Visit: Venice Biennale - Freespace

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This week I met up with a couple of fellow MAUDs in Venice to catch one of the final weeks of the Bienalle Architettura 2018.

This year’s theme was ‘Freespace’ and many of the exhibitions had an element of questioning the ‘publicness’ of architecture and were relevant to my own work in increasing the publicness of government and in particularly the architecture of government. The stand out pavilion at the Giardini for my own work was the Belgian Pavilion which was entitled ‘Eurotopie’. The pavilion was filled with a ‘European Blue’ tiered amphitheatre which emanated from the centre of the space outwards into all of the rooms.

The pavilion and the events it has held over the course of the Bienalle were designed as a critique of the European Quarter in Brussels, an area I spent some time in at the beginning of the fieldwork period, whilst also questioning what the future of Europe could be, particularly in light of the UK’s exit and rising nationalism in countries such as Italy and Greece.

The designers of the pavilion were sceptical of the design of the European Quarter in Brussels and believe that its design does not reflect the transnational European identity, nor do the residents of Brussels identify so much with it. This was partly noted during my time in Brussels as the main aspect of the Espace Leopold’s design is the esplanade running across the site yet it wasn’t particulalry populated and failed to inregrate well into the rest of the city on its connections at either end.

The Great Britain pavilion, curated (or not) by Caruso St John also reflected on Europe with reference to Brexit and the UK’s departure. They decided to leave the insides of the British pavilion empty and create a temporary viewing platform structure on top of the pavilion, inviting other people and countries to use the British pavilion instead. There were definitely a lot of confused faces walking around the empty pavilion and to be honest it was a concept that sounds better on paper than it was executed - much like Brexit itself I imagine.

A couple of pavilions stood out as highlights for me; the Hungarian Pavilion which was centred around the public use of a bridge in Budapest, and the Swiss Pavilion which won the Golden Lion award for best pavilion. The Hungarian Pavilion featured a video documentary about the four weekends a year that the Liberty Bridge in Budapest becomes car-free and a completely public space. The entire exhibition was highlighted in the liberty green colour of the bridge and was very simple in what it was trying to portray in comparison to other pavilions (SPAIN) who tried to show everything they could think of. The public use of the Liberty Bridge was something I hadn’t heard of before and I found it to be a very insightful way of using parts of the city differently and a much better alternative to Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge idea!

The Swiss Pavilion was named ‘House Tour’ and was centred around the use of bland and standardised design in new build housing and rented properties. In Switzerland renting is very common and tenants move quite often therefore standard components are often used to suit anyone. By playing with scale, the pavilion is a somewhat Alice in Wonderland set with kitchen cupboards becoming over-sized and doors becoming miniscule. Once again this had a very simple idea and was executed very well and if anything it starts to question ‘why are the walls always white?’ and ‘why the ikea kitchen everywhere?’.

As this was my first time at the Biennale I would definitely go back as there is inspiration at every turn, particularly within the Arsenale site. Outside of the Biennale, a visit to Gino Valle’s housing on Guidecca was unmissable as I hadn’t managed to make it last time I was in Venice. The whole estate goes to show how modern (more contemporary) styles of architecture can fit into the context of Venetian architecture and the use of concrete and bricks here is so simple, yet really works. It’s a fine example of what can be done on small budgets with a bit of imagination!

Tom Ardron