Art & Culture

Canal Plus

Words by Alex Rayner

01 July 2020

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Our visitor’s guide to the Venice Architecture Biennale.

This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale draws to a close towards the end of next month. Considering a trip? Then here’s how to get up-to-speed.

Don’t expect a lot of the work on display to get built anytime soon. Architecture can be a pretty unforgiving profession. “A doctor can bury his mistakes,” says Frank Lloyd Wright, “but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” The Biennale, by contrast, staged every two years since 1980 in the city’s Giardini showgrounds, allows prominent figures in the profession the chance to fool around with ideas that might otherwise not suit big public or commercial commissions.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then you’ve probably joined in. This year’s curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, of the acclaimed Irish practice Grafton Architects, took the term ‘Freespace’ as this year’s theme – a term which, as the two explain, “describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of Architecture Biennale’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself.” Simply being able to lounge around in a building, enjoying its qualities, is an important end in itself. Farrell and McNamara have, therefore, installed a wide range of benches inside this show, including some created simply by repurposing a few chunks of marble found in storage.

Expect a bit of politics. Venice Architecture Biennale, like its fine-art counterpart, invites a range of countries to host a display in a series of national pavilions within the Giardini, and, when representing their countries, architects - like artists - find it hard to not pass political judgements. The British Pavilion’s show, by London practice Caruso St John, called Island, consists of a simple viewing platform built on top of the pavilion, offering perhaps a bold comment on Brexit. Meanwhile, the US Pavilion houses a show called Dimensions of Citizenship, presenting a pretty anti-Trump-style meditation on the individual, in a present-day-built environment.

Don’t go looking for too many big-statement buildings however. Despite recent, prominent ‘starchitect’ curators, such as 2014’s Rem Koolhaas, Venice Architecture Biennale has tried to distance itself from headline-grabbing unveilings. Instead, it has favoured thought-provoking, and sometimes provocative installations, such as 2018’s Cruising Pavilion - an off-site, plywood meditation on anonymous hook-ups, riddled with ‘glory hole’ style perforations.

Remember, there are good and bad Biennales. Most of us will take the opportunity to visit one or two architectural exhibitions in a lifetime, but for those who regularly visit the Biennale, Farrell and McNamara’s Freespace show is generally regarded as a success, because it exposes visitors to the crucially important aspect of enjoyable spaces. Just find a bench and try to take it all in.

If you’d like to fit in a trip to Venice with all the benefits and insider tips, why not contact our travel specialists at [email protected] or +44 (020) 7022 6560

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