My top five Venice Architecture Biennale picks

25 May, 2018

There’s only one real way to tackle the Venice Architecture Biennale and that’s to have criteria. If you set your own standards from the outset then it makes it easier to walk away without feeling guilty. You can invent your own criteria but mine are as follows.

Is it clear within the first 20-30 seconds what the pavilion/installation is trying to say or express?

Does the pavilion/installation make me smile and/or is it provocative and encourages me to explore further?

Has the subject got any bearing to this year’s theme of Freespace?

Will it take more than 10 minutes?

Do I want to come back for a longer visit?

But first, Caruso St John’s British Pavilion – which did not score well. It failed particularly badly because I didn’t know what to do once I had arrived. Should I go up the scaffold stair or enter via the ground floor? As there is no obvious relationship between the two levels, it doesn’t really matter which and you should probably be guided by the time of day. If you visit between 12am-2pm avoid the roof as it gives new meaning to the word “sun trap”. Almost totally without shade – apparently bottled water is not allowed to be sold because “it spoils the artistry” – it is perhaps a perfect example of how not to design public space. And using the roof has been done before, by the French in 2006. Then, EXYZT turned the pavilion’s roof into a party space with hammocks, great views, a bar and a sauna.

Here, all that’s offered is afternoon tea at 4pm  – not even PG Tips but herbal tea – under one of the few tiny umbrellas.

The curators’ wanted the British Pavilion to be about Brexit, abandonment and sanctuary but instead it has revealed us as a schizophrenic nation, both wildly eccentric and emotionally retarded. I can’t honestly say anything about the empty gallery space aka “ the abandoned pavilion” because when I showed up it was shut for a private function.

Roof of British Pavilion by Caruso St John

So here are my top five


By now you have probably read that the Swiss, not known for their huge sense of humour, have pulled off a pavilion that is wonderful and therefore fulfils almost all my criteria. Within ten seconds, you’re hooked. What is this strange domestic interior that makes you feel like you’ve disappeared down one of Alice’s rabbit holes? Simply put, the exhibition has re-made the Swiss Pavilion as a house with skirtings, cupboards and doors constructed at a range of different scales and then mixed together. In terms of the theme, it’s stretching it a bit but in the best possible way by arguing that while architecture is normally celebrated for its ability to create space, it also has the power to manipulate our experience of it.

Swiss Pavilion- Svizzera 240: House Tour


Holy See Pavilion

The little island of San Giorgio Maggiore is only a short hop from the Arsenale (take the B waterbus) and it’s on the tourist route because of Palladio’s church of the same name. This Biennale, the Vatican has outshone almost everyone else by commissioning via curator Francesco Dal Co, a stunning collection of chapels that although very different, all conform to the Vatican’s brief that they must include an altar and a lectern. My favourite is Terunobu Fujimori’s where the narrowest of doors reveals a beautifully decorated interior dominated by a rough wooden cross. But every chapel is well worth visiting. I loved Australian architect Sean Godsell’s inspired by Venetian bell towers which open to create steel awnings and viewed from above makes the shape of a crucifix.

Chapel by Terunobu Fujimori


One of the very few delights of the dull Corderie show is Indonesia. Only the second time the country has exhibited at the Biennale, it has chosen to make its entire installation out of paper. Odd as paper isn’t even a building material used in Indonesia the curators tell me. But they chose it because paper means nothing and their aim is to try and represent “emptiness ”. Vast rolls of heavy paper slice vertically through the Corderie space with cut-outs where you can stand and listen to a strange sound recording of of people’s voices and birdsong.

Curators in front of the Indonesian Pavilion


Also in the Corderie, is Ireland, which once again is on top form with a show about market towns and what’s happened to them. While its low on wow factor, this is one of the few exhibitions where the curators have tackled the issue of “free space” head on and found that market squares, the traditional gathering places for local communities, are disappearing at an alarming rate. There is lots to read including the newspaper catalogue but the point is powerfully made without having to wade through pages of text.

The Irish Pavilion


Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse

I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like the V&A’s Robin Hood Gardens show which consists of a fragment of RHG, shipped to the Corderie and accompanied by a 30 minute video of the building and its interiors by Korean artist Do Ho Suh . However I am smitten -with some reservations. The 9m-high salvaged section of the façade is fine. You can climb up it although I am not sure it’s entirely necessary. The film is beautiful and moving, being both a sad record of the building, now demolished, and a meditation on home, memory and displacement. The V&A’s curatorial stance is that they want to use RHG to tell the wider story of 20th century social housing. At the moment the V&A is not doing that, rather it is re-establishing RHG’s architectural significance presumably partly to justify the enormous cost of salvaging it, taking it to Venice, and then rebuilding it in the new V&A East, where it will doubtless look superb.

A ‘fragment” of Robin Hood Gardens in the Corderie


Also worth visiting, Japan for beautiful drawings, Romania which is strangely moving in its effort to breathe new life into its battered towns and Greece, which I didn’t get time to see but people say is good.