The 16th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia opened last week, to a crowd of architects, designers, urbanists, artists, and anyone with an interest in the discipline. Sun-soaked Venice, with its architectural grandeur, is an incredible context for showcasing the best in architecture, with a biennale this year responding to the overarching theme of ‘FREESPACE’ put forward by Dublin-based architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. FREESPACE according to the curators, seeks to capture both the context and atmosphere of Venice within the atmosphere of the main exhibitions of the Giardini and Arsenale. Alongside this is a desire to emphasises the capacity of architecture to “encompasses freedom to imagine,” “be a space for opportunity,” “a democratic and un-programmed space” and so on. This theme led to interpretations ranging from ‘public scrutiny examples, proposals, elements – built or unbuilt work that exemplifies essential qualities of architecture including the modulation, richness and materiality of surface; the orchestration and sequencing of movement, revealing the embodied power and beauty of architecture.’ Established practices including Alvaro Siza, Toyo Ito, Bjarke Ingles Group (BIG), Diller, Scofidio +Renfro, Studio Odile DECQ and Studio Gang all appear in both main venues, with UK collective Assemble particularly standing out for their remarkable swirling tiled floor, located in the mirrored entrance to the Giardini. This complimented the frescoed dome above, with tiles, produces in Liverpool by their Granby Workshops. There was a recurrence in some of the national pavilions manifesting this theme conceptually as was the case of the Pavilions of Switzerland, Belgium, Bahrain and Great Britain. Whilst others were dense and theoretical presentations with Latvia, Lithuania, Spain and Lebanon, some more successful than others in responding to Farrell and McNamara’s broad and all-encompassing theme.

Lebanon, a first-time participant explored through a project with the title ‘the place that remains’, the hinterland of the greater Beirut area focusing specifically on the catchment area of its river. The pavilion was an inventory of what remains in this territory with a two-tone wooden model presenting a piece of mountain that is at risk of being taken over by urbanization. Bahrain’s research on the ritual of the Friday Sermon and its influence on public space and public opinion was fantastically realised as simple but elegant contemplative space designed by Nicholas Lobo Brennan and Astrid Smitham of Apparata. The translucent skinned room offered respite from the overcrowded spaces of the Arsenale, with sound recordings of Friday Sermons playing at intervals. The Golden Lion for Best National Participation was awarded to Switzerland for its compelling architectural installation titled Svizzera 240: House Tour by Alessandro Bosshard, Li tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg, and Ani Vihervaara, a young team of architects from ETH zurich tackling the critical issues of scale in domestic space. The installation took visitors into a minimalist Alice-in-Wonderland like domestic space where perspective and scale was interrogated with multiple doorways, rooms, and fixtures of varying scales and heights. Great Britain with a collaboration between London/Zurich-based architecte, Caruso St. John and artist, Marcus Taylor, on the other hand got a special mention for its proposal using a completely empty pavilion to create a “freespace” for events and informal appropriation. In addition to this, scaffold stairs led to visitors up to a newly created roof terrace with views towards the Lido, waterways and of people visiting the Giardini.

The highlight of the biennale overall was The Holy See (Vatican) pavilion located on the island of San Giorgio Maggiori. and curated by Francesco Dal Co and Micol Forti. These 10 ‘Vatican chapels’ were designed by Andrew Berman, Francesco Cellini, Javier Corvalàn, Eva Prats and Ricardo Flores, Norman Foster, Teronobu Fujimori, Sean Godsell, Carla Juacaba, Smiljan Radic, Eduardo Souto de Moura, Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel. Between models and installations, spaces and non-spaces, FREESPACE calls for fluidity and a rethinking of what is known in order to allow for a new model of engagement. As with such events, one had to dig deep to encounter gems within an expansive theme, but when these were discovered, architecture comes across as being as remarkable, visionary and truly a thrilling practice of both utilitarian and aesthetic ends.


The 16th Venice Architecture Biennial runs until 26 November 2018 in the Giardini and Arsenale venues, and in other locations in Venice.