 240: House Tour – Giardini
If you want to have some more fun, the Swiss pavilion will certainly please you. The exhibition focuses on the unfurnished interior of contemporary housing to draw attention to an architecture that is hidden in plain sight. Curators Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Katariina Vihervaara invite you for a house tour in their totally white pavilion. The team wants us to focus on the basics of architecture when looking around at a house to buy or rent. These empty white spaces are often overlooked and seem to hide what you could make of it.
The installation shows you nothing more than white doors, doorknobs, windows, kitchen-sink units and sockets. These are shown in different sizes from tiny to huge. The biggest scale makes you stand on your toes to look at the kitchen, while you almost have to crawl to get through the smallest door. After a while, your mind is totally deranged and you don’t know anymore whether something is a normal size or not. It’s fun but it also makes you think about perspective.
The pavilion has won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation for ‘a compelling architectural installation that is at once enjoyable while tackling the critical issues of scale in domestic space’. Once you’ve seen this installation, I’m sure you will look from a different point of view at any empty apartment on a house tour.
You can find a detailed review with additional pictures in ‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Switzerland’.
Australia – Repair – Giardini
Finally, you can take some time to relax at the Australian pavilion, which has been transformed into a living installation with a huge grassland. It is designed to disrupt the viewing conditions through which architecture is usually understood and serves as a reminder of what is at stake when we occupy land.
The curators Mauro Baracco and Louise Wright, in collaboration with Linda Tegg, installed ten thousand plants inside and outside the pavilion, including 65 species of Victorian Western Plains Grasslands. While I was there, I noticed Louise Wright pulling out the weeds outside the pavilion. The downside of a concept with a living installation must be the fact that it requires a continuous effort from the team to keep it beautiful and alive during the entire period of the Biennale.
Once you’ve read the introduction text at the entrance, the pavilion is relatively easy to visit as there are no signs to read or models to look at. There are only grasses and, from time to time, a video. The pavilion is an oasis of peace and quiet, so it’s perfect to escape the heath of Venice and the crowds of the Biennale. You can take a seat amidst the grasses and spend some time inside the pavilion. This concept of one large public space is similar to the swimming pool which the Australians installed for the Architecture Biennale 2016.
You can find a detailed review with additional pictures in ‘‘Review of the Architecture Biennale 2018: Australia’.
Making this selection was quite hard, and I regret that I can’t list more. If you want to know more about the Freespace theme and the different initiatives, you can read my post ‘What to expect from the Architecture Biennale 2018’. More practical information is also available in the post ‘How to prepare your visit to the Architecture Biennale 2018’. Finally, you can find a list of all the articles related to the Architecture Biennale via this overview page.
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