The Oaf goes to Venice

Maria Smith’s travel buddy brings his own clear-sighted magic to the Biennale

Credit: Hugh Pearman

I took the Oaf to the Venice Architecture Biennale. We flew business class because he said the only way he’d contemplate spending three days in the company of a toxic swarm of architects was if he maintained a constant prosecco buzz from free-at-point-of-use booze. The combination of a dehydration headache, the pessimistic taste of wine that’s been open too long, and the unplaceable itch of mosquito bites arranged around the body such that at least one is always in contact with an irritant, gave the Oaf an equilibrate irreverence that allowed him to relish being from Another Profession, or so he said.

His annoyance briefly abated when he saw that our national pavilion was an ode to the great British scaffolder. In the Oaf’s estimation, however, the installation fell short due to lack of such authenticating decoration as St George’s flags and a banterbus audio­scape. His ire then grew as the blonde doling out the prosecco insisted on decanting it first into a jug like a hastily served chianti or watered-down ketchup in a greasy spoon. We ascended the stairs to the platform supported by said scaffolding. I commented on the view. The Oaf remarked that the view was in no way enhanced by the hoards of pretentious mugs feigning interest in it and damned the chequered timber deck for revealing the egotistical hand of an architect and murdering what would have been perfectly adequate had the scaffolders been left to whack down some used boards and oil them with the drippings of bacon sandwiches and withdrawal sweat.

British pavilion – the civic square perched above the roof.
British pavilion – the civic square perched above the roof. Credit: Hugh Pearman

The heat being unbearable and the bar dry, I persuaded the Oaf to take a turn about the Giardini. He acquiesced on the proviso that we at no point stood still long enough for his treacherous eye to be drawn to any of the text lest he be so stunned but its vacuous pomposity that he be immediately and irredeemably turned to stone, to dust, or worse, into somebody that appreciated that kind of thing.

We thus made fast work of a handful of contributions. I lost the Oaf briefly to some slender haunches in the French pavilion and had to force his giraffe-like hands to loosen their grip on the two-by-twos as he wailed something about the pleasure of tension in an axially loaded member. The German pavilion employed a well worn but effective perspective trick whereby the visitor, on entry to the pavilion, sees a solid black wall that immediately dematerialises as you move forward. The Oaf of course relished in planting his heft in that single spot and a cantankerous grin on his hairy face, preventing others from experiencing the curator’s intention and depleting the atmosphere generally. I dragged him over to the Australian pavilion in the hopes that the scent of aromatic grasses might calm him down a touch, which it did for about 10 seconds before he discovered the art of taking pictures of the perverts hiding in the shrubbery, as he put it.

His annoyance briefly abated when he saw that our national pavilion was an ode to the great British scaffolder

As the day wore on, the density of architects increased, and an epidemic of queues formed across the Biennale site. Queues for prosecco, queues to catch a glimpse of a Danish starchitect, queues for the ladies’ toilets, queues of ladies to use the men’s toilets, and queues to avail oneself of an installation or two pertaining to free space. The Oaf threw himself whole heartedly into this new queuing truth. At one point he found a way to queue up to have a conversation with me. His sarcastic fervour for queues fortunately enabled our entry into what was to become the Golden Lion winning pavilion. A marvel of variously scaled ironmongery, the Swiss offering is a commentary on the bland décor of unfurnished rental accommodation. Some may say it strikes an ingenious balance between playful and poignant; in one breath both denouncing and championing the alleged selfie-obsessed subjugated generation by inciting them to post #Insta stories of their standardised captivity. The Oaf said it was as interesting as watching a Swiss person hold a mechanical pencil and would be much improved spattered with the blood of a thousand spritz-distended architects.

Later that evening, we sat in a small bar in a little square by our palazzo. At the behest of a 120kg Finnish man that had struck up a friendly shouting match with us, the Oaf downed his beer and was served whisky under the table. The Finnish man professed to have an IQ of 170 and challenged the Oaf to a fist fight. The Oaf declined, explaining that he was here for the Architecture Biennale and thus was intellectually averse to anything so coarse as physical violence. 


Maria Smith is a director at Interrobang architecture and engineering and Webb Yates Engineers, and is co-chief curator of the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019