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From the Archives: The Di Stasio Ideas Competition

June 3, 2011

A review of the 2008 competition and exhibition, which pursued a new identity for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Scattered around Venice’s public gardens, or Giardini, the 29 national pavilions of the Biennale resemble a miniature ambassadorial quarter. While the content of the art and architecture expositions at the Biennale evolves biennially, the pavilions remain essentially unchanged, windows into their respective nations’ political and cultural ideologies at the time of construction. Germany’s austere pavilion, for example, was altered under Hitler’s instructions in 1938 to emulate the style of Nazi architect Albert Speer. While the US pavilion mimics the neoclassical appearance of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Sverre Fehn’s modernist pavilion for the Nordic nations seems to have grown around a grove of trees in a sublime reflection of his region’s respect for nature.

Initiated by restaurateur and enthusiastic architectural patron Rinaldo Di Stasio, the Di Stasio Ideas Competition invited entrants from around the world to submit proposals for a new Australian pavilion at the Biennale. More than a mere theoretical exercise, the open competition was intended to add impetus to a long-running campaign within the architectural community to replace the existing Australian pavilion. This was designed by Philip Cox and installed in haste in 1988 in order to claim the last remaining site within the Giardini for Australian purposes, in turn scuttling Peter Corrigan’s pre-approved designs on the site. Intended as a temporary structure, but since given permanent status, the incumbent pavilion has been maligned over the years for its inadequacies as a gallery space. In recent years Cox joined the chorus of voices calling for its replacement. The competition brief left participants free to reuse the site of the existing pavilion or choose another location in Venice.

Presiding over the competition was the prestigious judging group of photographer John Gollings, The Age critic and architect Norman Day, artist Callum Morton and City of Sydney architect Bridget Smyth. One hundred and sixty eight entries were received, with winners selected in professional and pre-professional categories. Installed in a newly opened gallery space designed by architects O’Connor and Houle, 56 shortlisted entries were exhibited at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art from 28 June to 3 August. Incorporating 18 small screens that displayed a field of constantly shifting digital images, the exhibition’s curatorial device comprised a jagged black structure with glimpses of a vivid red interior. Filling the gallery, the structure appeared to be a scaled down version of the gallery building itself, a pavilion within a pavilion, around which viewers circulated. While the entrants’ explanatory text was notably absent from this display, the exhibition added a vibrant experiential element to the act of viewing the proposals, drawing the curiosity and amusement of visitors to the museum, who in turn were encouraged to vote for a People’s Choice prize. An extensive catalogue with essays by critic Day and AR editor Andrew Mackenzie was published to accompany the exhibition.

References to revered Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa are evident in both winning entries. Professional winner, Italian Davide Marchetti, proposed an object to be eroded by time: an elegant cast-concrete hive, its simple volumes punctuated by openings in the walls and roof like Gothic archivolts. Aside from the clarity and beauty of Marchetti’s images, one might question what a design reminiscent of Scarpa’s funerary chapel at the Brion-Vega Cemetery has to say about Australian identity. Venezuelans didn’t seem to mind, however, when Scarpa himself designed the Venezuelan pavilion in 1956. Located near the Giardini on the Grand Canal, Scarpa’s Monument to the Partisan Woman, an iceberg of overlapping marble blocks that becomes partially submerged by the tides, was the well-chosen departure point for the winning pre-professional scheme by SPF15+, a trio of Melbourne architecture graduates. An instant ruin or pre-pavilion, the elegant platform conceived by SPF15+ lies dormant between Biennales, awaiting its turn as the armature for a peacock profusion of ever- changing temporary pavilions. With a passing wink to Tom Kovac’s Virtual Australian Pavilion of 2004, SPF15+ cleverly avoided the question of what form an Australian pavilion should take.

Denton Corker Marshall’s Barry Marshall, a finalist for the professional prize, answered this question more directly in his proposal, a monolithic black cube that makes the delineation of light its distinguishing feature. Drawn with confidence and economy in Marshall’s instantly recognisable soft pencil style, the design celebrates Australia as an island culture, exaggerating its enigmatic detachment within the archipelago of national pavilions. Though similar in approach, fellow finalist Ashton Raggatt McDougall prefers satire to heroism. Hewn out of ‘dark material’, the exterior of its pavilion, like a glistening cluster of mineral ore, defiantly declaims a shameful legacy of resource exploitation. Inside, however, is a different story, apparently neutralised of politics and ready for industry branding.

A few years ago, inspired by Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas’ so-called ‘retroactive manifesto’ for Manhattan, architect Toby Breakspear set about writing a retroactive manifesto for Australia’s Biennale pavilion. Rather than a series of contingencies and accidents, his thesis reasoned that the spotted history of the existing pavilion could be read as a deliberate expression of Australian architecture and culture. Seen in parallel with our colonial past, the pavilion’s origin as an expeditious land grab seems entirely apt. So too the temporary nature of the structure, which sits off the ground on steel props, blind to the picturesque proximity of the canal. Unsuitable for showing art, the pavilion remained closed for more than a decade of Architecture Biennales due to the ignorance of the Australia Council. Within Breakspear’s premise, Philip Cox is the building’s fitting author. Forget Glenn Murcutt or Harry Seidler – The Architects radio show presenter Stuart Harrison contended recently – Australia’s most influential architect is Cox. While Seidler’s towers and Murcutt’s houses have regional significance, Cox’s functional but bland white steel sheds have pervaded sports and conference complexes all over the world.

While the brief for the new Australian pavilion expressed misgivings about Cox’s pavilion, entrants were free to choose their attitude to the existing structure and its site. It is therefore disappointing that not one of the shortlisted proposals retains the pavilion in whole or part, reuses its fabric or critiques its architectural character. Collective amnesia seems to have swept the field, with entrants imagining a tabula rasa on which to situate their proposals. Like it or not, Australia already has a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. If we erase the pavilion from memory in order to replace it, a powerful embodiment of our cultural tendencies will be lost. The last thing this nation needs is another historical revision.

Like the Max Protetch Gallery’s landmark ‘A New World Trade Centre’ exhibition of 2002, the Di Stasio Ideas Competition brought together a broad and imaginative field of entries. Ranging from Architects EAT’s pulsating angry red blob to graduate Nicholas Braun’s poetically suspended floodgates, the competition drew responses as varied as a tethered Tasmanian tiger, a stranded Sydney ferry, a floating island in the shape of the continent and a scheme for distributing branded red umbrellas. Just as the Protetch exhibition preceded a lengthy and high-profile ‘official’ competition to select an architect for the politically-charged World Trade Centre redevelopment, the replacement of Philip Cox’s pavilion seems a foregone conclusion. The process of realising a new Australian pavilion will almost certainly be a bureaucratic rather than creative exercise, with the demands of Biennale authorities, the Australia Council and project sponsors comprising a minefield to be negotiated by the chosen architect. Soon we will be able to compare Daniel Libeskind’s blurrily corporate World Trade Centre edifice with the powerfully optimistic design he submitted for the Protetch exhibition. It will be equally interesting, a few years from now, to recall both Cox’s design and the Di Stasio proposals as we gaze on the constructed reality of a new Australian pavilion.

Images (1) ARM; (2), (3) & (4) Davide Marchetti; (5) SPF15+

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