The Australian Pavilion in Venice: art over architecture, or privilege over opportunity?
June 23, 2011
A closed competition for the new Australia pavilion in Venice shows that art still takes precedence over architecture. Worse still, it smacks of elitism.
On 1 June 2011, at the 54th Venice Art Biennale, the Australia Council for the Arts announced plans for a new Australian pavilion in the Venice Giardini to replace the current pavilion designed by Philip Cox. A new pavilion is a great opportunity for Australian art and architecture. Unfortunately, the Australia Council ‘does not envisage a public competition.’ As announced in The Age, the pavilion design will be the result of a closed competition with the final design chosen ‘by invitation, from a small hand-selected group of Australian architects.’ This is disappointing news. A closed competition promotes an elitist view of the profession and will not ensure the best result for the pavilion and the display of art and architecture. Imagine Australia without the Sydney Opera House or Federation Square. Imagine Berlin without the Jewish Museum, Paris without the Pompidou Centre or Chicago without the Tribune Tower. These are just a few of the many great examples that were outcomes of open architectural competitions.
We believe the design should be the result of an architectural competition that is open to all Australian architects. Architectural competitions provide a space for experimentation and innovative outcomes. They allow for a broad range of responses, ensure the best functional and design outcome and have launched the careers of many architectural practitioners.
An open competition would also broaden public interest in Australia’s participation at the Venice Biennale, offering great potential to engage the public in a conversation about what Australian art and architecture can offer international audiences. The Venice Biennale is a major event on the international art and architectural calendars. The Australia Council considers the Art Biennale to be ‘the most important and prestigious event on the international contemporary arts calendar, and is the oldest and largest established biennale in the world.’ Many significant artists have exhibited at the Art Biennale (currently in its 54th iteration), including Sidney Nolan and Rosalie Gascoigne, and the current pavilion has served its purpose showcasing the work of Arthur Boyd, Howard Arkley and Patricia Piccinini to name a few. More recently, at the Architecture Biennale (which last year celebrated its 12th iteration), the pavilion has housed the work of prominent architects such as Dale Jones-Evans, Lyons, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Donovan Hill and Edmond & Corrigan, emerging architectural practices like Harrison and White and the work of architectural academics including Brit Andresen, Andrew Benjamin and Colony Collective.
The current pavilion, designed by Philip Cox and opened in 1988, has been widely criticized over the years for being a difficult space to curate and exhibit in, but it must be remembered that this building was built as a temporary structure intended to secure one of the last remaining sites for Australia within the Giardini. This is an honour conferred upon only a handful of nations. As Philip Cox has previously stated, ‘we [Cox Architecture] donated our services and we got BHP to provide the steel and Transfield to also provide materials. And on the record and to be perfectly frank, it gives me the f-ing shits considering we all worked so hard for nothing to put it there.’¹ Cox architects should be commended for their contribution but the pavilion is almost 25 years old and a new space designed specifically to display the best of Australian art and architecture is desperately required.
Well-known restaurateur, Rinaldo di Stasio, recognised the need for a new pavilion and contributed a substantial amount of his own time and money to organise and host an international design competition for a new Australian pavilion in 2008. The competition was highly successful, attracting entries from around the world and receiving enormous media attention. This was an invaluable exercise, not only for providing a solid body of design research neatly packaged up in catalogue form, but for the way it exposed the pavilion to the public view. The entries were exhibited at the Heide Museum of Modern Art and the professional winning entry was from Davide Marchetti of Rome.
Di Stasio believes the competition for a new pavilion should be open internationally, but an international competition does not recognize the full potential of the pavilion type. In the tradition of pavilion architecture, this building is as much a cultural embassy as it is a functional pavilion. It should not be seen a just a ‘shed’ to house Australian art and architecture but as an opportunity to showcase the best of Australian architecture, convey the aspirations of a nation and its artistic community and engage with notions of Australian identity within a global context.
Simon Mordant, chairman of the 2013 Venice Art Biennale and deputy chairman of the 2011 Biennale, has failed to recognise the full potential offered by a new pavilion. Mordant recently said: ‘This is an art space, it’s not an architectural competition
We need a functional exhibition space that works for the artist and complies with the Venetian authorities’ requirements. And that’s going to be something that’s far more modest.’ The implication is that a building that houses art must be ‘modest’. We take exception to this old-fashioned view – a building that houses exhibitions does NOT need to be a modest proposition. Consider, for instance, the success of Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997), SANAA’S Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art (2005) or Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s design for the Kunsthaus in Graz (2003). Inspirational art and inspirational architecture are not mutually exclusive. There are many inspiring, innovative and successful architecturally designed buildings made specifically to house art. A new Australian Pavilion can and should be all of these things.
The reality is that the building is a pavilion for art and architecture. The Venice Biennale focuses on art every second year and in the alternate years it is a space used for the display of architecture. Last year’s Australian architecture exhibition ‘Now and When: Australian Urbanism’ was a resounding success. It is currently touring the world and has been published in The New York Times, the European edition of the Wall Street Journal, countless architectural publications and was even lauded by Lord Norman Foster. Australian architecture has much to offer the world.
The Australian Institute of Architects has done a great job in supporting Australia’s participation in the Architecture Biennale continuously since 2006. While architecture has traditionally been viewed as one of the arts, the structure of the Australia Council does not acknowledge this. There are council members for the performing arts, theatre, the visual arts, literature, music and dance but architecture has no representation. In light of Australia’s significant participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that this is a serious omission. Architecture should also have representation on the Australia Council.
The Australia Council, as commissioner of the pavilion, has the potential to direct the creation of an exciting, visionary building designed specifically to display the best of Australian art and architecture. Procurement of the pavilion through closed competition is to the detriment of the Australian architectural profession, to architectural discourse in Australia and to Australian art and design culture in general. The final design for the pavilion should come from an open architectural competition. Architecture is one of the pre-eminent arts; the Venice Biennale recognises this and the Australian arts community should have the foresight and the aspiration to do so as well.
¹ Venice Biennale New Australian Pavilion: Di Stasio Ideas Competition publication, 2008, p24
Christine Phillips and Tania Davidge are the directors of multi-disciplinary practice, OpenHAUS. They have launched a petition calling for an open competition for the Venice Biennale Pavilion. View the petition here: www.openhaus.org