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In search of elevation at the Venice Biennale

Everything’s up in the air at this year’s show, which is gratifyingly tangible

British Pavilion - the civic square perched above the roof.
British Pavilion - the civic square perched above the roof. Credit: Hugh Pearman

Stairways to heaven. Reaching towards the light. Infinity reflections. These recurrent tropes of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, to be found deployed by disparate nationalities and cultures, represent – what, I wonder? Freespace, they called it: that’s the overarching theme for the exhibition as set by directors Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects. It’s a fine concept, intended to emphasise that architecture is about so much more than ostensible function, goes beyond the walls of buildings into another realm of shared civitas, of human exchange. ‘Citizens should demand architecture as a civic right,’ they say.

As usual it is then up to individual nations and individual architects to interpret that theme. For those unfamiliar with the structure of the Venice Architecture Biennales, the directors are free to invite whoever they like to take part in the two main general exhibition areas: the medieval Arsenale buildings in the old naval dockyard, and the Central Pavilion in the Biennale gardens or Giardini. But aside from setting the theme, they have no control over the national pavilions – mostly for historic reasons in the Giardini but also dotted throughout the Venetian archipelago. And finally there are all kinds of ‘collateral events’, piggy-backing on the main exhibition, all over the city.

Perspective made solid - John Wardle installation in the Corderie.
Perspective made solid - John Wardle installation in the Corderie. Credit: Hugh Pearman

That structure never changes so the success or otherwise of the Biennale all comes down to the strength of character of the directors, who must crack the whip as if at the circus but who must also command respect without the whip. To over-generalise somewhat, the weaker Biennales (and national pavilions) are those directed by academics and critics: the stronger ones by thinking practitioners. This is one of the stronger ones.

It is satisfyingly analogue, full of tangible stuff, with remarkable little electronica. In the Arsenal, Niall McLaughlin’s manually-driven cosmological rotating capriccio of his own buildings – a Soanian imagined world – is a beautifully-crafted highlight, if somewhat self-indulgent. Australian architect John Wardle’s ‘Somewhere Other’, which solidifies drawn perspective in eucalyptus-scented wood and includes viewing lenses, is excellent. Peter Cook, no less, declared it the best thing in the whole Biennale.

What’s officially the best thing among the national pavilions is the Swiss offering which is indeed captivating: the concept is that this is an empty apartment you’re being shown round (white walls, wooden floor) but it keeps messing with your head in an Alice-in-Wonderland way. Some rooms and doors are huge, kitchen worktops are way too high, other spaces and doors are tiny. This throws the emphasis on your awareness of your own body in architect-designed space.

Directors Grafton architects left the Corderie free of clutter.
Directors Grafton architects left the Corderie free of clutter. Credit: Hugh Pearman

The Swiss may have won that category but the Brits (Caruso St John with artist Marcus Taylor) got themselves a special mention for ‘Island’. This does what the Brits almost never manage in the claustrophobic compartmentalised British Council pavilion, which can engender mental muddle and over-complexity. ‘Island’ for once takes a single concept and carries it through. The pavilion is left empty. An open town square is made instead, elevated high above the building on scaffolding. You must labour up a long flight of temporary steps to get there and there’s not nearly enough shade from the Adriatic sun and the serving of tea from an urn at 4pm is a bit whimsical, but this simple architectural gesture, opening up the pavilion to the lagoon, works. The pavilion below isn’t necessarily empty anyway: events take place there. At the opening these included the RIBA-hosted ‘Europa Super session’ where an impressive selection of architects from across Europe discussed future practice (the spectre of Brexit being much invoked).

Others have much the same idea unfortunately, notably Hungary (same scaffolding stairs rising to a – smaller – platform hovering above the pavilion roof), Austria (more satisfactory timber stair-and-platform arrangement rising to just beneath the glazed roof) and China – with a very nice circular timber tower/auditorium in the its usual big space at the far end of the Arsenale, though that does not break through to the light.

Grafton’s clarity of design comes through in the main Corderie (ropewalk) section of the Arsenale where the pair literally measure its length in metres and Venetian feet: the long walk becoming a giant tape measure. They leave the Corderie clear and uncluttered – it’s a similar story in the often chopped-about Central Pavilion – and both look all the better for it. Again, there is reach-for-the-light (to be exact, the Corderie’s high windows) from some of the exhibitors. A sense of numinous yearning pervades.

  • McLaughlin's capstan-like rotating capriccio.
    McLaughlin's capstan-like rotating capriccio. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Sean Godsell Vatican chapel takes the form of an abstracted tower opening at the base.
    Sean Godsell Vatican chapel takes the form of an abstracted tower opening at the base. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • The Vatican chapel by Souto de Moura looks as if it could last for ever.
    The Vatican chapel by Souto de Moura looks as if it could last for ever. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Alison Brooks vertical cloister - you have to lie on your back to get this view.
    Alison Brooks vertical cloister - you have to lie on your back to get this view. Credit: Hugh Pearman
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If that is secular, it’s quite the opposite at the ‘pavilion’ of the Holy See of Rome, the first time the Vatican has taken part in the Biennale. It has taken over the previously overgrown public gardens on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and built 11 temporary chapels by leading architects ranging from Eduardo Souto de Moura via Sean Godsell to Norman Foster. In fact there are 10, with the 11th being a chapel-like exhibition pavilion for the drawings of Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel in Stockholm. Godsell is the only one to make a tower, which opens up on all sides at the base to reveal the altar – his nave is open-air with a few offset benches. Godsell wanted a bell in his tower for visitors to ring but it seems the Holy See frowned on that. Instead it functions like a taller James Turrell-like Skyspace.

These chapels are meant to last only as long as the Biennale but Foster’s tensioned-timber offering looks well enough built to last for 30 years while Eduardo Souto de Moura’s semi-sunken exercise in colossal stone slabs would probably last 2,000. In contrast, the pleasingly playful contribution by Barcelona’s Flores & Prats in adobe style is a hollow plastered piece of scenery mounted on a timber frame – more in the spirit of the event, I think.

Ireland’s thoughtful contribution considers the existing ‘freespace’ of its market towns and how they could be improved while Scotland’s collateral event ‘The ‘Happenstance’ in the gardens of the Palazzo Ca’Zenobio in Dorsoduro has a festive air – architecture as a child-oriented interactive thing, with pieces available so you can add to or alter it if you wish. Good to see a number of Scottish architects and artists joining forces on this adventure playground of the Lagoon.

As ever, you’re left with the nagging doubt – what does all this effort achieve? It is essentially the profession showing off to itself, albeit in a relatively thoughtful, restrained way this time. Which is fine – a forum for international exchange of pure architectural ideas is valuable. Does it affect the outside world one jot? Unlikely.

'Freespace' the 16th Venice Biennale international architecture exhibition, runs until November 25