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The Venice Biennale

Warwick Mihaly takes us to the 2018 Venice Biennale…

I’m in Venice. It’s hot and humid and teeming with tourists, a cacophony of languages and accents, cheap souvenirs and selfie sticks. The water is aquamarine and pungent, a bouquet of toxic algae and dead fish. The ancient buildings guard the banks of the canals, their mostly shuttered windows reinforcing a pervading sense of decay.

It is one of the most wonderful cities in the world.

Yesterday, we caught the ferry from the Venice airport into the city, and as it turned into the Grand Canal, I was once again mesmerised by the parade of palazzi as they slid by. Stone and brick lean against one another, no two buildings occupying quite the same angle or inclination. Piani nobili draw an elevated datum from one palazzo to the next, rising above the damp and periodic acqua alta. Narrow windows are arched, pointed, decorated and colonnaded. Gazing out the ferry window, I couldn’t help but think of James Bond.

The last time I was here was in 2010, a lifetime ago. Erica and I volunteered for the 12th Biennale Architettura, in the old and weary Australian Pavilion designed by Philip Cox. The exhibition that year was the pick of the bunch: fantastical visions of current and future Australia curated by John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec. We were recently married, travelling the world, and had only a few months earlier established our architecture studio together.

Eight years on, we’ve left our studio in the hands of our capable team and returned to Venice with our young children. We’re here once again for the Biennale Architettura, for a new Australian Pavilion designed by DCM, and for the Australian exhibition curated by Mauro Baracco, Louise Wright and Linda Tegg.

Our apartment is in the San Polo district, which spreads out from the Ponte Rialto towards the west. We wake up to our first morning and sugary bomboloni from Venice’s best pasticceria, Tonolo. Munching happily, we weave our way through labyrinthine streets and alleys to the closest vaporetto stop. Venice moves slowly at the best of times, but in the humid summer heat and with two pairs of short legs easily fatigued, our movement across the city is positively glacial.

The vaporetto carries us down the length of the Grand Canal and out into the Venice lagoon, hugging the coast as we draw closer to the Giardini. Stepping off the vaporetto delivers a burst of nostalgia: it is such a pleasure to be back here. Leafy boulevards and noisy gravel welcome us as we buy tickets and pass into the promised land.

But our children are hungry again, so we’re forced to pause before we even start. We guzzle panini impatiently, and I gaze around at the national pavilions wondering how many we’ll actually manage to see. In the too-narrow window between our arrival and departure, we visit the Nordic, Swiss, Australian, Venezuelan, Japanese, Canadian, German, Spanish, Belgian, and Finnish pavilions. This may sound like a lot, but represents only a third of the pavilions in the Giardini alone. The Arsenale and other locations scattered around the city are but distant dreams.

The Australian Pavilion is of course the newest kid on the block. The original Cox pavilion it replaces was built in 1988 as a temporary measure to ensure we nabbed the last available lot within the Giardini. I always found it to be quintessentially Australian. A simple white shack in the Sydney style, a speculative real-estate venture, for twenty-five years the worst house on the best street.

When the Arts Council of Australia finally found the funding to replace the Cox pavilion with something permanent, they commissioned DCM to design an austere and hermetic space for the Exhibition Of Art. The building is a white box within a black one, ominously cantilevered over the small canal that bisects the Giardini. Its plasterboard internal walls, and operable apertures to the exterior are I’m sure a dream to exhibit in, but the building could not have less personality nor be less resonant of Australian culture than if it were a big glass pagoda with an apple on the side of it.

When we step inside, the lights are on and single window open. I wind my way through Baracco, Wright and Tegg’s low grass mounds towards the window. It’s about 1m wide by 2m high and provides a glimpse of the canal beyond. It is supremely disappointing. Here I am in the Giardini of Venice, one of the world’s most storied gardens, and all I can see of it is through this one tiny window. The ACA dreamt big technically, but they had no vision at all for the cultural expression of place.

I’m reminded in this regard of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome. It too misses the point of its urbanism, hiding from the street at ground level, and once inside carrying visitors towards a magnificent window that overlooks not much at all. Both Hadid and DCM have not understood the layers of ancient history that shape their contexts: designing in Italy is not just about facilitating a contemporary programme, but about celebrating the centuries of human occupation, cultural epochs and design ingenuity that have come before. The Australian Pavilion is a good gallery, but it has missed a huge opportunity to express the tension of an Australian building within this remarkable Italian context.

Abruptly, the lights in the pavilion switch off and one of the fifteen short films that comprise the exhibition is projected onto the walls. Our kids are delighted with the suddenly mysterious grasslands. They explore each nook and cranny along the carefully sculpted paths, hiding amongst the grass with barely suppressed giggles. I miss the film entirely, which is a pity, though discover later that even the most resilient visitors find it difficult to sit through the full chiaroscuro cycle of bright grow lights and dark film sequences. When the lights wind back up again, we meet one of the resident treefrogs, and try in vain to count all the spiders that have made this mini ecosystem their home.

Though I miss out on the films that pair with the grasslands, which together seek to “disrupt the viewing conditions thorough which we understand architecture and the land it occupies,” I discover that Repair sits well within the broader theme for the Biennale. 1 Directed by Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Freespace asks exhibitors to examine the “generosity of spirit and sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself.”2

Baracco, Wright and Tegg have directed their energies towards a tactile experience, evoking a particularly Australian frame of reference. They have in effect crafted a living cinema to transport visitors through smell and touch into the Australian backyard.

It’s an engaging exhibition for our children, fragrant and unusual. But it’s worth noting that the plants are not doing well. The trees and shrubs are wilting badly, and the long grass has yellowed. The Australian attendant on duty, a graduate of landscape architecture, tells me that the plants are suffering in the humidity and are plagued by foreign bugs for which they have no defences. As I leave, I wonder if this enhances or diminishes the curators’ ambitions for the pavilion. Does a sick ecosystem reinforce or diminish the vast physical boundaries surrounding the natural Australian landscape? Does it prove or disprove the opportunities of cultural export? And what meaning does it have for the lens through which we view architectural practice, both here and at home?

For me, the most resounding impression is one of lofty but not-quite-successful ambition. Transplanting rare Australian native grasses into a foreign climate was never going to be easy. But I applaud the commitment. In particular, I enjoy the way this space bucks the trend within the Biennale to simply exhibit work, as though the best the Spanish, Finnish and Germans can come up with is some supercharged version of a university exhibition. I like the Australian Pavilion because it immerses me in its story. It captures the most exciting quality offered by the Biennale, an opportunity to not just read but experience.

When we leave for the day, I feel both rewarded and frustrated. The Giardini is a place that nourishes the mind, but it demands a lengthy stay, deep contemplation and evenings of prosecco-fuelled discussion. We have nowhere near enough time or attention span to do the Biennale justice, and despite some individually successful pavilions, we haven’t quite managed to get our architectural fix.

When tomorrow arrives, we decide to abandon plans to visit the Arsenale and instead head to San Giorgio Maggiore, a small island off the southern coast of the main Venetian landmass.3 The island contains a handful of installations, two of which we spend hours exploring.

The first is Qwalala by Pae White, a sinuous wall of colourful Murano glass bricks. The wall rises and falls and winds its way across a pebble courtyard overlooked by the adjacent San Giorgio cloister. The sun is scorching today, and with no shade at all, the wall glistens. The colour composition is simply beautiful, and not counting the heat stroke I would happily stay here all day. It is such a treat to experience something like this in person, to run my hands across the smooth glass surface of the bricks, to see the craftsmanship in each unit, and the complexity in both colour and texture within the glass. Surely this is Freespace at its finest.

The second installation is even more remarkable, a collection of eleven chapels sponsored by the Vatican and set within the island’s lush and shaded gardens. It is the Vatican’s first ever contribution to the Biennale, a project personally initiated by the Pope and curated by Professor Francesco dal Co. Inspired by the Woordland Chapel built by Gunnar Asplund in 1920, eleven architects were hand-picked from around the world, via god-knows-what selection process.4

Sean Godsell’s chapel is my favourite, an austere tower of grey zinc with his trademark lift-up panels at the base. The tower is hollow and open to the sky, its interior also zinc-clad but in a surprising golden hue. The colour is invisible until I am right beneath it, and as I tilt my head backwards I have to squint to counteract the dazzling light bouncing down towards me. At the tower’s base is a stainless steel altar, which looks suspiciously like a barbecue. It’s a likeness I imagine to be deliberate: a cheeky yet subtle Aussie symbolism within this serious setting.

Indeed, the use of explicit symbols is generally absent from the Vatican chapels. Crosses are present, but in the abstract: when Godsell’s lift-up panels are open, his tower makes a cruciform shape in plan; Eduardo Souto de Moura has used a vertical junction between two stones together with a decorative horizontal score; and Norman Foster has employed distant pieces of vertical and horizontal timber structure that align only at certain viewing points.

The chapels are a joy. Foster’s arbour of slotted timber is a masterwork in complex geometry, and directs the eye across the waters towards Venice proper. Javier Corvalán has cantilevered a cylindrical and impossibly light sheath of plywood from a steel truss anchor more befitting a bridge. And Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel have crafted an exquisite object in blackened timber shingles. I’m man enough to admit that its faceted form and razor-sharp steel junctions make me swoon.

It’s a beautifully made collection of buildings, financed by what I can only imagine are unfathomably deep Vatican pockets. It’s the last thing we experience of the Biennale and endlessly rewarding. Our kids love both the chapels and the gardens, collecting sticks and chasing one another from one to the next. The architecture is considered and emotionally charged. And it does me proud to see Godsell competing with the best of them: his chapel manages to be both Australian and Italian, local and displaced, robust and refined. On reflection, it’s what the Australian Pavilion should have been in the first place.

As we leave the island, and the next morning Venice as well, I hope these rushed experiences we share with our kids visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions pay off as they grow older. I hope it helps them develop a taste for culture and architecture, the cerebral and the artistic. At the moment, they seem more interested in the Frecciarossa fast train we catch from Venice to Milan, but who can blame me for hoping?

1 About; The Australian Pavilion Biennale Architettura 2018; Australian Institute of Architects; accessed July 2018.

2 Biennale Architettura General Outline; La Biennale di Venezia; accessed July 2018.

3 Many thanks to Jules and Mick Moloney, and Peter Raisbeck, for the recommendation. Without it, we would never have visited or even remembered it existed.

4 Paolo Ferrarini; Best national participants at 2018’s Venice Architecture Biennale; Cool Hunting; accessed July 2018. Also, pun intended.

 

Warwick Mihaly, architect
ArchiTeam director

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