• A still from the 16mm film “Trees Down Here” by Ben Rivers, part of “The Natural History of Churchill College” by 6a architects. photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

Exhibit Review
The 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale
The Giardini, Arsenale, and points elsewhere within Metropolitan Venice
Through November 25

In curating this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Irish practice Grafton Architects set a compelling, if at first blush somewhat vague, theme: FREESPACE. The openness of this motif, however, is the point, and it’s a strength, not a weakness. Or, rather, its weakness is what’s strong about it. The philosopher Graham Harman says (without attribution) elsewhere in this issue, “a strong philosophy should carry many ideas.” So, too, a good biennale theme should be open to many interpretations. And at this Venice Architecture Biennale interpretations abound.

Farrell and McNamara address this openness directly in their manifesto, which begins with a litany of what they mean by FREESPACE: “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity”; “ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers”; “generosity… even within the most private, defensive, exclusive, or commercially restricted conditions”; “the opportunity to emphasize nature’s free gifts”; “encourages reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world”; “a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived”; and “freedom to imagine the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.” This buildup of, at points, contradictory descriptors gets at the ambiguity of their project, which is finding examples of architecture’s generosity in places where the social sciences and the building sciences cannot see due to disciplinary blinders that keep them focused on what architecture does to those who use or are excluded from using it, or what architecture is made from.

As an example of the wildly different sorts of architecture that accomplish FREESPACE, Farrell and McNamara reference the concrete and tile seat at the entrance of Jørn Utzon’s Can Lis house in Mallorca and his Sydney Opera House. These two projects, which exist at opposite ends of the scale spectrum, both serve up extraordinary generosity: One provides private pleasure and comfort to a privileged household, the other serves as a symbol for an entire continent and everything contained therein. 

What else fits under this large, open umbrella of FREESPACE? The curators make their suggestions in their choice of participants — 71 of them from all over the world — and in their treatment of the main exhibition spaces: the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and the Corderie at the Arsenale. Farrell and McNamara approached these buildings as preservationists, stripping back layers to reveal in situ architectural delights. In the Central Pavilion, they exposed the entry rotunda’s frescoed dome and uncovered the building’s many skylights, flooding the interior with effulgent daylight. They also revealed a Carlo Scarpa window that had been concealed for decades. At the Corderie, they laid bare the windows, allowing in a dim but dynamic daylight that plays against the massive brick pillars, and opened the entire length of the long structure, which was originally used for making ropes. The differing qualities of these two venues — one radiant and airy, the other heavy and crepuscular — served as a curatorial strategy for placing the work of the participants, most of whom showed up with representations of actual buildings.

The representations run the gamut — models, drawings, photography, video, words, full-scale mock-ups — all the means by which architects communicate their work. In my highlights post on txamagazine.org I’ve already referenced the 20 models by Atelier Peter Zumthor, and Michael Maltzan Architecture’s Star Apartments complex, which offer up FREESPACE on opposite ends of the social justice spectrum. Another installation that attracted my attention at the Central Pavilion is “Phantom’s Phantom,” a re-creation of the Opera Garnier Restaurant in Paris by Studio Odile Decq. Filling an entire room, it gives visitors a taste of the space’s smooth, undulating curves, vibrant red color palette, and reflective-transparent surfaces.

Perhaps due to sunstroke, or hangover, or both  — one burns the candle at both ends in Venice! — I found myself spending more time in the moody, twilit space of the Corderie. Here, I found some familiar favorites from back home in the States: Weiss/Manfredi brought models, photos, and projections of several projects, presented in a circular structure alongside examples of famous world architecture, including Utzon’s Sidney Opera House. DS+R installed a large model and projected images of the Vagelos Education Center at Columbia University. More delightful, however, were the projects I did not yet know: UK-based 6a architects showed Cowan Court at Churchill College, University of Cambridge by way of a 16mm film made by artist Ben Rivers. Titled “Trees Down Here,” the movie explores the building’s interactions with the landscape, mostly its trees, in one of which perches an irked-looking owl. Japanese practice Tezuka Architects brought a large model of its Fuji Kindergarten, upon which is projected an animation of to-scale children, complete with soundtrack, running all over the structure and misusing it to the best of their abilities. Swiss architect Aurelio Galfetti came with
a video titled “Aurelio Galfetti architect, the house of
APO and the Transmission of Knowledge,” which outlines much of his output of 60 years in often humorous terms. Benedetta Tagliabue of Spanish firm Miralles Tagliabue installed “Weaving Architecture,” a canopy of woven fibers hung above a lounge area of comfy cushions. It references her firm’s long experimentation with woven architecture, and specifically the Clichy-Montfermeil Metro Station in Paris, which is currently underway. At the end of the Corderie, in a curving white room with an immersive light and sound installation, Danish architect Dorte Mandrup placed a 1:12 scale model of her Icefjord Centre project in Greenland. The indeterminate space with its mysterious aural fluctuations and wavering light conveys something of the arctic world’s vast, icy landscape.

What FREESPACE amounts to is an appreciation of architecture as such. This approach differs significantly from the previous two Venice Architecture Biennales: “Reporting From The Front,” curated by Alejandro Aravena in 2016, which examined architecture’s potential to provide for an underserved world; and “Fundamentals,” curated by Rem Koolhaas in 2014, which examined the components that make up buildings. Farrell and McNamara’s approach was criticized by some for creating a biennale that felt too much like a shopping mall, especially at the Corderie, where all of the projects are lined up in orderly fashion as though in their own vending stalls. Many among the design elite remain reflexively uncomfortable with consumerism, on an ideological basis. Shopping mall isn’t a bad simile, actually, and what a shopping mall the Corderie would be, with its massive brick pillars and brooding daylight. If only real shopping malls looked like that! And how about all the stuff you could buy there? Some of the world’s most innovative and critically acclaimed buildings — or their representations, anyway. But how is that FREESPACE? Could these commodities, with all their associated baggage of power dynamics between haves and have-nots, be open to all people? Farrell and McNamara seem to be saying that’s a possibility.

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.

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