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Venice Biennale 2018: the blog

02. island, british pavilion, drone photography © british council, photos by cultureshock media crop
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Catch up with all the action from the Venice Architecture Biennale – meet the bloggers

Tuesday 29 May

10.14am Ben Derbyshire

Reflecting on my first visit to the Biennale, there is immense pleasure and stimulation to be found in the great work on display, and encouraging esprit de corps in the sense of a gathering of the architectural clan to exchange ideas, share problems and postulate solutions. Nowhere else, I should imagine, comes close to the energising atmosphere of so much talent in one place, so much investment in creative culture for five months – and in a place that has come to represent an augury for the car-free city of the future – because it could never have been wrecked by automobile culture in the first place.

And it is so encouraging that this is an exhibition that addresses the public, not only the international aesthetic elite (though there are plenty around here for the so-called ‘vernissage’). The vaporetti all have great scarlet billboards advertising the biennale to all comers and its to be hoped that the exhibits impact public consciousness with a sense of what architecture can do for society. 

I set out on the trip on behalf of RIBA to discover relevance in the themes and ideas on display. And I did find much that really matters, displayed such as to convey real meaning to a lay audience. But right there lies my unease. The language of architecture is often impenetrable. The concerns of the profession can seem esoteric. And when we are talking among ourselves, the dialogue can come across as self-serving and exclusive. There was a certain amount of that evident in the RIBA’s event for young European practices, ‘Europa: Connecting Ideas Across Borders’. As the seasoned commentator and lay enthusiast Pat Brown observed, much of the discourse was of little relevance to the lives of people affected by it as ordinary citizens. 

So I come away thinking that we need a truly public-facing foil to this great event, the Biennale (long may it reign); something that speaks of and for the needs, aspirations and passions of ordinary folk and is set in the places where they live in order to reinforce the relevance of the design community’s contribution. Maybe the Housing Expo that I have been arguing for – to display our contribution through architecture to human well-being, especially in the post-Brexit – years might be such a thing. As I fly home tomorrow, I feel encouraged to keep up that argument.

9.17am Simon Henley

After two days at the biennale, I came to a simple conclusion, Freespace is Architecture. It is, as the curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara say, ‘the unspoken wishes of strangers’. The results are eclectic. Some surprising, much familiar.  There was much to see. The Central Pavilion was absorbing, in particular, Elizabeth Hatz’s selection of architects’ drawings simply pinned to the wall; and Kieran Long, Johan Orn and James Taylor-Foster’s gallery on Lewerentz; and Cino Zucchi’s exploration of Luigi Caccia Dominioni’s work.  

The Swiss pavilion was a real surprise. Its interiors had been transformed into a series of oddly scaled domestic spaces. The catalogue describes a critical position concerning unfurnished domestic architecture as it is portrayed by photography. However, the reality was a delightful series of events that led people to pose in front of an oversize door hanging from a 6-foot-high door handle, and squeeze through small doorways.

This Alice-in-Wonderland world prompted everybody to talk and smile. Then, something unexpected happened, the white space that we were walking through, the wonderful geometries, and unusual scale and perspective transported us to a different place, less humorous, more poetic, which reminded me of Siza’s architecture.

Monday 28 May

12.12pm Chris Boyce

Arsenale approach

Arsenale approach

Approach to Arsenale from the sea

Seat 12A BA to LGW:  Last night … into Venice (I know now staying in Mestre was a one-off, it’s just too hard to get to the Arsenale with time too tight for the leisurely pace of the Vaperetto) via taxi and then back to the water taxi, this time sharing with my friend Dani. 

Dani has come here to Venice with around 20 of her fellow University of Pennsylvania students, and I wish I had done this when I was a postgrad at the Bartlett. What a fabulous vision of what architecture can be. Our boat swings north and accelerates along the channel to the airport but cuts back to the pass swiftly between Murano and the Island of the Dead. It’s warm and sunny, we are cresting waves at a rate of knots and we soon swing back to the main island, arriving in the most filmic of ways. We enter the dock through the Napoleonic brickwork of the walled fortifications and pull up by the covered docks and ancient cranes.

This is a wonderful moment and as the rest of La Biennale is closed, we are alone as we walk back through the spaces between the buildings to come out onto the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi (Google him if you don’t know this bit of 19th-century Italian history) where we stop at a bar to orientate ourselves. 

We are going to the Baltic Pavilion party, where we get in past a massive queue of people trying to claim their name is on the list. It’s a monastic courtyard at the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice church where there is a large crowd of Estonian, Latvian and other Baltic-country architects. The vibe is far more relaxed than the other parties we have attended and seems to have a healthier approach to style. This is relaxed and informally fun, the beers are set in an ice mountain of a repurposed stone fountain and the wine comes from the motherlands in large wicker baskets like medieval vessels. The wine is frizzante and cold. 

Baltic party

Baltic party

Baltic Party (good music)

We drink and dance for an hour or so, but language is a challenge here so we leave, off to meet Merlin Fulcher my fellow blogger and a man who never slows down. We have made four attempts to meet in the last 48 hrs and this one will succeed for sure. 

To Aciucheta on the Campo Santi Filipino Giacomo near San Marco. This is one of my favourite Venice restaurants after my partner (in life and business) and I stumbled across it when we booked to eat at the sister restaurant next door, but it was full. We came here and the staff were fun, accommodating and chatty. The food is good, Italian and not fussy.This was my planned AST* hosted dinner and I had booked not knowing who I would be with. As it was, Merlin, Dani, Lydia and I were put at a table next to Shelly McNamara and Yvonne Farrell. So we knew we had chosen well.

We eat and talk pavilions, V&A RHG video/constructs, drawings and models, gossip a bit about the architects’ work on show. We also talk a lot about Venice. I recounted my trips here with clients and contractors to visit the Permasteelisa factory on the mainland where we would stay in Venice and be taken (willingly) to secretive local restaurants were six or seven courses seemed to be normal. 

As a first timer at Biennale I can say the city, as is often the case for a ‘party’ town, wears many guises well. I have been here for Carnevale and the feeling is similar. This vernissage is about the work, and most of the day is spent on foot – I am averaging 20,000+ steps now – but it’s also a chance to be together as one, en mass as a European architects convention, where no one has tried to get me to specify any taps, bricks or insulation. 

The proximity of so many of my peers in one place, many of whom are showing work here, is unique. But also of power is that we have all basically had a 48-hour conversation about life, art, design, society, politics, gender and architecture. This place is political; housing, Europe and gender all being debated at large. Earlier today (as I mentioned in my last blog) I attended a protest supposed to highlight the issues of patriarchy in our profession. We have now discovered a list of male architects who have allegedly behaved poorly or possibly in some instances illegally in the workplace (or outside it).

I did read the American list a few months ago and I am sure that the accusations contained in this new list will be researched before anyone acts negatively on them, as I am a believer in due process. Sadly I suspect many will be true. The list also contains the names of men in power who have pushed the acceptable boundaries of work pressure, have forced unattainable expectations on their teams or have been bullying and aggressive to staff.

This is for me an issue that should be addressed separately to gender (as its common to all) and should explore how this affects all professions or vocations who behave in this manner toward their staff because its part of their DNA to take and wield power viscously over others: the hairdryer treatment for the minor error on a drawing, the pressure to abandon your life at home to work harder and longer, without reward, while being blamed and repeatedly knocked day after day until you crack.

There are those hyper-alpha architects that our culture and system rewards by delight in their way of thinking and doing; without them many practices would not exist. But there are others who are simply designers, as they love making, building, drawing and creativity but they don’t want to win, win, win. Instead they want to go home and not worry. They are the ones who are often bullied and, in the end, walk out or leave our profession. I know men who have done this to their staff, and they know who they are.

We ended our dinner conversation on this subject on Friday too, as Merlin bravely asked Shelly and Yvonne to comment on the list and the protest. Sadly they felt unable to comment in depth and left the restaurant.

We headed to the Wallpaper* party at Bauer Hotel and then to a bar nearby which offered a last chance Aperol spritzer, or in my case a Manhattan, and a chance to meet Paloma Gormley, the architect daughter of Antony the sculptor and Nina Rees of Rees & Co PR. We very nearly all got lost (and I mean LOST) in the back streets trying to get across the Grand Canal at 2.00am before parting company in dribs and drabs to head home.

I have to get back to Mestre as I am due to see Hannah Corlett from Assemblage tomorrow for breakfast, so need a bit of sleep … plus there is word that the French strikes might hit all our planes home. But instead I end tonight still a bit lost at 3am tramping about the alleys and fissures between the crumbling boarded up shops and homes that litter the non-tourist parts of Venice, absorbed in the silence of a city that is immortal, never changing but always different, a city of humid nights, noise, seething masses in pedestrian snarl ups, stinky drains, deep aqua water sloshing across marble steps, of shocking keepsakes and tat in shop windows, or occasionally the most remarkable pair of shoes, handbag or designer piece that takes your breath. 

For these summer months biannually there is pure architecture here distilled into moments, presented as art. The models as sculpture, drawings as exploratory abstract works. I have been taken back to my roots, and it would please Peter Cook to know that, without the Bartlett, I feel I would never have made it up the slippery reality of our profession far enough to find out what this is all about.

La Biennale di Venezia makes sense here. If you did this in any other city it would be great, but it couldn’t be this. I will be back in 2020 for sure. 

Update from London: Plane problem solved, booked a flight with BA for £48 one way (!) and headed to airport after breakfast so at least I might get back before midnight! Almost as soon as I made it back to an oddly warm, sunny London I got WhatsApp messages from Dani, acting as my eyes on the ground, who had gone to see the Vatican chapels on San Giorgio Maggiore, and I feel like I missed out. 

Vatican chapels

Vatican chapels

Vatican chapels

Moving, simple and each having a very different approach making a tiny religious space. This idea and the Vatican Cities presence here will I hope become an annual happening. How many architects want to do a church? Pretty much all of them. I appear to have missed more even than I thought – despite some pretty solid time on the ground focused on seeing as much as possible, I didn’t see Switzerland at all and missed the room of David Chipperfield work. La Biennale is not just Vernissage; you need a full weekend too.

Saturday 26 May

8.34pm Simon Allford

Fiona and I left the Giardini and Venice Thursday afternoon and headed for London, the office, a house move and Lords (house of cricket). 

Such are the delights of a family holiday that I am now sitting in Luton Airport, bombarded with substandard food, muzak, the glitzy world of duty-free and  Easyjet’s greedy lacklustre service, and thinking longingly of Venice  (if not the crowded waterfront). So I shall close out this blog with my distant reflections of that last morning. Of that which I enjoyed and that which I did not.  

First up was Spain’s overwhelmingly dense display (no ideas, too many themes and varied graphics) which I could not and I admit was not prepared to read. Will they never realise that the biennale is a place to pass through, not a thesis? I was further irritated by the curator’s lack of any understanding of the benefits of linking the display to the pavilion’s architectural promenade. A complete tour of the show ended at the exit, which was blocked by a guide instructing us to double back to get out. Perhaps they wrongly thought the last leg was worthy of two viewings? 

We did not get beyond the entrance to the Belge Pavilion. The stepped blue stage, the promise of little and the requirement to remove your shoes was too much for too many.

The Netherlands was an essay in orange lockers and what I believe is known as ‘cultural production’. ‘Here the bed – a horizontal architecture of protest, work, production and reproduction’ featured discussion/reviews (or possibly reenactments) of the great architectural event that was John and Yoko Ono’s ‘Fucktory’ – forgive me that  I did not wait to find out more. 

Having been briefed on Paul M’s highlights, we were ever keener to get to the Italian Pavilion. There Caruso St John’s studied elevational drawings, paired with photography of the architecture they reference, in the city in which they are situated, was one highlight. A pertinent reminder, through the elegance of its designs rather than didactic dogma, that the design of the architecture of the façcade is still one of the architecture’s greatest challenges.  

The façade is all that most of the population will experience of any architecture. Without the useful props and emotional and spatial engagement offered by the architecture of the places within, the façade needs to engage and delight the passerby.  It needs to offer proportion, detail, material joy and some element of surprise – be it a shift in scale, form or aspect. The façade is not for the client nor the occupant but for the citizens, and it thus becomes of the city. It is all the more important for the fact that most of us only experience architecture as we pass by – the façade is architecture en passant. 

Peter Zumthor’s Room was appropriately and expectantly the most prominent, both courtesy of its mezzanine location and its Yves Klein Blue walls. These offered the perfect background for photographs of the many beautiful large-scale models that filled the room. The suggestion was that these offered a glimpse of the thinking that drives the studio. Some rough, some cast and one cut from a solid block of marble. Each was beautiful and powerful and captured and communicated the project’s image as an idea. As the great monk-like man himself noted, with a ‘perhaps’ added to suggest an unexpected humility: ‘Perhaps I work like an artist. I’m not implementing the ideas of others. My clients want a building; I will try to find a good form for it and share this work with them. The process of finding the right form is full of insecurities, of despair, pleasure and joy. And it needs FREESPACE to move and think’. 

Who could fail to be impressed by the place Zumthor has constructed for himself in architecture? Like Olgiati (like an artist) Peter Z makes architecture for himself. Oh to be an architect in a Swiss ‘free-state’ where architecture is unconstrained by commerce. Where artist architects make architecture of itself, for itself (and for the occasional foundation, art house, insurance business, big pharmaceutical or bank that comes shopping). 

So, despite much delight, I also left feeling much unease. Unease with the position of the undoubted master that is Zumthor. Unease with the place (the gloriously aesthetic yet perhaps narrow field?) that the bBiennale seeks to construct for architecture.  

Harking back to that first evening, I wonder if it would perhaps be any worse if at least once, the biennale was less Proms and more Eurovision. It is worth thinking on as all three are eagerly anticipated and hackneyed shows.

In which case what would be lost if you swapped FREESPACE for CONSTRAINED SPACE? I for one would travel a lot further and to a much less celebrated city than Venice to discover what the architecture of the likes of Pete Z is when he is actually being tasked with ‘implementing the ideas of others’. I  expect that the theatre of everyday life would be very different, and possibly much better,  if he were to swap yet another foundation, art gallery or monastery with the brief for Luton Airport.

4.20pm Peter McCaughey

Taiwan and Scotland 

Four days before we opened The Happenstance, we had a visitation from the Taiwanese Pavilion. There were 12 of them, including their prized architect, who they kind of hold in the palm of their hand, and it was wonderful to see how lovingly they were looking after this person. They came in to this space with big smiles and a joyful look on their faces and they loved what they saw. 

We explained the premise – that this is a resource, rather than an exhibition. We also explained that we have an outdoor cinema and we emphasised that all of this – including the cinema – is there for them. To be fair to them, they took us up on all of this. The next day I received a long email from them, can we do this, this, this and this together?

Ultimately it means that when we do our first film screening – which is about Scotland and Freespace – they’re bringing us two beautiful films they’ve made and we’re going to share the space with them. So, tonight, Saturday night, we will have a sort of Scotland and Taiwan shared pavilion. Come and chill in our deck chairs and watch our films on freespace, Scotland and Taiwan. 

They really got it right away and I hope we will attract everyone else who will get it right away.

10.10am Phil Coffey

Bye bye Venice. Leaving in a taxi …The Doges Palace, those columns, those capitals … full of stories … one purportedly portrays the seven deadly sins. Here are mine from the last 24 hours. 

Envy. Is a terrible thing…and I’m full of it for the first installation at the Arsenale – an essay in construction and light. I’d have been happy walking in, pushing this heavy wheel of wonder around for four hours and catching a flight home, but after discussing his work, orientation, solstices, stone, structure and celestial movement with an out-of-breath Níall McLaughlin, I decided to stay and take a look at some of the weaker follies to feel better about myself.  

Lust. Outside the empty pavilion, spoken-word artist Kate Tempest was asked what her eagerly awaited opening poem was to be about. ‘I thought I’d bring something different to this architectural trade fair.’ Trade fair? I’m not sure the curators would be happy with that label. This is, of course, different to MIPIM. There’s a charming lack of lust for power or money. This is architecture as an art form and this biennale feels like our art is back with a bang. Highlights were Zumthor’s delicious models and Caruso St John’s deep and powerful elevations in the Italian Pavilion … and Kate’s words, which did exactly, what she said they would do.

Wrath. We’ve enjoyed the usual Italian hospitality, warm and welcoming unless you wear shorts to the ever pleasant Monaco terrace – as Jonathon Falkingham discovered. When plumbing the depths of sartorial manners in such a (lack of) fashion you will suffer the significant wrath of the usually mild-mannered waiters. Norman had no such problem, dressed impeccably in a pink shirt, chinos and suede slip-on shoes on the table next to me for my final lunch. Venice suits Lord Foster; he moved with effortless grace and speed between the tables, so elegantly in fact that he stole my water taxi to the airport. 

Gluttony. Good to have a long lunch of scallops, clams and spaghetti at the Galeon, located between both major biennale locations. Architecture chit chat with the Howells, Bloxhams, Monaghans, Allfords and Bevans with some innocent drive-bys by many a sunburnt architect and engineer. Ate and drank too much and felt even more gluttonous later when bumping into the new-look Sam Jacob at the British Council Party. I had thought his recent photograph lying down at the RIBA had made him look thin through a trick of perspective, but it turns out our shared gym is working, for him at least. Good exhibition at 66 too, and not quite as far as Venice, or half as expensive. 

Greed. Water taxis. On arrival as a group of four to the new water taxi terminal, we were greeted by a rather forceful bouncer who rudely split us into two boats, for their greater gain. 180 euros shared between myself and Duncan of Arrant Land, and that’s only the beginning. Anywhere you go it’s a minimum 70 euros, and everywhere you go, in case you didn’t know…there’s water in the way. In defiant protest, we voted with our tired feet and caught the cheaper alternative, a water bus back from the Giardini, wrong bus, wrong canal, wrong stop. Got off. Hailed a taxi. 70 euros to cross 100m of water. I could have swum it in six minutes. That’ll teach ‘em. 

Pride. If you are going to curate a biennale, you’d want to take a look at this one as a case study. A strong selection of architects, a strong theme that is interpreted in many different ways. ‘Freespace’ has got us thinking and talking and has given confidence to the simple things and discussions in architecture. So bravo Grafton Architects. I’m not a big fan of the word ‘proud’, but they should be proud of this.  

Sloth. Apologies to the Architects’ Journal for agreeing to blog and then rustling up just the one entry.

8.48am Jon Astbury

Up bright and early to head to Vicenza for the DCA exhibition. Yesterday afternoon spent trying to take in as many pavilions as possible. Russia was quite a wonderful idea centred on railways but quite poorly executed - the best bit here was a film out the window of a seven-day Moscow-Vladivostok train being taken by the filmmaker to meet his grandfather for the first time (who he found on Facebook).

Jon train crop

Jon train crop

8.25am Laura Iloniemi 

Biennale previews have come to an end. Yesterday’s panel discussion - Heritage as Ultimate Freespace- organised by Donald Insall Associates with The Bartlett at UNESCO’s Venice premises went down well and Italians well represented amongst attendees. Too rare that at many Biennale events. The Palazzo Zorzi UNESCO building also intrigued Biennale regulars with its recently completed restoration. And fun to see UN flag flying in Venice.   

At 6pm headed off to S Zaccaria Vaporetto stop to take the no2 service S Giorgio for the Vatican Pavilions Party.  S Giorgio awash with flight of Biennale pilgrims taking over the island. Perhaps architecture can still convert! Then to Orsoni glassworks for dinner. What a treat to go around and see the colour sample library and also the original sample board that inspired Gaudi in his design of Sagrada Familia.  Orsoni still supplying the project! A good client for them and all divine. 



Source: Beatrice Glancey

Orsoni glass library – an architect’s candy store

Friday 25 May

9.45pm Ben Derbyshire

At the British pavilion drinks, I meet Trevor Boddy, the ebullient Canadian critic who regales me with a tale of 100 fellow scribblers who gathered to celebrate Joseph Rykwert’s Royal Gold medal. He hands me his book on the architecture of Vancouver and tells me I’m wasting my time travelling to St John Newfoundland – next port of call on my travels for RIBA. The artist Sam Jacob is on form and happy with the reviews of his excellent show in the RIBA gallery – mostly four-star with an exceptional response from Edwin Heathcote in the FT. Disappointing Olly Wainwright only gave him three. Nobody quite gets why? 

After lunch, we head for the Arsenale for the opening of the V&A exhibition on Robin Hood Gardens. I have been to the Arsenale before (and the Museo Navali outside is a real treat for technophiles but closed today) so its spectacular interiors were not new, but I have never seen such an amazing display of really interesting architecture. So this is really the essence of the Biennale for me. There is something about the one-upmanship among the national pavilions in the Giardini that sometimes pushes the curators beyond relevance, or even comprehension for that matter. But here in the Arsenale is an absolute feast of work by practices from all over the world and it is frequently inspiring and much too numerous to describe. I’ll go back tomorrow in the heat of the day. 

Right at the very end of these immensely long galleries is to be found ‘Robin Hood Gardens; A Ruin in Reverse’ – the title being a reference to a phrase coined by Peter Smithson to characterise a building site. Ironic that this celebration accompanies the ruination of the Poplar housing scheme he designed with his wife Alison, only 40 years after it was built.

Tristram Hunt explained the long history of association of the V&A with the biennale, and curators Christopher Turner and Olivier Horsfall Turner talked of the many earlier artefacts that the museum has plucked from beneath the demolition ball. Still, I could not help but wonder at the precast elements, originally constructed to house dockers in east London, reassembled with considerable logistical challenge in Venice for the edification of the intelligentsia. ‘It’s a provocation,’ explained Catherine Burd, who appeared at my side as we listened in wonder. 

Tristram Hunt, of course, looks after a good proportion of the RIBA’s collection of artefacts at the V&A and also houses many of our own curatorial team. The museum is also a sophisticated patron of the profession in its own right. I managed a few words with the man (clearly in great demand) as well as with the super talented Olivia Horsfall Turner. ‘We agreed we should get together to see what more we can do to collectively celebrate architectural culture in London. The RIBA’s bicentennial is in 2034 so there is no time to lose if we want to replicate the scale of Venice by then!’ 

Walking home from the Dezeen house party (screening of a film about drone futures – Blade Runner is with us) we note everyone heading the other way, Paul Finch to supper with the Singapore pavilion (showing for the first time), and hoards heading for the Wallpaper* bash. But its supper a deux for us, looking forward to the Arsenale again in the morning and Alan Camp’s legendary al fresco lunch on the Giudecca tomorrow.

6pm Chris Boyce

Ok so today is serious, I am up and on the emails at 8.30 as I actually have work to do as well. It’s good news from the new VC at the University of Westminster. All systems go for our joint venture masterplan, programme and timeline to be confirmed. This means greater stability for my business next year and a happy accountant.

Today I am tackling the pavilions in the parkland of Giardini, as a first timer this is ALL a delight for me.

The landscape of the park here is dotted with bespoke pavilions, each dedicated to a nation or group of nations. They range from a sublime joint Scandinavian marble slatted top-lit box, via the Teutonic, hard-edged Speer-ish German pavilion to the frumpy Neoclassical Great British mausoleum … sorry pavilions! 

This year Caruso St John have taken what to me was clearly a backhanded compliment to our unique sense of self worth. Was it really only 2012 when we all cheered the NHS and birth of the internet while celebrating our multicultural cities and towns in the opening of the Olympic Games? 

I think Caruso St Johns work here is spot on, its either a delightful rooftop playground for sipping prosecco and taking in the lagoon while brushing against the leaves of the trees surrounding you …

Or as I believe it’s a sophisticated take on the fact we are now isolationists, ridiculed by the rest of Europe (don’t forget the MIPIM slogan for Paris was ‘fed up with the fog, come try the frogs’ over a picture of a springtime Paris and November London rush hour) left out the gang because we got spun a new form of nationalistic jingoisms by a bunch of privileged public schools boys having a bit of “bants” about the EU.

Harriet harriss on uk pav

Harriet harriss on uk pav

Harriet Harriss on the rooftop terrace of the British Pavilion

This raised platform is a cross between the visual metaphor of being above the rest of them, and the creation of a sad lonely space where tea is served at 4pm and the only thing missing is a racist taxi driver sitting telling you his views on the world. Being two things at once is very Biennale. 

Then at 11am, #flashmob Apparently this was a big thing, I was there it was small. Its message however was and is a big thing so lets not get confused about that, well done to all who turned out, but waving doesn’t fix 100 years of male domination in our profession. Education does, of our new young architects in universities of course, but also of the older men in our profession. That is best done with blunt words in small rooms.

Other pavilion highlights included: 

France – like a jumble sale stapled to the roof of another neoclassical tomb, but with the most amazing canapés.

Main Pavilion – the special exhibition and in particular two practices work, Zumthor’s model emporium on the first floor is stunning, the range and depth of the work can be measured in fathoms. Material choices are rough and ready, sometimes slick and cool. From BBQ charcoal (I swear it was) to Travertine marble.

Secondly a project by Villanova Artigas + Carlos Cascaldi for the Anhembi Tennis Club Sao Palo, Brazil. The section was long, hand-drawn and featured heavily on the yellows (as those who know me this is like catnip) and an artefact table of sectional models, laser-etched drawings on timber and mirror backed detail junctions for roof beams which double as rain channels.

Finally for this afternoon, I went to what for me is the most moving of architectural displays, the ruin of Robin Hood Gardens, a building for which I campaigned, and one that I loved deeply. Created by the dazzlingly brilliant Alison and Peter Smithson, who in the short BBC film playing next to me at the speeches (Tristan Hunt and curators Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner and Dr Christopher Turner) looked as dour as heck but were dressed in a silver high collar dress and a black jacket and disco sparkles tie respectively. So yeah no smiles but on top of their sartorial game.

The idea to create this work came from Liza Fior of muf, who was artist in residence at The V&A when the museum acquired the sections.

Rhg balcony

Rhg balcony

Prosecco on the aces deck of the dead Robin Hood Gardens

If you come go and say goodbye to this most important of the late Brutalist movement housing schemes, the film by Korean artist Do Hu Suh which uses photometric data scans and digital footage from drones of both demolition and the incredible interiors is well worth sitting in the dark for 30 mins.

The actual physical recreation of the section of precast units is strange, brilliantly executed and a technical challenge risen to and overcome it seems deeply perverted that the attendees of this Biennale are sipping prosecco on the access walkway to a social housing scheme brushed aside for land value gain.

I will leave it at that I think … I am off to a party hosted by the Baltic states and then dinner with friends.

5.00pm Yael Reisner



Alisa Andrasek under her ‘Cloud Perugla’; light delicate and clever structure, thin and white, coded as birds swarming designed by Prof. Alisa Andrasek, who is from Croatia, though last 20 years lived and worked in NY and London. She was the director of the B-Pro at the Bartlett, until last year, when she moved to RMIT uni. Melbourne. 

4.58pm Jeremy Melvin

There is no such thing as ‘freespace’. In the space between these two pillars, dignitaries entered Venice, and criminale despatched including an unfortunate friar who had fallen foul of the 18th century Me2 movement and whose sufferings were recorded by an English traveller as he burned alive. The space between the pillars was the portal between life, fame and reputation, or death and disgrace. It certainly is not free, but charged, by history, culture and use.

3.35pm Jeremy Melvin

Sermon on the Bench 

‘I wanted to build,’ says the curator of the Holy See’s first contribution to the biennale, Francesco dal Co. And because it was for the Vatican, ‘I wanted to build chapels’, 10 of them on the Isola San Giorgio from which Palladio’s great façade looks across to the Palazzo Ducale. Set in a garden on the island’s far side, each of the architects was asked to start by thinking about Asplund’s woodland chapel in Stockholm. 

These chapels have brought out architects like Eduardo Souto da Moura – a minimal open-air affair of pews and a cross; Teronobu Fujimori – a slightly kitschy literal reworking of Asplund; Australia’s Sean Godsell, who reinterprets a bell tower and was overheard commiserating with Peter Zumthor over the difficulties facing the latter in reworking a Piano building in Basel: not difficult at all, responded Zumthor with just a hint of menace mingling with contempt. He has not designed one of these chapels, though as he confided to the AR, ‘I have designed a few’ elsewhere. 

Best of all though is Norman Foster’s. It surprised even him as he saw it for the first time in three weeks as he rounded the island on the way in from the airport. He then gave us a sermon, if not on the mount, from a bench.

Norman's sermon

Norman’s sermon

The ‘texts’ he sought to elucidate were Bucky Fuller’s tensegrity structures and Cedric Price’s aviary with a nod to Asplund. It is three symbolic crosses connected by cables and wrapped in an enclosure, which as the design evolved and interacted with the site, transformed from a fabric into a series of timber slats. Foster wanted to stress the ‘ambiguity of enclosure and being part of the site … an element of surprise and mystery’. Subtly shifting geometries frame and reframe both the route through it and views into the woodland, continually changing in shadow and light. This was the quality which he found ‘strangely familiar’ on his way in from the airport. 

Busy urban dwellers are drawn to spiritual places, he speculated, whether on a grand or humble scale, both of which characteristics he finds in Asplund’s chapel. So will anyone who bothers to cross the water to seek respite from the crowds of San Marco to search out his.

3.10pm Ben Derbyshire

Arriving at the Giardini Publica just before opening, we have time to call in at a few pavilions before heading to our own for the opening of our RIBA event – a summary ‘Super Session’ of the Europa series our team have been running over the last nine months.

Before then, we just have time to squeeze in visits to the Spanish pavilion (much like a degree show and too diverse to convey a coherent message); the Belgian (an event space, but nicely neutral and with a play on perspective); the Dutch (an orange enclosure of Alice-in-Wonderland doors revealing, among other things, John and Yoko’s Amsterdam Hilton bedroom); and the Finnish (the most informative of the four with an excellent display of their commitment to building libraries – ‘freespaces’ for cultural absorption especially during the dark winters). 

Peter St John and Marcus Taylor are lounging on the steps of the British pavilion as we arrive – in convivial spirits but anxiously awaiting Adam Caruso who is apparently tired of the longueur of being in attendance and keeps disappearing. The British Council are enlightened patrons and I hope are rewarded by their imaginative response to the Grafton theme – a viewing platform atop the pavilion for performance and spaces within for events.

I then introduce our event which brings together 32 practices from 15 countries who have participated in the ‘Europa: Connecting Ideas Across Borders’ programme at RIBA. Sir David Chipperfield arrives and there is a tremendous scraping of chairs to accommodate him. 

The discussion ebbs and flows between the similarities and the differences, European versus national character, the importance of space as against built form. Chipperfield delivers his now well-known excoriation of Brexit and manages a few digs at RIBA for not having prevented it – as if!

Of course it’s my great good fortune to be given the last word, so I remind everyone that we are united by the threat (and the opportunity) that so little of the built environment benefits from the contribution of architects at all – and that we can unite to lead a way out of the deteriorating quality and sustainability of the built environment. Architecture is inevitably political and I seize the opportunity to repeat my invitation to Sir David to lunch to discuss how he might help with this!

1.55pm Paul Finch

Golden Lion winner Ken Frampton: even the great have to wait for a table at Giorgione … 

Ken frampton pf

Ken frampton pf

1.36pm Simon Henley

David Chipperfield on Europe: ‘The connection we had to different habits was important,…[and] Britain had a lot to contribute…’ 

Chippo sh

Chippo sh

12.46pm Laura Iloniemi

Iloniemi pressroom

Iloniemi pressroom

If only all press rooms could look like this one at the Arsenale. More often that not I admire Italian graphics that are not at all corporate in feel. Italians also have knack for making graphics timeless yet contemporary and wholly unaffected or gimmicky. Graphics aside, writers praising the ease and comfort of working here. Full marks.

11.38 Jon Astbury

Started the day with a visit to the Finnish, Korean and Japanese pavilions – all three very well put-together. The Finnish romp through library building from Theodor Höijer’s 1881 Rikhardinkatu Library to the upcoming Oodi mega-library in Helsinki is a delightful and enviable one, and obviously there’s some stunning Aalto along the way. More models and drawings wouldn’t have gone amiss, although these are all buried in the books sitting on a trolley from the Tampere Main Library in Metso. More focus has been given to full-scale library artefacts: lamps and one very dated piece of computer housing retrofitted with an LCD screen. 

Astbury 1

Astbury 1

Highlight of the Korean pavilion is the small ‘Absent Archive’ of the unbuilt works of the KECC (Korea Engineering Consultants Corporation) – a look at the relationship between political power and utopian ideals through the lens of the unbuilt. This is something of a running theme through a few of the exhibits. Japan, too, is a delightful display of drawings and propositions (pictured), filling a room dotted with binoculars, ladders and magnifier-frisbees to allow closer inspection.   

Meanwhile, architecture in Europe was being put to rights by a gathering in the British pavilion: look forward to hearing all about that later!

11.24am Siobhain Forde

Went along to the AR party last night, with Andy, Akiko, Chris, Neil & Lee from the Scottish Archifringe, for the launch of the Form 4 publication on ‘The Absurdity of Beauty’

There was plenty of chatting among the crowd on what everyone had seen over the previous days.

I was interested in what makes the best type of pavilion, who these appeal to and how wide-ranging this appeal is.
There were a reasonable number of families in attendance and it made me think about how much I would have loved it when I was a kid – the opportunity to run in and out of lots of great spaces, climbing and hiding, all in the setting of a beautiful garden.

I would have visited and played in them all and then made a clear decision on which one I thought was best, based on where I’d had the most fun. So, as an adult, my attitude to this hasn’t changed much – I still enjoy the pavilions which are more experience than exhibit. I like to be entertained and I also want the opportunity to be immersed in a space, where you have an instinctive and often emotional reaction, triggered by light, air and form.

Instinct is important in this. I don’t have much of an idea of how well attended the biennale is beyond the world of architects and designers, but its appeal should be broad and enable anyone to enjoy these opportunities and make their own responses.

In a bit of a coincidence, as I finish writing this, I find myself at Alison Brooks’s installation in the Arsenale, Recasting’,  in which she explores the everyday experience of housing. She discusses generosity and beauty. Just one of a happy crowd, I delved into a couple of cubby holes and enjoyed the mirror maze and stairs which allow you to experience the piece from many aspects. The idea is well communicated by the installation which is being enjoyed by plenty of people. A generous design indeed.

Forde alison brooks

Forde alison brooks

11.00am Peter McCaughey

Signor Blum is a small shop right beside us at Palazzo Zenobio. I went in and talked to Francesca, who runs it with her partner Francesca. They make these wooden models which may look a wee bit generic – the kind of things you see all over the world now. But here they handmake these. They hand draw the designs, hand cut the patterns. 

It is a shop of bespoke stuff. It’s very much in line with what we are thinking of screening a film – a Requiem to the Lost Arts – to the lost apprentices, to the lost artisans. We would have plenty of materials to work with, including the film by Callum Innes on Glasgow. Callum shot one of our films at The Happenstance and has just arrived in Venice.

This lady in the shop is extraordinary. She has a wee shop now, but she used to have a bigger business at another time – they were thriving, but then one thing or another happened and it collapsed. In her store, she’s got this gorgeous hand-painted sign from the business when it was really thriving. My eyes lit on it and I asked her to bring this to our structure. Somewhere in here, we could hang this portrait to her and her business. 

From all the offcuts of the wood, she’s also made a thing that looks like Roadrunner. It is not as formulaic as the other things, and it is lovely because it’s her own creativity. We will ask her to add it to the structure. 

There is a big story underneath that wee simple store. She’s got 40 years of practice. There’s a photo on her wall when she was 19, starting her business with her four partners, and she’s got this wisdom about her. She knew exactly what we were talking about, exactly what we valued about it, but is a bit shy about sharing her story. 

This is how we are going to add to the physical structure. I said to someone in an email this morning ‘yeah – this looks great at the minute, but that’s not really the point. The point is that it works great.’ When it works great, as I suspect it absolutely will, then it’s quite an engine to achieving things, talking about things. 

At six o’clock tonight (Friday) she is going to bring along her sign. It will be the first object added to the structure – hopefully of hundreds or thousands of objects.

8.23am Laura Iloniemi

Day 3 in Venice starting … Feet done in but hanging in there … Freespace with ‘shadow interventions’ … Avanti!




8.12am Catherine Slessor

Repeal the 8th

Repeal the 8th

The Biennale Paradox: you can run around all day without actually seeing anything. Seeing people, however, is a different matter. Stay in one spot long enough and the dramatis personae of architecture gavottes lightly into your orbit, generally clutching a small plastic glass of cheap prosecco and looking bewildered.

In the Arsenale, the windows of the Corderia have been opened to let the light in, revealing the building as a heroic thing in itself, rather than a backdrop for exhibits – of which Peter Salter’s deranged waltzer furniture rather stole the show.

Pavilion highlight: the Irish Pavilion’s Free Market which considered the dynamics of small towns in rural Ireland. And as Ireland votes on abortion rights today, a ‘Repeal the 8th’ banner was unfurled from the Rialto bridge, in Venetian solidarity from a Biennale curated by two Irish women, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.

Pavilion lowlight: Britain, enrobed in scaffolding, an unformed entity, ‘scarce half-made up’, trussed in a lattice of tubes. Ultimately, however, there’s nothing in it. Or on it. We are the builder’s bum of the Biennale.

8.06am Rob Wilson

The British party was the usual rammed affair last night, although this year relocated to a vast brick warehouse on Giudecca – impressive but acoustically challenging especially for ageing ears. So saw rather than heard a good cut through the UK architectural scene: Alison Brooks, Paul Monaghan, Joe Morris, Roz Barr, Deborah Saunt, Olly Wainwright (relieved at having just posted his review – know that feeling!) and the RA’s Kate Goodwin.

I was very impressed that Kate said she’d seen practically every exhibit until she reminded me that she is on the Biennale Golden Lion jury. Tried to get any hints from her as to what’s in the running – my money so far Pavilion-wise is on the Czech/Slovak, Dutch, Irish or Hungarian.

The day had mainly been spent trawling the Arsenale, which was rich in ideas and highlights, such as Níall McLaughlin’s amazing turntable of models: a diurnal clock of an installation. But overall the exhibition was laid out rather too even-handedly it felt, with little pacing. This seemed to reflect the conversation I’d had with Sam Jacob earlier in the day, as to why the Biennale has shifted from appointing curators and architectural academics to be director (Kurt Foster, Ricky Burdett) to architects (Sanaa, Chipperfield, Koolhaas, Aravena and now Grafton). This almost too tasteful display of exhibits perhaps shows the downside. 

One top tip in the Arsenale is the V&A installation: a cracker. A small fascinating exhibition with films of the Smithsons in their silver clothes and interviews including with Pete Barber on the future of social housing is followed by a mesmerising film by Do Ho Su of the building’s carcass. And then the main event itself: the fragments of the façcade and streets in the sky, rehung on a scaffold armature out on the Arsenale dockside. I was prepared to be disappointed by this. But it was brought to life by the details such as the worn lino through years of someone’s passage at the threshold to one of the flats.

7.26 Yael Resner

At the Arsenale, Architects DNA, China, built an unusual bamboo theatre in a Bamboo forest. A spatial natural structure created by cutting bamboo and clearing a circular ground plan, banding and tying together others to create this delicate though strong canopy, poetic and sensuous, ecological and so gently beautiful.  

A wonderful and intriguing piece, at the Arsenale, is by the Australian architect John Wardle, from Melbourne. A brilliant spatial and experiential architectural installation; clever, full of surprises. While in it, you hear people’s comments as they enjoy its mysterious interior; ah, oh..wow.. aha… Beautifully executed! Loved it. 

John wardle 1

John wardle 1

Salter-Collingridge design’s installation (Peter Salter, yes), is an exciting eye-catcher at the Arsenale; a private space for two; parts moves to unite or separate as the two wish for. 

Peter salter 1

Peter salter 1

6.48am Jeremy Melvin

Not for the first time in the last few Biennales, the American pavilion shows intelligence and social commitment. Its theme, ‘dimensions of citizenship’ takes the vagaries of ‘freespace’, adds several levels to it and gives it an intellectual, cultural and social context. (So at a much simpler and less ambitious level, does the Venezuelan, which also uses scaffolding with an austerity lacking in certain other pavilions, but that’s another matter.) 

The pavilion itself hints at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson: outside is an installation of braid and steel by Amanda Williams, Andres Hernandez and Shani Crowe, which opens all the complexities around the black female body. Inside Jeanne Gang has taken stones from a landing in Memphis, brought there from all points on the Mississippi, altered them in various ways and relaid them. This landing is where cotton was traded, facilitated by slaves, and had two statues of Confederate generals. The idea, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in the same city, is to use the stones, drawn as they are from many parts of the US, to suggest that this place of economic and racial discrimination could hint at diversity and inclusion. 

In another installation, Teddy Cruz challenges the notion that two countries can be divided along a neat, uni-dimensional line. By showing the various watersheds and river systems in the US/Mexico border region he points out that ‘border regions’ are more realistic and true to social and topographical conditions. 

Drawing on satellite imagery of the Earth and with a nod to the Eames’ film Powers of Ten, Diller Scofidio and Renfro with collaborators including the Columbia Center for Spatial Research add further dimensions. Night-time views show centres of population and energy consumption, while daytime views begin to unlock what these places actually are, gas plants in Peru or military bases in Africa, for instance, as well as obvious urban sprawls. It opens up discussion of how energy, people and power are distributed across the globe, and questions about the ethics and efficacy of that distribution.

2.05am Chris Boyce

It’s been an extraordinary day of revelation and architecture in equal measure. My fears of a Biennale full of inscrutable nonsense are allayed. 

Harriet’s delayed flight from London arrived finally over an hour late, and caused us to miss one train, but we made it to the next one. We used our two hours to catch up on life and work, while watching the countryside roll past, including some seriously romantic sights such as Verona, and Lake Garda. We have a much needed picnic of Prosecco and pizza….! 


Venice to check into the bizarre Sky Tower suites in Mestre a short ride from the island. It’s possibly one of the most ghastly buildings I have seen for a while and is situated in the car park of a Spar supermarket. 

Taxi! And a water taxi…. 

First stop is Arsenale, walking the length of the main hall but making it only a few metres before spotting Níall McLaughlin and his wonderful timber construct of models at 1:20 set on a mechanical sundial which when turned allows the artificial light to recreate the suns path across the structures. It’s beautiful. 

Níall taught me 20 years ago at the Bartlett, and it was great to take a few minutes and talk about his work and the power of luck vs hard graft in our profession. He’s created some of the best materially and spatially considered buildings over the last 20 years and my admiration for him continues.  

The work of Martin Boesch further down made me smile as the use of simple hard graphics in plan focused on reuse as a theme describing buildings in black and red, existing and proposed.  

There are a heartening number of exhibitors here who are describing or at least presenting architecture in its buildable form. 

Headed down to Giardini to meet two Davids – Bickle and Kohn – for Aperol spritzers and another conversation on the theme of luck and graft. Maybe it’s seeing so many architectural faces in one place, from Joe Morris to Hugh Pearman, but I am suffering from an acute sense of Archi-overload already!  

Bickle and kohn

Bickle and kohn

Vapereto across the lagoon to Guidecca Palanca for the exclusive British Council Party and a series of entertaining and provocative conversations with Phil Coffey, Sophie Brendel of the V&A and Leanne Tritton of ING media. 

Several spritzers into the evening and we decide to de-camp to Harry’s Bar at La Giudecca for dinner where we are joined by Daniella Sorella Lands, the sister of my friend Bena in London who has just completed her masters in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Great food again, however, presented in a haphazard manner, it’s late, we don’t care and the wine is flowing. Conversations range across subjects from the V&A Robin Hood Gardens exhibit to the ridiculous levels of student debt in both UK and USA. 

End the evening traversing the lagoon to … well somewhere near a bar where Dani and I meet her fellow students from Penn we talk about career changing realities and the processes of BIG. 

It’s late so one last Cognac… Taxi! But there are none so it’s a bus and walk for me.

Thursday 24 May

11.14 Tamsie Thomson

So the hottest ticket in town this evening was undoubtedly the British Council party over on Giudecca where Kate Tempest – fresh from a storming performance opening the British Pavilion – was the soundtrack to a stellar gathering of British architecture in an atmospheric warehouse venue. 



The mood is happy and celebratory, and as a colleague said to me earlier, Venice is a great way to get away from the real world (and Venice is a very unreal world) to clear one’s head, to think, and to have the kinds of conversations one doesn’t tend to have as part of the day to day.

For me it’s also a chance to rise briefly above the maelstrom of a festival that starts in only six days’ time, and to see what others are up to. Venice might be a bubble, but it’s a different bubble to the one that we all inhabit the rest of the time, and so far it’s been refreshing and fun. Did I say six days’ time? Eeek …



Earlier today our LFA head of programming, Rosa Rogina, concluded her a spot of moonlighting, launching her exhibition as part of the Montenegrin Pavilion. Emerging resilience questions the future of the urban form and the state and looks to how human responses can inform the future. Exhibited in a wonderful Palazzo and close to the Academia it’s well worth a short detour.

6.39pm Simon Allford

This year the Arsenale was well lit and calm – partly but not only because it was preview day. As ever there was much to see but this time few people to say hello to. Which was good as lunch at the Cipriani was calling. Beyond being nicely empty the Arsenale was all about exhibiting recognisable models and photographs of architecture. Very much as a deliberate and expected alternative to previous years and their light shows, dances and poetry readings (the latter was however to crop up at the opening of the British Pavilion). The other big idea was to tape the dimensions of the great linear space at 1:1 in metres. This was hugely helpful when, long down the hall when you are advised to rethink and return to the exhibit that you had given scant credit to earlier.



It was also useful, as I noted at the 515 metre mark, that some of the numbers had been switched around. I don’t think there was any brilliant Joycean joke being made by Grafton (though I am happy to learn otherwise), I just expect that like me the floor painting market men had run out of steam by this point. Which would not be purely coincidental as by this point I felt the initial enthusiasm for the exhibits and their architecture was very much declining for the curators as well. Indeed towards the end the texts suggest that Shelley and Yvonne were no longer selecting those they knew and admired (a key message in their early captions) but seeking out those they wanted to discover in places they did not know of. 

But it was great while it lasted. Niall McLaughlin’s clever hand-driven turntable situated his beautiful models of Twelve Halls in a 24-hour sky. A clever and crafted Hall McKnight piece utilised the forms of one large-scale urban project to contain mirrored models of four other smaller but nevertheless considered and urbane pieces of city repair. O’Donnell and Tuomey’s pavilion overwhelmed the competition they were trying to exhibit (which, a brief study of the drawings suggests was, if not deliberate, certainly no bad thing), while De Blacam and Meagher reminded us of the relationship between careful drawing, considered detailing and urban architecture (and their status as masters and mentors to a generation or more of architects educated in Ireland).

Of course it was not a solely Irish show. Sauerbruch and Hutton illustrated both what they are interested in beyond colour (space and its defining characteristics) and what they have been working on for this last decade in Mestre. Moneo’s exhibition reminded him and us that his favourite project, and the one that is most widely referenced (copied even!), is Murcia Town Hall. I am not sure it has much to do with Freespace but his words said otherwise and the project is good enough to talk through time of the import of an essential architecture of frame and form that, like the city, allows life to take over and ‘infill’. Talli Architecture and Design talked of similar interests but in the more utilitarian field of mass housing.

After that I recall less and less. 6a’s film connecting architecture across recent and distant time looked as promising as their building at Churchill but once you are the wrong side of the loop it is difficult to wait and easy to forget to remember to come back. Lunch meant Jonathan Sergison’s filmed homily went the same way as the filmed lecture of another Mendrisio Master I will never learn of. Toyo Ito, undoubtedly one of the giants in the room, tried to get away with a projection piece that attempted to tie together the calming flow of water to the waves of information that threaten to drown us, but in this Arsenale it came across as trying, if not trite.

I believe I could have followed the deflections in the route and walked on further but for me Olgiati’s white tubes brought the Arsenale to a natural end. I admire his work and recently enjoyed the majority of an exhibition I stumbled upon in Mexico City, but by the end of this particular walk I could see light to my left and I resisted the opportunity to indulge in his increasingly laboured interest in a ‘non-contextual architecture that emerges from itself’ – after all, there can only be so many luxury Swiss villa projects.

Olgiati’s declaration ‘I understand my role as an architect as one who thinks and creates space’ did however ring true both to the idea of Freespace and my own understanding of architecture’s long-term role in providing a set for the theatre of everyday life. It’s just that after even a cursory glance of all the declaratory texts of the Curators and Participants I was eager for one or both to say what they were really thinking when they were doing and making their work.

Otherwise, as the world builds itself around us, this Biennale like all others suggests as we increasingly celebrate our import we architects risk disappearing into a void of cultural production that is very much of our own making. A Freespace that is not so much of people, life and the making of an architecture of inhabitation but one of architects, critics and exhibitions.

After lunch, some refreshments and a walk around the streets of Venice, my interim conclusion was much brighter. And by dinner I was positively upbeat (not least as someone reminded me others were at Berlin for the BCO – give me culture over core every time!) This Biennale like all others is both the greatest architectural show on Earth and, like that dreadful contemporary film musical Barnum, all about celebrating the difference between the aspirations of architecture and those of the everyday world of building. And whenever we build we dance a fine but most delightfully rewarding line between the two. Thus I went to bed only a quarter cut and with a number of memorable images and ideas in my head and a keenness to see what the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini might reveal. Long live Architecture!

6.36pm Jon Astbury

Back for a rest after suffering from Arsenale fatigue. Attempted to tackle the main pavilion in the Giardini too but all a bit too much for one day – although Assemble’s tiles close to the entrance are gorgeous. Instead I went for some peace and quiet in the Australian Pavilion, filled with endangered plants and screening films showing a range of projects, with close-ups and shots showing the nature surrounding them. Very simple and very nice, and they win the award for best tote with their super-chic Perks and Mini bags.



Then a quick trip to the British Pavilion, which I enjoyed more than expected: quite amazing to see the pavilion empty and spot little details, and a great relief from the huge amount of stuff packed in everywhere else. An example of just architecture alone saying far more than any writing or curatorial statement. I arrived as tea-time on the raised platform above was coming to an end for the few people lucky enough to have the whole thing to themselves – it was promptly flooded by the long queue that had built up outside.

Popped into the German pavilion briefly but it looked like a curatorial and graphic design mess, one to try again tomorrow perhaps. Finally a quick trip to The Happenstance – in an amazing location at the Palazzo Zenobio and one of the highlights of the day – a huge open space with a colourful walkway and carpenter offering to help us build anything we wanted to with piled-up wood and tools. Already constructed were some ‘Jesus shoes’ – giant wide skis for walking on water (they worked apparently) – and tomorrow a backpack that turns into a bridge is supposedly going to be built. Definitely one worth a visit.

5.50pm Simon Henley

Worthy of Leonardo da Vinci, Niall McLaughlin’s installation Presences. The best thing I’ve seen all day. A table that, turned by hand, operates a range of lights from cool to warm that conveys the qualities of light projected, casting shadows through and on six of the practice’s halls throughout the day. Wonderful! Here’s a pic of Niall explaining how it works to Murray Fraser.

Img 4232

Img 4232

5.44pm Laura Mark

Today has been spent wandering around, firstly the Arsenale and then a brief soirée into the Giardini. 

I bumped into Niall McLaughlin by his piece at the entrance of the Arsenale. He gave me a lovely poetic explanation of the piece as he continued to push the revolving calendar of models around. I was left wondering whether he planned to stay there turning it for the whole biennale? 

Then a walk through the Arsenale uncovered some interesting pieces by Alison Brooks, Alvaro Siza, O’Donnell and Tuomey and John Wardle. 

I bumped into Peter Salter and Fenella Collingbridge by their wonderfully playful chairs, which have been crafted by the same carpenter that worked on Walmer Yard. If you are in the Arsenale, go and rest your feet and sit on these…


Then on to the British Pavilion for the opening with poetry by Kate Tempest. I ventured on to the roof but made a fairly quick retreat when I realised there was no shade and it was intensely hot. 

One of my favourite pavilions of the day has to be the Swiss one, which played with perceptions of scale through lowered ceilings and oversized doors. It was like being in an architectural version of Alice in Wonderland.

5.05pm Ben Derbyshire

Well, it’s the end of the first biennale preview day, and my wife and I have made it to Gatwick! I spent the morning in the president’s office at Portland Place on a briefing document for MHCLG, setting out the quality and performance initiatives we are working on at RIBA, and which we would like them to support.

Meanwhile, my wife (Dr Jane Derbyshire McNeill) spent the morning with one of the families she is supporting as a psychologist through the early stages of the Grenfell Inquiry. Meanwhile, I’m happy to see that the RIBA team already out there at the Arsenale are busy with their Instagram posts featuring the view from the platform atop the British Pavilion and images of Bjarke Engels and Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation. Misty rain here, glorious sunshine there. 

Jane has already tweeted her availability for anyone who wants to talk about the impact on the vulnerable of the built environment when it goes disastrously wrong. My mind is full of the ins and outs of post-occupancy evaluation, procurement and the golden thread of quality accountability. Time to reset, I can see. But as a biennale first timer, I am keen to find out whether my preconception that this glittering and seemingly glamorous event relates to the reality, and whether there is a possibility of connecting the architectural discourse there with the impact of our work on people’s lives. Will Grafton’s theme bear meaningful fruit? I’ll let you know when I get there.

5pm Tamsie Thomson

One of my favourite pavilions so far is the Czech and Slovak contribution. Certainly it has one of the strongest concepts and it’s great to see something which has a life and resonance beyond the Biennale itself. The pavilion by Czech artist Katerina Seda explores the absence of ordinary life from those cites which are major tourist destinations. The project discussed here in the pavilion tries to reverse this trend by offering families a home and a salary to simply live in these centres in an attempt to bring back ‘normal life’.

While there are obvious flaws with this as a permanent solution, it does aptly raise questions about the future of cities such as Venice (and perhaps London?) which largely due to issues of affordability cease to be living spaces and instead become either museums or playgrounds for the rich. It also provokes questions about the authenticity of ‘everyday life’: in today’s commercialised and hectic world, does it really exist any more, or is it another thing that can be commodified and sold as an aspiration? Certainly thought provoking and I’ll be applying to spend a few months ’acting out normal life’ this summer.

4.57pm Simon Henley

Henley crop

The V&A’s decision to save a fragment of Robin Hood Gardens was a mistake, and to bring it to Venice has only compounded that mistake. What they should have brought was a large green space with a great mound or tumulus in the middle. Why? Because the mound, the mystical landform at the heart of RHG, was the subject of what Peter Smithson called the ‘stress-free zone’. It is that that has been lost, the atmosphere, the sensible, not the concrete. It was their genius to connect the city with the Neolithic English landscape of which the Smithsons were so fond.


4.37pm Simon Allford

Project walking the Giardini is an always tricky task And returning to my counter-cultural promenade I realise it was remiss of me not to mention the Canadian Pavilion. Here was a tale of the restoration (by the son of one of BBPR, who had built the original pavilion) portrayed by the building itself and some gloriously technicolour films of the originals – all very much in the spirit of Hitchcock’s North by North West.

The brief history of BBPR that accompanied the opening included an image of the Torre Velasca. This reminded me of the recent insight I was offered by one of our most eminent historians, who was then ensconced in Milan’s architectural culture. History records that this building marked a pivotal moment when Modernism tipped into contextualism, with BBPR referencing the import of silhouette, history and in particular the medieval Lombard castle. And I am sure it did.

What entertains me, however, is how it came about. The site was tight and the developer greedy for more area at the most valuable higher levels. The architects fought this sorry commercial driver hard, but in the end capitulated and applied their skills to addressing and dressing the developer-defined design! Another salutary lesson in the benefits of constraint, but more significantly in how the ‘cultural production’ around which all biennales are built involves the reinvention of history and architectural myth replacing historical reality.

After recalling that lesson, and despite the calm, it was difficult to focus on the excesses of curation. The French gave me a newspaper. I liked the theme of reuse and adaptation; the problem was the pavilion is like a junk store rammed with the good the bad and the ugly all crying for attention. There was just too much to admire. When will the curators realise that (as with Eurovision!) we have an ever decreasing attention span. And regardless, the essential truth is that an exhibition is not a book nor even a lecture and (even if you think it unfortunate) the simple messages carry further.

Allford blog 4

Allford blog 4

The Czech’ got that very clear. Their pavilion was an artistic collaboration, titled UNES-CO Normal Life is a Full-Time JobIt was a story of depopulating UNESCO World Heritage sites – pertinent to Venice and a shot in the arm for those of us who have to liaise with that pompous and useless organisation!

The Nordics were on the ball too, or more correctly the bubble. In their exhibit, Another Generosity, a series of Banham-like well-tempered environments sat nicely in Sverre Fehn’s aesthetic masterpiece. Sadly they could not be entered. And I do not think that Anthropocenes (whatever they might be, and no, as is often the case the text did not help) will catch on. But as we were keen to move on to the Arsenale they were the perfect visual antidote.

Allford 3

The Danes hedged their bets cleverly. Half the pavilion was devoted to holding on to their title as the design and predestination country, with a video of OMA’s rather corporate-looking BLOX. The future we were told is not a place or a way of life but another architecture centre with happy Danish families passing through (on foot of course) as researchers studied them studying the environment. All very dull, all very Danish – all very pedestrian! 

If like me, you did not like that, you could go next door and learn about another great Danish seaside town – Albertslund Syd – where everyone plays happily (with Lego) and self builds in immaculate taste! Just to be sure they were not going to be marginalised, there was also a rather scrappy looking but very different metal model. At first I thought it was some kind of organic composting machine inspired by the Whole Earth Catalogue. But no. It was the Virgin Hyperloop One. The message was clear if you have had your full after the walk form BLOX to Albertslund Syd you could jump into a capsule and propel yourself as far as you could from the land of herrings and Babette’s Feast.

At that point we decided we had had enough and scurried off to seek solace in the cool of the Arsenale.

3.44pm Meneesha Kellay

Sam Jacob, star of the RIBA’s current exhibition, being ‘peak Venice’, courtesy of Catherine Slessor.


3.40pm Lesley Lokko


It’s not often – if ever – I’ll be able to say, casual like, ‘oh, was just in bed with Odile, Beatriz, Francesca, Hans Ulrich, Niklaus’ and so on. But I was. Dutch Pavilion, Room 902 of the Amsterdam Hotel, 14h30 this afternoon. Beatriz’s provocation: is the bed a contemporary site of post-labour? For many, yes, as mobile phones, tablets and other tech devices mean working anywhere, anytime, anyhow. The sight of so many shy bare feet and pyjamas was disarming and revealing. Great to be in the space of ideas rather than ‘things’. 

3.23pm Merlin Fulcher

Plaudits to Lithuania, which has somehow physically transported a mini swamp to the Biennale. Having visited a marshland nature reserve in Lithuania before, I can vouch that it appears very authentic, down to the plants, smell and even bugs crawling around. A little surprised they were able to get it past the conservationists.


The rest of the installation, a radio broadcast of swamp bacteria intended to explore synergies of architecture and marshland co-habitation, was possibly less interesting. Aren’t natural habitats like these, which have been threatened around the world, a safe haven from architecture? Except reinventing the boardwalks and viewing platforms which allow us glimpses in, I’m yet to be convinced. But nevertheless a new solo entry to the biennale well worth seeing.

3.15pm Siobhain Forde

It’s the Giardini in earnest this afternoon. After joining the big crowd to watch Kate Tempest’s performance at the British Pavilion and patiently waiting our turn to get up on that roof to look at the view, we headed into the Swiss Pavilion which proved to be good fun.

They play with the scale of standard housing and visitors wind their way through giant and tiny doorways. It works well when bustling as it creates an optical illusion when you watch people coming to and fro spaces looking either like Borrowers or giants in Willy Wonka corridors.

Heading across the avenue I spotted Bjarke Ingels dashing past to do a meet up in the Danish Pavilion. He Looks smaller in the flesh, he should get himself over to that Swiss exhibit…

3.12pm Laura Iloniemi

Arsenale corderie li

Arsenale corderie li

At Arsenale Corderie today before lunch. Liked this at the entrance. Then went to Finnish Pavilion opening. Dying for a drink. It was hopeless with all the Finns around the bar. I heard they were serving Finnish gin. 

2.29pm Paul Finch

British architects at work!

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2.04pm Sam Jacob

Spotted in the wild: one of our Half Timbered t-shirts at the Czech and Slovak pavillion opening. 

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1.59pm Jeremy Melvin

A haze rolled over the lagoon from the Lido on to the Giardini. It wafted upwards and as if it embodied Morpheus as well as assorted Adriatic deities, it lulled me to sleep.

And I dreamed a dream, of Turner’s light and Ruskin’s analyses – and the numerous new-Venetian Gothic warehouses he inspired, mixing British sensibilities with the exotic aromas of this most Byzantine of Western European cities; of Sir Henry Wootton, consul here in the early 17th century and his coinage of the phrase, that architecture consists of commodity, firmness and delight; of his friend John Donne and his discovery of new sound patterns and emotional resonances in the English language (Batter my heart, three person’d God; Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee); and even more their contemporary Shakespeare and his ability to conjure chaos in the most precise use of literature; of Jeanette Winterson and gender fluidity: indeed of all those magnificent synergies between Britain and Venice.

And I woke up noting inspiration from ‘Freespace’ atop the British Pavilion created by Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Marcus Taylor. Perhaps.

1.49pm Peter McCaughey

I came into the Happenstance garden yesterday to find the rather remarkable Bruno juggling five hula hoops in a rather extravagant fashion – it really was an incredible act. Bruno went on stage - all because he was bet that he couldn’t do a hula hoop around his waist. He could do that, and then some! 

Peter mcc hoops

Bruno and Octavio are from Mexico – they are travelling on a bit of a world tour – and found themselves in our garden. They said a couple of things yesterday that were really key to what we have been hoping to achieve – and given that yesterday was our day one it was rather remarkable that those things were said! 

The principal thing that Octavio said about Bruno was that he hadn’t done that with the hula hoops for 10 years. He had been a professional dancer and had had a knee injury and had just stopped. 

Yesterday, in the chaotic ambience of playful, energetic activity in the garden, he took to the stage and just did it again. Octavio said he’d never seen this side of Bruno and loved to see this remarkable skill of his friend. Bruno himself was visibly moved by this exchange and by the fact that he had reconnected with a thing he had felt had been lost. 

In that way I think many of us abandon our skills or our inclinations as we grow up. Bruno just kept saying this mantra: ‘We need to keep playing, we need to keep playing’. I said: ‘We’re going to have to record you saying this.’ This is on point in regards to what we wish to cultivate. 

This project is not about children per se. It is about the child in all of us – including children. That thing we want to get to. For him there was something in the ambience of the space that encouraged that in him – the performer, the player, the dancer. It was a real epiphany. 

We discussed that perhaps once a day such a thing might happen and this might become a garden of epiphanies and what a value that would be. We set up the conditions where the epiphanies can happen. 

Imagine you had an engine that served to deliver the thing we have been critiquing – that we lose touch with our playful childhood. That we lose the creativity, the inventiveness and the freedom of that in our professional practices and we wish to breathe life into the architect, the urban planner, the politician to remember how it was we did things when we were a lot freer.

12.29pm Laura Iloniemi

Iloniemi 4314

Feeling like a ‘paparazza’ but couldn’t resist this photo from our lunch table facing Paolo Baratta and Freespace curators. 

12.24pm Merlin Fulcher

Odile decq mf

Odile Decq is preparing for a flash mob tomorrow, which will give a voice to women in architecture outside the main pavilion in the Giardini. Decq has been seen around Venice gathering names of prominent women in architecture who will participate in the event. Speaking to me earlier, she confirmed more than 100 have signed up. 

We’ve been promised a full statement tomorrow, which means, for now, the exact purpose of the event remains a partial mystery. Although an earlier email said the moment intends to replicate similar declarations within film and other industries.

12.10pm Jon Astbury

Arsenale today, currently sitting in Sergison Bates’s exhibit, which constitutes a film screened on stretched canvases showing the firm’s teaching and practice. Still a bit unclear what all of this is pointing towards. Lots of vague interpretations of Freespace and presentations of built works that have been tangentially linked to it. ‘Civic’, ‘memory’, ‘user’ and ‘community’ are peppered everywhere, and all so far just playing into the vague theme rather than interrogating it. Alison Brooks’s timber and mirror thing is quite fun though, as is Peter Salter’s moving table and chairs.

Jon astbury selfie

11.52am Meneesha Kellay 

First stop, Caruso St John’s British Pavilion. I greet Peter St John who is trying to get a selfie with Kate Tempest – selfie is the word he used, not me, by the way!

Into the main room in the pavilion, it’s very entertaining watching the bemused look on visitors faces when they enter the empty pavilion looking for something … anything! A few people have spent a little too long looking at faded marks from the last exhibition wondering if they have meaning. Perhaps they do.

Politely queueing to walk up the steps to the platform above the building, up on the right and down on the left, reminiscent of the London Underground, is a very British experience. The Island is ironically full, causing a very British queue. Although it’s strangely sparse when up here.

The plywood panelling flooring is distinctly Caruso St John. The views are unique to the Giardini, and I appreciate the moment for reflection being among the trees with birdsong in the distance.

Meneesha brit pav

11.27am Siobhain Forde

Having arrived late last night and surviving a typically hair-raising Italian drive along the motorway from Treviso, and then enjoying a catch up with friends from here there and everywhere at the Campo Santa Margherita, I then had a tour in the dark of Palazzo Zenobio, home of The Happenstance, Scotland’s collateral project.

Crawling through the garden we interrupt the peace and quiet for an A&DS fellow who was enjoying the calm of the garden from The Armature (pictured below), Baxendale’s contribution to the Scottish project. 

Armature sf

Even in the dark, this place is amazing. As we stumbled about in the dark trying to locate our room we came across an amazing ballroom, a hall of mirrors.

Woke up this morning to the sound of jazz floating in from the street – all very Woody Allen-ish.
First stop: appreciate The Happenstance in all its joyous, colourful glory – a complete celebration of invention, making, interaction and interpretation. 

Next up a beeline to the Giardini to visit Assemble and the team from Granby Worksop to see The Factory Floor, a gateway installation into the Central Pavilion made up of thousands of individually handmade tiles created especially for the biennale at the Liverpool workshop. The cool surface is inspiring people to get close, shoes off, sprawl on it and get an opportunity to take a break and appreciate this beautiful craftsmanship at close hand.

Assembly factory floor sf

11.18am Sam Jacob

The Corderie is arranged as one long space, maintaining the central bay as a clear route and axis. Certainly it draws out both the rope-making history of the building (that literally hits you in the face at the entrance with the hanging rope curtain) and the inherent qualities of the existing space. And the long view all the way through is both impressive and daunting.

Yet the same tactic forces all the work into the side bays, somehow flattening everything. This lack of spatial hierarchy feels more like an airport/trade-show/shopping centre. Is the arrangement worth the payoff of scale and distance? Not sure myself.

But it is interesting that here, and at the Chicago Biennial, we are seeing architects use space and formal approaches as a means to curate. It means they use the medium they are most familiar with and in control of. But on the other hand, does form obliterate content?  The medium is the message and all that. 

10.42am Sam Jacob

Sam jacob 35

Caught Chris and Olivia’s tour of the V&A’s Ruin in Reverse. A great show with an incredible Do Ho Suh widescreen digital film of Robin Hood Gardens. Really a new landmark in how moving image can talk about architecture and the city.  

Interesting talking to Amanda Baillieu about her BD campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens and what has happened since. And of course super interesting to see the reconstruction of a section of the building in the Venetian sunshine. 

I remember when we built the mound as the centrepiece of A Clockwork Jerusalem at the British Pavilion (2014) we offered visitors handfuls of soil taken from the Robin Hood Gardens mound to throw as a kind of funereal ritual gesture. But in architecture, nothing ever really dies …. and the ghost of Robin Hood Gardens seems to loom large over our current moment. Even – especially – as a ruin, the issues that surround it remain a provocation to use to find new ways to create housing and a more equitable city.

10.24am Paul Finch

Robin Hood Gardens, or rather its demolition, helped to trigger this protest outside the Arsenale. Demonstrators berated the lack of social housing and compared it to the huge supply of art and architecture. The V&A is exhibiting a chunk of the demolished part of the estate – culture being the consumption of the obsolete. 

Img 0316

Img 0316

10.13am Peter McCaughey

Where The Happenstance becomes interesting is that when people become very, very fond of what we’ve made – they’ve obviously invested a lot of labour and time in it, and there is a preciousness about that – there will be questions, like what if it is colonised by something that doesn’t fit with someone’s aesthetic, or somebody’s politics? It will be interesting to see if the structure and the garden can hold that? We have interesting conundrums ahead, and if we don’t raise those we will have completely failed.

When you address freespace, of course you have to think about censorship, you have to think about your own parameters, in terms of what you accept or permission, and you think about how much are you really prepared to give away, so these are the really interesting discussions.

I know that I am here until the end of June, but I think the best reflection I can give in one sentence is that – despite how hard all the team has worked on The Happenstance to date, everyone wants to stay longer. Everyone is coming up to me to say ‘is there any way you can help us stay longer – it’s a feeling for the project, the space, the Armenian way of hosting us, what’s available in broader Venice and what is at stake. That is going to be one of my jobs, to work out how we can do that.

10.09am Laura Iloniemi

At the Writers’ Dinner last night – a great evening hosted by Form4’s John Marx at Lineadombra Restaurant to celebrate the writers who worked on the new AR monograph The Absurdity of Beauty, to be launched in Venice during the previews. 

Form4 is a San Francisco-based practice working in the Bay Area. Having spent seven years of my childhood in the States, I thoroughly enjoyed the American take on Venice. Knowledgeable, putting many Europeans to shame (!) and going well beyond the odd Palladio church or Sansovino arcade. At the same time, I took in the American enjoyment in everything around them – spontaneous and heartfelt in a way that comes less easily to the more reserved or know-it-all Europeans. The evening was full of California sunshine … 

John marx li

John marx li

Form4’s John Marx recounting his collaboration with the AR

9.19am Rob Wilson

Wednesday afternoon spent weaving back and across the Academia bridge (currently shrouded in scaffolding) seeing pavilions in Dosoduro and around with old colleague George Kafka from my uncube days in Berlin.

Portugal – nicely old-school presentation of recent public projects, slide projectors clicking in Palazzo Salone against the plash of the Grand Canal outside; Montenegro – not finished, didn’t quite get it; and fruitless hunt for Estonian, until I realised I’d pulled up an out-of-date map from the 2016 Biennale.

Ended the afternoon at the Scotland + Venice ‘The Happenstance’ installation and an inspiring chat with Peter McCaughey and Lee Ivett about how to balance over-design and over-engagement in projects.

Later after reunion with another fellow uncuber Sophie Lovell I spent the evening at a string of events – CCA, Unbuilt/Arch + magazine launch, Lisbon Triennale launch party. Not much freespace in any and increasingly less free drink.

Ended evening over Negronis at canalside gathering masterminded, as always it seems, by Phin Harper. Missing late night Campo Santa Margherita mayhem to marshal resources before big push today…

8.39am Chris Boyce

Chris boyce 2

Last night was about food, today is about Venice. While I know Venice well, I have never attended a Biennale and I am genuinely excited to be going. I am also slightly unsure of what I will find., I have some invitations to attend a few things and I am meeting friends but it’s the actual work, the thematic interpretations of Freespace that I am twitchy about.  

The work of Grafton Architects is always tectonic and sculptural, it’s good stuff, but it’s also solid architecture and is grounded. My background as an architect is one that traverses the gulf between the Mack in Glasgow and Jim Stirling’s office in the 90s to the Bartlett and then significant but commercial work. I have always been a bit put off by the non-building side of our profession and as such I find myself headed to Central Station today wondering if I might feel a bit overwhelmed and possibly even just sceptical. 

My plan is simply to use the many others whom I know are attending and are friends or acquaintances as guides, to ask questions and be challenging if I can’t see the damn point. In the same way that my annual trip to MIPIM is punctuated with serious scepticism and scorn on occasions at the flashy nonsense on some stands, so I expect to be occasionally unsure of what I am looking at or why at Biennale. I also expect to be delighted by some of the work and probably challenged right back by much of it.  

I am looking forward to seeing the V&A Robin Hood Gardens piece, especially as my dinner companion later today is my friend David Bickle.  

Right I am off to ditch the scooter and meet Harriet Harriss if her delayed Easyjet plane ever gets here!

Train to Venice in two hours …

8.11am Jeremy Melvin

To the Palazzo delle Zattere, where the charming Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson outlines his vision to turn a power station into GES 2, a 2a Moscow arts space for his V‐A‐C Foundation. It may have a familiar ring but this is no earthbound mass of stolid brick solidity. Rather it is a magnificent structure of iron and steel which billows and shimmers in the manner of Kew’s recently restored Temperate House or the more prosaic but vast GUM department store across the river on Red Square. Renzo Piano’s touch will make it billow and shimmer even more. 

With Renzo indisposed, his partner Antonio Belvedere took up the story. It will become a ‘factory of ideas’, he said, a new, authentic piece of public realm for Moscow, where ‘different types of space will develop spontaneously’ with a ‘topography of stairs and walkways’. It faces all sorts of structural challenges and the small conundrum of how to turn a glazed structure into an arts space. The renderings look ravishing.

Moscow interno 01 post

Moscow interno 01 post

But it was slightly disappointing that Signor Belvedere focused on detail rather than the conceptual challenges; this is a charged piece of the city where the Red October chocolate factory was located. He may be justified in saying that architecture does a job but, given its ambition, it is not sufficient to create a new institution; how it fits into the political and cultural complexities of modern Moscow must be the point. One hopes its effects in this area will be as transparent as the building itself.

1.05am Merlin Fulcher

Travelling around Venice is laborious and delightful in equal measure, with the latter owing its exquisite delicacy in many parts to the task of navigating the labyrinthine lanes leading to expansive vistas and mind-boggling façades. 

I spent the evening dining at Giardinetto Di Severino with the curators of Korea’s Spectares of the State Avant-Garde pavilion – Seongtae Park and Jinhong Jeon (pictured).  With a slight nod to Brutalism’s ongoing critical reappraisal, the pavilion focuses on the rock-star popularity of post-war-Korea’s government architects who presided over the genesis of the modern commercial and industrial powerhouse.

Merlin and friends

While young architects are clearly inspired by the previous generation, whose works have taken on heroic status nationally, the current crusade is to deliver desperately needed civic spaces in a landscape dominated by the past’s struggle for productivity. 

So I am keen to see the pavilion in the flesh tomorrow and many others. The walk home took in the waterfront, San Marco Square (best experienced empty at night) and the Rialto Bridge (which frankly isn’t). If ever something deserved a new lighting scheme this is it, as the floodlights are pure overkill.

Wednesday 23 May

11.02pm Miriam Delaney

Such positive reactions today to the Irish pavilion, and great animated conversations about small towns with so many nationalities. It’s been a whirlwind … and today should be the quiet today. I got an hour’s respite to go to through Corderie – there are some real gems there.

Miriam 3

My favourites so far are the Flores & Prats’ wonder cabinet of beautiful objects, drawings and models. And these lovely red charcoal drawings by Alice Hanratty as part of deBlacam and Meagher’s contribution also gave a real visceral pleasure. My first impression of the Corderie is that the built artefact is centre stage, there’s less rhetoric than I’ve seen previously but the joy in the building and making things beautifully is celebrated. 

Hanratty crop

7.41pm Manon Mollard

Island hopping off the beaten track: today was the preview of the official Biennale preview, but jumping on a vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore and then to San Michele seemed like a much better idea. Here’s Smiljan Radic’s minimalist altar, his rough concrete walls cast against bubble wrap.

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7.22pm Catherine Slessor

An afternoon at San Michele Cemetery. Despite having been to Venice countless times, I’d never been before. San Michele is the original Isle of the Dead, an Arnold Böcklin painting made flesh, with a protective veil of yew trees protruding over its brick perimeter walls. Famous internees include Ezra Pound, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, whose tomb is adorned with rotting ballet shoes from grief-smitten balletomanes. San Michele’s problem is space. Once you’re in, you stay for a bit, but are ultimately exhumed and your bones reinterred in an ossuary island in the lagoon, after a decent interval. That’s where David Chipperfield comes in, with his design for a cemetery extension, completed over 10 years ago. Compared with the original necropolis, it’s depressingly bland and anodyne, the usual stripped back forms, but the stone is still too precise and box fresh. There’s also an uneasy contrast between Chipperfield’s uber-pristine geometries and the riot of plastic flowers and family photographs adorning the tombs. A deliciously Catholic subversion of architectural intent. 

7.19pm Eleanor Beaumont

A decidedly deathly day in Venice, starting with the Holy See’s extraordinary collection of temporary chapels nestled in the woods around the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Following in the hallowed footsteps of Asplund and Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery, the Vatican’s inaugural contribution to the Venice Biennale features Souto de Moura’s stunningly simple stone sanctuary, Teronobu Fujimori’s unmistakably Japanese offering complete with beautifully crafted timber pews, and Flores & Prats’ poetic alcove carved from a single monumental wall, ‘catching the first rays of morning sun’ Ricardo Flores insists to us as we seek shelter from the rain.

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From one necropolis to another, the Cimetero di San Michele is a walled city of the dead not to be missed, floating serenely in the Venetian lagoon. Chipperfield’s sober new addition is saved from deathly boredom by the fantastic blooms of lurid plastic flowers, poignant photographs and flickering LED candles attached to each plaque as the grid of tombs is gruesomely occupied. Chipperfield’s signature march of concrete columns inadvertently provide a frame for this defiant show of individualism: a true death in Venice.

6.50pm Jon Astbury

After a chic Venetian breakfast of a plastic-wrapped brioche roll this morning, we headed to San Giorgio to see the Vatican Chapels: a mixed bag of 11 architects asked to respond to the model of Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery – although it’s not entirely clear why, other than the fact that Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery is lovely, which is reason enough I suppose. All looked expensive, some clumsier than others (like Javier Corvalán’s ‘wheel of death’), some simply what you’d expect (Norman Foster’s), and some just like a pile of shiny metal beams involving a crucifix (Carla Juaçaba’s). Highlights included Terunobu Fujimori’s Hansel and Gretel-feeling house with a ludicrously thin door and an interior that looked like a can of charred wood chips had exploded, and Sean Godsell’s macho high-tech looking piston-powered column. A nice start to things: barely any text, not even a free tote bag, just some architects with an excuse to have fun making a vaguely chapel-like form in a nice quiet park.


Then to an actual cemetery at San Michele, to see the ongoing extension by David Chipperfield Architects. This is the initial phase, before an entirely new adjacent island will be created. It’s hard to tell how it’s all going to come together – the more random feeling planting and winding openness of the original areas has been traded for some stark compartmentalisation, creating what are currently oddly desolate spaces in between, with marble benches ostensibly for staring at concrete walls. They’re a bit like giant filing cabinets for coffins and urns – maybe some modelling on Asplund would’ve been nice to see here, too. 


6.29pm Merlin Fulcher

Having waved Joe Morris and Elly Ward off on their romantic river taxi, I’ve boarded a rival vessel with Assemble and Alex Scott Whitby… Cruising speed feels about 50mph while drama and excitement is running full speed. The only way to travel! 

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6.25pm Yael Reisner

A special installation I was very enthusiastic about is The Fuji Kindergarten, Tokyo, expressed through a physical model – in a scale of 1:15 – with a film projection. Both together capture so well the conviviality and free spirit of that unique place (which is run by a visionary head/director and a client), where kids are empowered, from a very young age, to experience the physical environment they live in. As a result they learn further and better, more in class, as they concentrate well and can focus at lesson time, all induced by a very special architecture.


6.09pm Peter McCaughey

We had a young American visitor to the garden. He was an architect and I spent some time with him talking about the project – and showed him the film about Poveglia island. He said he’d sort of lost his practice as an architect. Next year he is off to study law. I thought, ’You are now the most interesting person in the garden to me, because I think, ”What area of law do you want to do?”’ He is looking at social justice as possibly being his field of interest, because, as an American, he’s very concerned about the influence of Trump on immigration. That’s going to be his battleground. I said that it’s also one of my greatest areas of interest – what is available in terms of law, to be written, the possibility of a legal caveat is one of the most powerful ways that we have to permission everything. I sent him away to look up Andy Wightman’s Why The Poor Had No Lawyers and I really hope he will stay in touch. There’s a bit of a dream that in 15 years’ time, when this young student becomes a famous civil rights lawyer, that he remembers the conversation we had in the editing suite in the garden at Palazzo Zenobio. That thought gave me a wee bit of fire in my belly, a wee bit of encouragement – it’s a very good thought about this space.

5.50pm Sam Jacob

So I get on the plane and there is Tom Holbrook sitting in my seat. My window seat! I guess that’s one interpretation of Freespace …

Water taxi into the heart of Bienalleville, so head straight to the bar on via Garibaldi where 3/7ths of Crimson are already in residence. They have installed their City of Comings and Goings and are kicking back so we plot movements for the next few days cross-referencing Simone’s database with my pile of printouts. 

Mimi Zeiger strolls past after a day of press tours of her American pavilion. 

Liza from muf reckons that Adam Caruso has confused Kate Tempest with The Tempest… 

Tonight it’s dinner with Dezeen and then most likely back to via Garibaldi before things get serious tomorrow.

5.35pm Paul Finch

Tuesday and Wednesday morning arrivers automatically seem like Biennale veterans. If you talk to three or four, you can soon talk as though you were on the same plane.

Enjoyed the travelators and air-conditioning which now accompany the walk from the airport to the water taxis, a huge improvement on the old Perspex-covered route which was the worst possible introduction to beautiful Venice. Just off to see a presentation about a planned conversion of the power station opposite the Kremlin into a contemporary art venue. Architect Renzo Piano will not be appearing, it seems, because of a dodgy knee. Still a heroic project.

Then dinner with Form4 architects and generous host John Marx, plus all the people involved in the recently published AR monograph on their work. A big reception on Thursday evening will give the monograph, edited by Cath Slessor, the send-off it deserves. More from the trenches, and trenchermen, tomorrow

5.32pm Simon Allford

So what of the Giardini? First, we had to convince a very helpful young man to bring Simon Silver’s preview pass forward a day. Having successfully utilised all the charm and negotiating tactics we could muster, we were past the heavy security through the turnstiles and in. We were immediately greeted by a surreal and calming emptiness, with men raking gravel in a Venetian take on Japanese gardens and the retainers of National Pavilions literally setting out their stalls.

Being English and ordered, we decided to work our way anti-clockwise around the first street and the national pavilions. First was Switzerland – an Alice in Wonderland world of over and undersized doors, handles, cabinets, windows and rooms designed to highlight the import of the apparently forgotten world of the residential interior. This elaborately constructed Swiss idea of a joke also reminded me why, regardless of what you might earn, it is always worth paying tax. 

Next was Venezuela where our interest in Scarpa’s elegant (and for him most restrained) pavilion took precedence. A reminder again that constraint matters as much materials – and when working together the two can constrain even the likes of Scarpa (a man who liked two details too many).

Russia offered hints of a world of imagery and advertising but was closed!

Japan’s enquiry into the architecture of ethnography was delightful in content, varied in graphics but consistently fastidious in careful observation. It demanded, and probably deserved, more careful study than a cursory walk through a Venetian garden allows.

Perhaps more a book than an exhibition Korea’s pavilion elegantly tucked around and behind used its transparency well with a tale of rediscovering the qualities of the architecture of its own post-war development. Acknowledging the debt Korean society owed to the buildings that have allowed them to progress and then reject said architecture.

Germany’s pavilion took up the theme of Freespace with an exhibition of the use, reuse and cultural impact of the spaces defined by the Berlin Wall (28 years since it was dismantled, 56 years since it went up). As ever it was on point and diligent – if a tad dull/worthy/weighty.

Caruso St John and Marcus Taylor’s British Pavilion, by contrast, was light, airy and empty. The rooms are restored to such a calming whiteness that the corrupted Palladian plan gains some integrity. The intervention is the emptiness and the football stadium set of steps that takes you to an open room on the roof – an elegantly constructed plywood suntrap with shade offering rare views over the islands and gardens of Venice.

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Perhaps also, as the title ‘Island’ suggests, a metaphor for an island dislocated yet connected to its hinterland (Europe). Either way, it was refreshingly simple in its lack of a didactic message. Up to that point it was my favourite. Favoured because it resisted hectoring us on the import of its conceptual position. And yet it reminded me that architecture is always an exhibit in the theatre of life; that concepts alone do not make or justify architecture; and that a sunny room with umbrellas for shade, a well-detailed ledge for drinks that offers an unusual and different view on the world around is worth pursuing because it is enjoyable, delightful and,  dare I say it, fun!

5.31pm Yael Reisner

It was rainy most of the day today, which was not that great as first day at the Biennale’s private view, yet wet Venice is still Venice.

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5.22pm Chris Boyce

I have read the other Bloggers now – I am well off theme but hey… another (short) burst of non- Biennale blogging today as I have been mainly riding a Vespa and pretending to be Milanese.

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First port of call OMA’s new work the Prada Institute, a building that may have been conceived simply to allow for its own existence, a bit like that cup of tea in Hitchhikers. This is a wonderful piece of high art. It’s architecture with form but little function. Don’t get me wrong, there is art dotted around the place, but the magical, sublime and surreal experience of being wrapped by genius within the luscious walls and surfaces of the Prada Palace is one I want to repeat over and over again. This building made me swear out loud five times. Each for good reasons:

  1. Gold used well 
  2. Dusty Turquoise and candy floss colours in the café
  3. A lift of pink-backlit marble 
  4. The view from the top of the tower across Milan 
  5. A staircase bisecting a view across a series of courtyards paved with incredible materials
  6. The loos…

Oh ok, six times… I mean OMFG this is one building, but it has many ideas, themes and some incredible visual tricks. It’s the best building of this century so far; I will be back.

From there I took my Vespa to the HQ of Mondadori north of the airport (and about 28min on a 50kmph Vespa) and clearly on roads not intended to be in Vespa range of the city. Scooters are all a jolly jape until you swallow a bee. Here Oscar Niemeyer built a simple but now so resonant piece of pure commercial architecture. Strong visual forms, varied width scalloped arches, and a clean curtain walled box set inside those arches, creating a colonnade and shaded facades. You can only admire this from the road, it’s not open to the public but it’s worthy of a trip where at times I was terrified the last blog spot from yesterday may have been posthumous.

Tonight it’s time to hit the serious side of food in Milan, the kind that carry stars on their door. Tomorrow I meet Harriet Harriss of the RCA and we are off to Venice, where I promise this blog will actually be about La Biennale di Venezia. Promise…

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5.04pm Jeremy Melvin

The US pavilion, echoing as it does that great slave-owning Democrat Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello, poses some pertinent questions about ‘freespace’; two of the most powerful intellects in American architecture (Jeanne Gang and Liz Diller) promise even more. We get to see it tomorrow, but it expands the single dimension of freespace into the social complexities of the legacy of slavery, of water distribution, the relationship between topography and the public realm and much more.

Peter Zumthor on the ‘ordinary’: puhlease – surely the point about his work is that it is extraordinary, and though it may have a spatial dimension, it is not exactly free.

Delighted to see Corb’s Venice hospital in an exhibition about freespace. Reminds us of the need to fund healthcare properly.

4.33pm Simon Allford

Last night finished with a conversation on our hotel terrace about Will Alsop. One of our number had worked for him, another was a client. The shared view of what distinguished Will, beyond his sheer talent, was his ability to keep dreaming and drawing; his perception and charm and his commitment to making an architecture of delight. There is evidence all around Venice of this idea of delight: from the rope corners of the Doges Palace to the gold and orange stones that are sprinkled in the terrazzo floor of our hotel. Delight is in the detail. Great architecture defies good taste.

The morning began with coffee on the waterfront and an early morning water taxi ride with friend and client Simon Silver of Derwent London to meet Amin Taha in the Giardino Della Marinaressa. On site, over coffee and croissants, architect, stonemason and carpenter talked us through their pavilion of four propped and cantilevered stone vaults, made in Puglia by two Frenchmen. This project was particularly pertinent because it returned us to the idea of technology as craft linked seamlessly to centuries of apprenticeships (a model we lost in the UK and are now busily reinventing).

There was no better way to prepare for the inevitable intellectual struggles (and intellectual strangleholds) of the ‘cultural production’ of the Giardini than to meet two Frenchmen of craft, linked to an Italian University, harnessing the might and craft of the Italian stone industry and the intelligence of a London architect to vacuum curve and laminate thin sheets of stone to invent a new material from old – one that uses laminated curves to enhance a material’s ability to span, while offering the richly figured delight of natural stone.

Allford pic

Allford pic

We also learned that their ancient world of stonemasonry is small, with individuals all connected to each other and to what are, in effect, guilds, working in loose ever-changing professional and personal alliances in the struggle to survive. The parallels to architecture were clear.

4.12pm Lesley Lokko

Arriving in Venice is, at the best of times, an experience. Arriving in Venice (via a number of other random stops courtesy of striking French air traffic controllers) 12 hours after leaving Johannesburg is, quite frankly, surreal. About the only thing both share is blue sky above your head. Not even the ground can be taken for granted. I step gingerly onto the vaporetto and am reminded yet again of the sheer good fortune to have been born in a century where it’s even possible to experience two cities almost simultaneously (minus the inbetween stops, clearly). The canals! The gondoliers! The churches! The fashion! And, of course, over-and-above all of that, the architecture!

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Johannesburg often appears to have been built all at once. It’s barely a century old (which isn’t a complaint, just an observation). It means the patina of history in its built fabric is sheer, thin. It’s a fundamentally Modernist city surrounded by American-style suburbs (depressingly awful) and townships which have absolutely no equivalent anywhere else, for better or for worse. By its own reckoning, Johannesburg is a ‘world-class African City’ and there are parallels with many other worldly (if not world-class) cities, London, New York, Buenos Aires among them. But not Venice. It has that extra je ne sais quoi that’s partly a result of topography and history, most powerfully expressed in its buildings, and partly a result of an institutional commitment to the arts – art, architecture, film, dance, theatre – that is synonymous with its name, its place. 

Not one single African country is represented here, in spite of a 20-year lease taken out by the South African government on its national pavilion, which stands empty. It hammers home the point that talent requires support – institutional, governmental, educational, financial. Pretending otherwise is both disingenuous and dangerous. I haven’t yet seen any of the pavilions, nor have I yet had one of the many conversations I hope to have over the next 48 hours. All I’m able to do is lie back (well, sit upright) in the vaporetto as it glides towards the quay, imagining a future in which African cities – including my own hometown, Accra, and my adopted hometown, Johannesburg – might one day play the same kind of role. Which means being at the centre of conversations and ideas about urbanism, architecture and design, not at the edges. Looking, not leading. Or as Plath described it, ‘waving, not drowning.’ 

Ohmigod. Is that Clooney? No, it’s Brad Pitt. Isn’t it? I start waving madly but sadly, it’s neither. Tant pis. I’m in Venice. 

3.27pm Laura Iloniemi

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Love this part… feels like you have truly arrived! Old comrades Paul Finch and Jonathan Glancey.

2.28pm Catherine Slessor

A morning spent pottering around the Vatican chapelettes on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. In the rain. Ten structures by various architects riffing off Asplund and Lewerentz’s original Woodland Chapel in Stockholm. A bit of a curate’s egg, in all. Some resemble gloomily Satanic bus shelters. But enjoyed Smiljan Radic’s use of bubblewrap as a kind of textured concrete wall lining. Though not good for trypophobiacs (those with an irrational fear of small holes). Wondering if they are consecrated. The chapels, not the holes. As it’s the Holy See, assume they must be. So a sideline in Biennale weddings, perhaps.  

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1.02pm Merlin Fulcher

Spot the architectural journalist? Here I am incognito at Gatwick, where amazingly (despite the Paris air traffic control strike) my flight to Venice is on time. Is this a good omen for a biennale newbie such as myself? Looking at my itinerary, which involves a pavilion opening ‘ceremony’ every three minutes, I’m hoping that concepts of time over in the lagoon will be a bit more flexible. Dreaming of swanning into the swamp-themed Lithuania pavilion on Friday as leisurely as a… well… swan.

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12.52pm Rob Wilson

Water, water everywhere – ie raining in Venice after leaving a London with a beautiful sunny dawn breaking just before 5am. Taking a taxi through the Blackwall Tunnel, I passed the actual Robin Hood Gardens – main block still standing – so seemed strange to be excited about seeing a three-storey fragment of it in Venice! 

Grand plans to get a water taxi from Marco Polo to the city with colleagues – and Eddie Heathcote met on the plane – but after confidently predicting it would be €70, discovered it was €120 to €200, so we slunk away – and arrived quicker, cheaper but in less style by wheeled taxi at the Piazzale Roma.

Getting twitchy as evidently many journos are already tramping around the Arsenale and Giardini with special access prior to the first official press day tomorrow… time to plan a course of action over a strong coffee…

12.31pm Simon Allford

We arrived yesterday at Marco Polo Airport in torrential rain. But our spirits were lifted – post passport queue – by the speed boat, the city’s horizon, our arrival and immediate lunch at our hotel’s terrazzo terrace. Many are the delights of Venice! Dinner last night was a classic Biennale affair hosted by Carolyn Larkin and her considerable Caro team. Some dropped out but they were soon replaced by latecomers. Azhar – once of Dagenham, then London, now of Berlin – arrived with Nicolai, a Venetian – who in this theatre of life was greeted at every corner by the 50,000 Venetians who remain.

Conversation was in anticipation of the day to come, of what we knew of the pavilions in the Giardini – and of how the curators’ ideas (clever or too clever?) would manifest themselves in the reality of a pop-up proposition. And equally of the Arsenale and whether the freedom of ‘Freespace’ would lead to architecture or performance? Appropriately, in this ancient merchant’s city, Jonathan Falkingham’s horizons extended beyond the Giardini and to Kiev and the Champions League. Which led to a regular attendant of both the Architecture and Art Biennale to declare that what we were anticipating was very much architecture’s Eurovision! Whether he was correct will be the subject of my next blog…  

10.38am Eleanor Beaumont

The night before an exhibition opens, before the models are in place, the boards hung and the room swept and pristine ready for the prosecco reception, is a magical scene. Invited for a (very) sneak preview at Scotland’s The Happenstance exhibition in an Armenian palace in Dorsoduro, the wallpaper paste was not yet dry, the timber frames still raw and exposed. It seems almost a shame that the lovingly crafted plywood carcasses will soon be concealed inside their exhibition board carapaces. It was a beautiful moment, caught in an unfettered moment of undress. I look forward to seeing it fully dressed.


9.53am Catherine Slessor

The Venice Biennale diet: squid cooked in its ink washed down by Aperol Spritz. Black and orange heaven that gives you a cadaverous, nero di seppia mouth and a medicinal hangover. Followed by a late night visit to The Happenstance, Scotland’s almost-finished contribution to the Biennale, a series of installations in the garden and buildings of the Palazzo Zenobio in the Dorsuduro, one of those tottering, and impossibly grand Venetian spaces caught in a semi-decayed time warp of foxed mirrors and soiled cherubs. Lee Ivett and Ambrose Gillick of Glasgow-based Baxendale Studio were enthusiastic sherpas, leading the way through dark gardens, cavernous ballrooms and exhibition spaces smelling of glue, timber, sweat and mild panic. It looks like being a cracker and worth seeking out beyond the scrum of the Giardini.

9.52am Manon Mollard

The French air-traffic controllers being on strike (plus ça change…), we spent a fair bit of time sitting in the plane on Gatwick’s runway. Next to me was Francis Kéré, who started by apologising for not looking his freshest – it was Hans Ulrich Obrist’s 50th the night before, and the party went on until the early hours of the morning. While British Airways gave us chocolate chip shortbreads and Viennese swirls to keep us waiting, we talked about his reluctance to join architectural juries, the European Union and the refugee crisis, the Swiss competition he lost to Kengo Kuma and his new pavilion for the Tippet Rise Art Center. He also showed me colourful snaps of his Freespace contribution, part of ‘The practice of teaching’ in the Arsenale, but since I’m new to blogging I didn’t think of taking a picture of his iPhone screen – is that what you’re supposed to do? I promise to have pictures for the next post.

9.48am Jon Astbury

Landed at last at around 11pm last night at a rainy Marco Polo Airport, then a bus and a short walk to Campo Santa Margherita to find the Airbnb which I haven’t actually paid for – I have truly discovered Freespace. First experience of a rainy Venice and it’s slipperier than expected. Some beautiful sunny shots will hopefully follow, but for now here’s one of the more modern apartment block opposite on a grey morning. First dinner recommendation to investigate received from our hosts – the Taverna al Remer: ‘IT IS FABULOUS!!! JUST GO, AND YOU’LL LOVE IT!!’ Can the same be said for the Bienniale? Stay tuned…

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8.28am Chris Boyce

04.35 easyJet LDN to LIN (Milan Linate) 

I am headed to Milan, where over the last two weeks there has been a design fair, and the Londonon workshops sessions, so my Instagram has been full of images of hanging gardens and Prada’s golden shrine. This is a calling point as I am taking a long route, a mixture of work and pleasure, to Venice to find out what Freespace is to the many exhibitors at La Biennale di Venezia. My journey will take me across northern Italy today to Modena and a pilgrimage to Ferrari for both the delicious vehicular creations and for the Modena museum by Future Systems. I will then head back to Milan for an evening with a friend who is working here for a management consultancy. He’s so clever it makes my head hurt sometimes. 

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17.40 Trenitalia seat 51 Modena – Milan 

I arrived in to Milan today at speed in a taxi headed to the station to drop my bags off before hopping a train to Modena for a pilgrimage of sorts, to a building I have admired from afar built to remember a man who I recall seeing on TV when I was about six. He was classically Italian with a Roman nose, silver hair and large dark glasses. He was holding court over a room full of F1 gladiators in fireproof racing overalls. His name was Enzo Ferrari and he made machines that made my eyes hurt and ears bleed. I was hooked, I loved being near them when we were lucky enough to be a the trackside.

At six I was Tifosi and dedicated to Ferrari on any race track. In 2012 Future Systems came to create a memorial museum to Enzo here in Modena, based loosely on the bonnet of the 1965 Ferrari 275GTB a car so exquisitely detailed and visceral that even now it will always rise above the modern supercars. Here the yellow roof is, like Duxford American Air Museum by Fosters, a canopy over a museum collection. Its scoops and curves are a great visual tribute to Enzo and his work, they are sensuous and sculptural in the setting surrounded by ochre blocks and a curious gothic folly next door. 

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This is not a perfect building – which are? – but it’s a statement piece. Roof meets ground with a concave glass wall (very Big Jim at the Saatsgalerie) hung on steel cables and bowed to the existing, and original Scuderia Ferrari which Enzo sold off to fund a racing car when he was 20, decamping to Maranello nearby. The roof is pure automotive styling, and I am surprised to discover inside the main space that those scoops don’t allow light in; instead there is a very dull ceiling that follows the curve without any roof lighting at all, which means they cant be experienced from inside. This is doubly annoying as the only place you can enjoy the roof from outside is standing on a wall in the car park peering across the plant room. The yellow is getting a bit grubby too, and some of the sparkle has been lost, but the display is clear simple and accessible. The interior spaces don’t compete with the vehicles on display.

Now I love a Ferrari, but I am also a super geek and a bit of a petrol head so one thing that is worth the entry price alone is the engine museum next door in the old Scuderia. You see Enzo was a mechanic really, he raced cars and sold them to others to race when he was young, but he loved to create them, and here the original engine from the 1948 F125 is displayed as an object of true art alongside the engines of road and race cars over the 70 year history of Ferrari. They are more beautiful than the building and I am afraid to say more delicious to scrutinise than the current Ferrari road car collection.

Ferrari peaked with the F40 in 1988, a car made of an engine, some carbon fibre, plastic body panels and the interior of a Fiat 125.  Basically it was just a massive superpower V12 and the engine was the star. No radio, why bother. 

Tonight it’s back to Milan to meet a friend for dinner local style (9.30/10.00) I have only had one glass of local Lombard region tinto so far, and I am about to swap documents to that RFP … Tomorrow will be a day in Milan on a Vespa being ‘local’ as much as possible and inevitably falling in love with some item of delirious design, sexy Italian leather while I dart between the architectural sights (including I hope the Mondadori Building by Oscar Niemeyer and Chipperfield’s Prada Institute before another evening of food and Amerone.

I am going to Blog as I do this, somehow, and work… I have an RFP to return for the end of the week and two projects with some tight deadlines that the team will be delivering… They are, it must be said, very understanding… Ciao

8.11am Miriam Delaney

Yesterday was a manic day.

Three of the Free Market team, Laurence, Jeff and JoAnne, have been working on the install the Irish pavilion over the last two weeks. Orla, Tara and I arrived in the morning, on a flight from Dublin full of architects, to a wet and blustery Venice. We went directly to the Arsenale, getting sneak previews of the Canada, Croatia and Bahrain pavilions – and peeped through the windows of the Corderie.

And then, the excitement of seeing our ‘Free Market’ installation in situ – such a huge thrill after months of planning, drawings, meetings and making. The exhibition photos were taken, we had final run around with baby wipes and dusters, and wrapped up for the day around 11pm.

We went to Salvmeria on Garibaldi for some much needed food and our first Venetian prosecco. There were clusters of Biennale participants outside every bar and restaurant, and all the conversation was about the big reveal tomorrow. Tired now, but very relieved to be at this stage…

8am Peter McCaughey

I think there is something special in this garden at Palazzo Zenobio. We got really lucky with the space. At the heart of Happenstance is that expectation to get lucky. We have found just the perfect venue for this project, and in the garden itself the past 10 days have been pretty utopianistic – I like the word utopianistic which you will not find in any dictionary. It suggests that something could approach Utopia without it being immediately a pejorative term. I think when you use the term Utopia these days it is almost a pejorative term, it’s like ‘it has immediately failed’, whereas Utopianistic is a qualification that I’ve invented that suggests we might approach certain values or certain ideas of a perfect society, or a kind of perfect way of being.

In this garden, over the past 10 days, we’ve had editors editing, builders building, designers designing, connectors connecting, players playing and cookers cooking. The cooking has been a great part of it – one meal a day. We made a decision that the main meal each day should be lunch, so at the table I am sitting at just now, we feed ourselves every lunch time. We have a wee ‘how is everyone doing’ debrief and we just feel like a really effective unit, and this is people who don’t know each other particularly well.

It’s also been a wee bit of a love-in – people realising the capacity in each other. A lot of people falling in love with Alberto (Lago – a Venice-based designer and a key contributor to The Happenstance project). That is all kind of magic, because of course that would be the wish of The Happenstance that the garden is an engine, a catalyst for great relationships, consolidation catalysing and generating great relationships.

I follow the method of the serendipitor – we really have been getting lucky with our relationships here. What we have here in the garden are good props for that process – the chairs, the structure, and the programme of events, the reference to past projects, are all here as resource.

I keep saying we are not doing an exhibition, we are providing a resource which is just a beginning point. The idea is that this will grow exponentially through the presence of whoever turns up.


  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Dear bloggers, how is it possible not to find a single word, not even a glimpse at the Catalonian Pavilion by RCR, at least having had a minimum curiosity what last year’s Pritzker Prize winners have to say and offer with “Dream and Nature”. It seems that being in the Collateral Events part of the Biennale has this collateral effect of not being worth even one critical word.

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