The Australian Pavilion in Venice: art over architecture, or privilege over opportunity?

Jun 23, 2011
  • Article by Christine Phillips
  • Designer

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:

Conversation • 21 comments

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23 Jun 11 at 3:12 AM • Sandra Kaji-O'Grady

Hear hear! I would add that closed competitions tend set the parameters for invitation based on ‘measurables’ such as previous experience in delivering the specific building type or past work with the client on a similar project. Aspirational criteria fall away and the invitees are invariably mature firms of a certain size whose work has solidified around a set of well-rehearsed stylistic tactics that reassure the client that there will be no surprises. Given how these things work, one could safely lay bets now on the invited practices, and equally safely, on the likely mediocrity of the results—it’ll be nice, derivative, on time, on budget, but nothing that makes an argument for the vibrancy of Australia’s architectural culture.

23 Jun 11 at 4:04 AM • Berkshire Review

There is no excuse for this to be a closed competition, and in fact it should be open to artists as well as architects. A Biennale pavilion is not exactly the trickiest brief in the world.

23 Jun 11 at 5:40 AM • Mr Smith

I believe the competition should be open to all creative professionals. The results of the Di Stasio competition are evidence of how incredibly diverse and exciting the outcomes can be when the ‘architect’ label is removed.

23 Jun 11 at 5:55 AM • michael

Comparing it the Gehry in Bilbao is a bit over the top. I doubt we are going to have $1b to spend. And to be honest Venice is enough of a tourist mecca without another immodist starchitect’s input. If you have seen the site, it actually does need something intimately scaled and ‘modest’. Its not a fun park. But open competition for sure!

23 Jun 11 at 6:48 AM • CVsydney

the theme of the 2008 exhibition was the great depth and diversity of australian talent! – a message sold there to the world (‘Abundant Australia’). Would it not be sensible to reinforce it on the very same stage?

23 Jun 11 at 7:37 AM • Alastair

I’m not sure that the competition to design the Jewish Museum should be called ‘open’ since it was made clear to the judges from the outset that the architect chosen had to be Jewish. This may well have been entirely fitting but open it was not.

23 Jun 11 at 7:38 AM • thierry lacoste

is there any lessons to be taken from the Australian pavilion at the Shanghai expo?

23 Jun 11 at 7:49 AM • Mr White

It’s the AUSTRALIAN Pavilion in Venice, NOT the Australian Council’s Pavilion in Venice. It’s going to be funded primarily by taxpayers money? At the very least the competition should be open to all creative australians not just Australian architects. You just never know what little gem is waiting out there to be discovered . . . . .

23 Jun 11 at 9:26 AM • Sarah

Have you been to the Giardini in Venice? Actually seen the Australian Pavilion site? This is a modest site (in scale) and the budget for a new pavilion is equally modest. The buildings you cite such as 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)” whilst extraordinary examples of visionary architecture are not compatible with the resources or proposition of this site. Creativity, lateral thinking, responsiveness and critical engagement with the site and its requirements is absolutely necessary, however, if an outcome that is responsive to the situation of this location is to be resolved – meeting both the highest standards and expediency – then there needs to be some perspective. The process requires transparency but holding things up whilst international competitions are launched seems to be excessive – this is tax-payers money, have a national call out if you must, but its also good to be mindful of the limitations. This is not the Sydney Opera House or Pompidu, its a quater acre block with a huge audience. Australia’s pavilion in Shanghai was a debacle and this building needs to learn from that folly and embody strong architectural vision aligned with functionality, longevity, grace and purpose.

23 Jun 11 at 11:03 AM • Stuart Harrison

Great article. Any true competition should be an OPEN competition. The site has enormous potential; its modest size only increases the need for innovation. Some of the greatest works have been compact in size, from Palladio to Boyd. The great little red book that catalogs the entries to the Di Stasio competition (2008) shows just some of the possibilities.

23 Jun 11 at 1:54 PM • Martin

Completely agree. There seems to be confusion between a “modest” building for “generic and safe”. The implication is that the outcome of an open competition would be over the top, ignore its use (…see current pavilion) or fail to comply with local regulations. If the ACA just spend some time writing a proper brief and get a good jury, they can tick those boxes and get a good design thrown in!

23 Jun 11 at 10:12 PM • Berkshire Review

Great responses here. I think the false dichotomy between “modest” and “bold” is really limiting. The best design will be its own argument for itself. The competition should be open to all architects, artists, etc. so that we have the best chance of finding that design.

What exactly are they afraid of?

24 Jun 11 at 2:49 AM • Anna Ely

Competition or not , leadership and vision at the top is required..the Sydney Opera House had Saarinen on the jury and Fed Square had Libeskind .Someone invited them.
Small project or large, short time frame or not ,the same applies.I sense some nervousness about the pavillion design competing with the contents…Norman Foster’s Sainsbury centre comes to mind. A quantum approach of “both/and” would be more appropropriate.

25 Jun 11 at 12:20 AM • tUG workshop

Arguments don’t come much more poorly constructed than the above.
Historical evidence suggests architectural competition juries rely on the principle of elitism for their authority. The Artists have been kicking goals in Venice, not the Architects. Independent reviewers provide confirmation of that fact. The have won the right to call the shots.

26 Jun 11 at 9:17 AM • Donald L. Bates

I can imagine nothing more “elitist” (in its most pejorative sense) than the selection, management, and promotion of the Art side of the Venice Biennale – especially for the Australian Pavilion. The Australia Council provides over $700,000 for this year’s exhibition (it was $2m in 2007), much of which is to cover the costs of politicians, hangers-on and movie stars to attend the Vernissage. I would guess the Architecture Biennale received about 20% of that amount.

And nothing is really as “elitist” as the idea that because Simon Mordant is holding out a carrot of $1m for the construction of a new pavilion, then he gets to decide that the aspiration for the pavilion is “”not looking to build something architecturally outstanding”.

As far as “kicking goals” – if by that you mean that individual artists and their attendant galleries are making good sells and generating publicity for future sales, then yes…”kicking goals”. But given the Art Biennale for Australia has been going since 1954 and Architecture only for the last 12 years, then it seems hard to compare like for like.

28 Jun 11 at 10:07 AM • jonathan

architecture is a closed profession, unless you are in the ‘in crowd’ you can get nowhere.
these are the chances to be taken.
closed architectural competition history is littered with as many failures as the open.
everyone can pretend to be an architect. the only way to find the true is to open everyone’s opportunity

30 Jun 11 at 11:18 PM • tUG workshop

@Donald Bates. Its hard to imagine anything more “elitist” in the pegorative sense than architects calling for competitions as only an exceptional method of commissioning for buildings predictably classed as significant/important. But not it seems pushing for more everyday and widespread use of competitions to procure the everyday, like say a kindergarten. I can’t say I’m surprised by your conventional merchant views on invisible project procurement. As to the success of the Art Establishment v the Architectural Establishment in Venice i look only to the facts, not opinion. Architecture’s case would probably be helped if Victoria’s elite released its unimaginative iron grip on the Biennale.

01 Jul 11 at 4:58 AM • Donald L. Bates

@tUG – you really do have problems with reading what people have written – as opposed to what you hoped they would be saying.

Nothing in my comment above refers to design competitions being limited to “buildings predictably classed as significant/important”. Having undertaken more than many “open” design competitions (of which only 4 were in Australia) I would readily and whole-heartedly support the “widespread use of competitions to procure the everyday”. That would be great. Where exactly is YOUR public advocation of this idea?

But if the powers that be – and nothing in your comments suggests you disapprove – can’t even hold an open competition for something as simple as an exhibition pavilion – who is to imagine they will open the doors for something as important and “risky” as a kindergarten.

For whatever my “conventional merchant views on invisible project procurement” (absolutely no idea what that means), I can only assume that you have put your hat in the ring for the directorship of the forthcoming Venice Architecture Biennale – in order to help release Victoria’s elite from their “unimaginative iron grip on the Biennale”.

01 Jul 11 at 7:10 AM • tUG workshop

@Donald Bates. Now we are back to front (absolutely no idea what that means).

07 Jul 11 at 6:45 AM • Miguel de Cervantes

“I look only to the facts…”

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