I landed in Venice for the 13th International Architecture Biennale with a head full of questions and a sense of urgency. I was aware of the importance of this architecture festival but, like a small child in a lolly shop, I felt overwhelmed by the diverse and colourful offerings before me.
As I began to familiarise myself with the concept of an ancient city perched on timber stumps in the corner of the Adriatic Sea, I thought about the task ahead. The words were familiar enough: Biennale, Arsenale, Giardini, National Pavilions – these are terms often heard and repeated in Australia, but the reality of what it means to experience the Biennale remained a mystery.
Photographer Peter Bennetts in St Mark’s Square
I couldn’t help but believe that, in order to get to the heart of the Biennale, I needed to absorb, understand and ultimately regurgitate the sea of information I was about to set sail on. I was determined to discover what the Biennale was all about, and how architecture could be exhibited like art.
‘Inner Freedom: A Riga Street in Venice’, the Latvian Pavilion
And yet after visiting a few pavilions, panic began to set in. How could it be humanly possible to process all the information that hundreds of people from so many countries had spent so many months preparing? I was looking so hard, I was no longer seeing.
So I stopped. Instead, I began to feel.
The pressure was released and suddenly I began to see more than I thought possible. Whilst the glut of information remained, now it served as a backdrop to the overall experience. As, post-epiphany, I resumed my rounds, three pavilions had the greatest impact on me:
The Russian Pavilion
Russia: To be in this pavilion was like swimming on a still, moonless night, the horizon invisible. The information contained within the exhibit remained hidden behind a cloak of darkness, revealed through a web of QR codes.
Models inside the Japanese Pavilion
Japan: The smell of oiled timber assaulted the senses, and the soundscape quietly floated around my head. Huge timber posts, weathered from their exposure to last year’s tsunami, were smooth and tactile. I found myself hugging one, as if it were the natural thing to do; nobody stopped to care. Minute in scale, the story and the models supporting the exhibit were quiet and unassuming.
Holland: A giant curtain filled the empty space – a flexible and tactile intervention implying the hidden potential of what the empty building had to offer.
Impromptu gatherings on the ‘flash formations’ rug, organised by the Australian contingent
As the day drew to a close, the spritz began to flow and the first of many flash formations erupted. Organised by the Creative Directors of the Australian pavilion and facilitated by the ever present team from The Architects radio show, these impromptu gatherings featured small groups of men sitting on a rug, discussing architecture. The familiar voices offered comfort, but my mind was saturated from the day’s activities and could only really appreciate the chink of ice against my glass. Was this wrong? Are drinks such a pivotal part of the Biennale experience?
Mark Austin from Andrew Maynard Architects at Norman Foster’s ‘Gateway’ exhibition
Day Two of the Vernissage was dedicated to the Arsenale, where the official ‘Common Ground’ exhibition curated by David Chipperfield was on show. Tactile and immersive, the exhibition was a playground for the imagination as a slew of works by famous names passed me by. As the shadows lengthened, my aching feet battled with my tired mind… Again, my thoughts turned to finding a place to rest. 5pm arrived, and the task was completed – today, I had earned a drink.
Rory Hyde, Christine Phillips, Simon Knott and Stuart Harrison of ‘The Architects’ radio show
As the evening progressed, one drink blended into the next, one party offered the perfect segue to another, crowds grew and faces reddened. By the early hours of the morning, the perpetual search for the next event had found its final destination: the terrace of a famous hotel overlooking the Grand Canal. Walking through the crowd I introduced myself to strangers, the Biennale a theme for introduction, be it film or architecture. Each nationality was as enthusiastic as the next about their participation. Even the Greeks, whose country has been through so much turmoil in recent months, wore broad smiles – an infectious optimism that they, as architects, could help shape the new future of their country.
As the bar closed and dawn encroached, a group of new friends decided to end the night wandering the streets, sitting on bridges, and crossing deserted squares. Our conversation departed from the architectural topics of our initial meeting and we began to share stories about our lives, our countries and our hopes.
Late night laneway parties at the Biennale
Perhaps this is what the Venice Biennale is all about – a collection of people with a shared passion, exchanging ideas and information freely with one idea in mind: to make the world a better place. As we settled on the end of a pier looking out at the Grand Canal, our collective laughter echoed on the ancient facades behind us and the sun rose slowly over the terracotta roofs. It became clear, we had found Common Ground.
Juliet Moore is co-founder of Melbourne-based architecture studio, Edwards Moore.