Opinion

Venice Pavilion: A missed opportunity?

June 24, 2011

Is an invitation-only competition for the Australian Pavilion in Venice a missed opportunity for the architecture profession? Philip Cox, Andrew Maynard and Penleigh Boyd respond.

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The Australia Council recently revealed that it plans to build a new Australian Pavilion in Venice. Sydney businessman Simon Mordant, Commissioner for the 2013 Art Biennale, will partner with the Australia Council to manage the redevelopment project.

The announcement, however, has been met with mixed reactions. Though many people agree a new pavilion is long overdue, the Australia Council intends to hold an invitation-only competition – with just a small number of hand-picked architects given the opportunity to submit their designs for the project. Is this a missed opportunity to promote the talent and diversity of our architecture profession? Should the Australia Council be endorsing this type of exclusive – even elistist – view of Australian architecture? Australian Design Review asked Andrew Maynard, Philip Cox and Penleigh Boyd to share their thoughts on the issue.

Andrew Maynard

The initiative to rebuild the Venice pavilion is a wonderful move by the Australia Council, and very exciting news for all Australian artists and architects. This begs the question: why not make the design competition open to all Australian artists and architects? It is terribly deflating to see an important cultural place entrusted to only an invited few. Only a handful of architects will be able to celebrate, enthuse, dream, explore and engage. A pity, and a missed opportunity. Why are the rest of us excluded from this celebration? Haven’t we always aspired to be an egalitarian society, especially as a profession? How are the invited architects selected? I assume that we will see some wonderful and exciting names included, brilliant architects such as Godsell and Murcutt. However, we miss the opportunity to establish a new generation of architects on the global stage. An open competition provides the opportunity for a piece of ground-breaking architecture to emerge from the pack, while also opening up an entire forum for consideration and celebration beyond the usual suspects.

A successful competition relies on the quality of the judges, but a limited pool of entrants can only be detrimental to the outcome. A great judging committee has been formed. Why not entrust their learned eyes to debate over a diverse and rich selection of cultural representation? Yes, Godsell and Murcutt’s work is brilliant and far, far better than mine, but surely I should be allowed to give it a go; to celebrate, enthuse, dream, explore and engage. Engagement and participation is how we make a culture rich, strong and lasting. Surely choking the pool of talent will be to the detriment of our small piece of turf in Venice.

Philip Cox

Of course the architectural community would believe in and support an open competition. The reasons for this include the potential revelation of young and emerging talent, the variety of responses such a competition would attract, and the possibility of something outstanding emerging.

The downside of an open competition is that many entrants will lack the experience required for handling the complex negotiations with Venetian Authorities, and the actual modus operandi of doing a relatively small job overseas. The Australia Council has a limited budget of between 4 to 6 million dollars (less than the average Sydney house!), and this further complicates the delivery process.

On the practical side, the Australia Council must issue a proper and ambitious brief, since the building must accommodate exhibitions ranging from the visual arts, architecture, film and photography, as well as providing space for meetings and receptions. The conditions for the space are therefore complex and must be flexible.

My experience has shown that the site is extremely limited, with conservation orders on the trees so that the building must be woven around the landscape. The building has to relate to the pedestrian scale of the adjacent canal, providing easy access for pedestrians and servicing from the Giardini itself. To further complicate the brief, it should ask for an ‘Australian icon’ that is also carbon zero – in order to adhere to recent government requirements and ambitions.

One worry with an open competition is that the jury must have appropriate qualifications and experience with the site in order to assess designs based on the complexity of their delivery, rather than judging architecture as if it were a ‘glamour parade’.

The major concern would be whether the project could be delivered on budget, as the money is limited by public subscription. This is of greatest importance in an open competition, because – as experience has shown – open competitions often blow out in costs, and then who is expected to pick up the tab? The cost of the Sydney Opera House, for example, is said to have inflated from $5 million to $500 million (though these figures were never released).

The Australia Council will therefore have to play it safe by going to a limited competition of architects and designers they are confident will answer the complex brief and deliver the project on time and cost.

Penleigh Boyd

The Australia Council, as a federal government body presumably representing all Australians, and in line with its charter of ‘supporting Australian artists to create excellent art,’ should open the design competition for a new Australian pavilion in Venice to all Australian designers. The full range of current Australian talent should be canvassed – one would almost think it is the Australia Council’s duty to do so. Why limit the available entries? What could there possibly be to lose from an open competition? If the promoters are worried that the winning author may not have the necessary technical credentials to get the design documented and built, then simply stipulate that those entrants later team up with someone who has. Furthermore, appoint a technically competent juror on the judging panel, if that is the worry. Australia Council: be bold. Take this international opportunity to let Australians see what ideas get thrown up in an open design competition. Are we really trying to tell the world that only the tried and tested get promoted in Australia? Isn’t that the true definition of ‘Conservatism’? How did such a young and vibrant country get to this point… and where are we headed from here?

  • Mr White June 24th, 2011 7:44 am

    Of course Mr Cox would rather a closed competition as he would probably be one of the hand picked architect for the limited competition. . . . . .


  • Mano Ponnambalam June 26th, 2011 2:35 am

    Mr.Cox, (with due respect) the client here is not a Sydney developer – your sentiments would send a shiver down to the Scandinavians who procured a most beautiful pavilion back in 1962 through an international competition – Sverre Fehn has left a legacy that is timeless and resonates Nordic values. Lets not make excuses, lets be BOLD and show the world how young + refreshing we can be!

    (surly this project justifies better funding from the Federal Government)


  • Jonathan June 28th, 2011 9:58 am

    a great opportunity missed. the comments by Mr Cox are unfortunately all to common in a very controlled and staid environment which some architects would like all architects to work in.
    his excuses are all the same smoke and mirrors that the profession puts on, and has put on, for decades.
    time to loosen up and take the chances.


  • Donald L. Bates June 28th, 2011 12:43 pm

    Philip Cox raises some relevant (and not so relevant) reasons for not having an open competition for a new Australian Pavilion in Venice. He has stated before his opposition to open competitions, so one shouldn’t be surprised in his position.

    But to take his points, one by one:
    1) “many entrants will lack the experience required for handling the complex negotiations with Venetian Authorities” – in fact, i would be surprised if almost ANY architect from Australia has had an experience in dealing with Venetian Authorities – so do we assume no one is eligible? I thought that was the role of Simon Mordant
    2) “lacks the actual modus operandi of doing a relatively small job overseas” – and who does?? This is likely to be a labour of love – as much as a commission. Why would one assume that an established, corporate practice is more likely to support it than a smaller office?
    3) “limited budget” – This is also a major problem, but it is a problem that everyone will face – what is the implicit benefit of an “established” practice?

    Cox is right to say that a comprehensive and well-developed brief is necessary. This is to everyone’s benefit. The fact that the space needs to deal with a range of art practices and “conditions that are complex and must be flexible” suggests that the responses will need to be something different to what has gone on before – if anything this condition suggests that all those who have already designed galleries and museums need not apply.

    The limitations of the site and other contextual issues are a matter for the brief. Again, I can imagine no inherent advantage based on a restriction of entrants.

    Th equality of the jury is the same whether it is an open competition or a closed, private competition. If one is worried about the local context, include a Venetian critic or architect on the jury. I can suggest several.

    And finally, the budget and sticking to it. As has already been mentioned, the balance sheet is equal in terms of open competitions versus closed competitions or direct submissions when it comes to cost control on cultural projects. This is an old wives tale that believes anyone can “guarantee” a result beforehand.

    Finally, the conclusion that the Australia Council needs to “play it safe” is really a condemnation of the mindset of bureaucrats and and the well-established. Does not the fact that the Australia Council, on a biannual basis, awards upwards of $2,000,000 for Venice Biennale projects that are definitely not “safe” suggest profound hypocrisy in regards to architecture and the Pavilion?


  • David Stevenson June 30th, 2011 5:34 am

    Donald Bates, via a commentary of Philip Cox’s statement, outlines why an open competition for a new Venice Pavilion is desirable. Allora comiciamo ….


  • Peter Farman July 14th, 2011 2:25 pm

    Professional Jury with diverse skill sets to cover the full complexities that MR COX assumes only a few architects have…. then open it up to the nation and even the world …………………Australia is evolving we are not LIMITED.


  • Anna August 11th, 2011 11:12 pm

    Thanks for the opportunity to allow only a select few to participate in this venture. Once again, innovative design and ideas from everyone cannot be judged and new ideas are stiffled. If the this project is not open to everyone, then how can new ideas be brought to the forefront of this industry. Shame.


  • Adrian Bonomi August 12th, 2011 7:26 am

    Who’s Phillip Cox anyway and who listens to him these days? Besides and with a few notable exceptions, mediocrity has been a trademark of Australian architectural patronage for decades, so let’s celebrate this with an equally mediocre competition. Bonza she’ll be right.


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