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Venice Biennale’s magnificent seven: what to see

Rob Wilson previews a selection of the hot tickets at the event, curated by Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, which opens this weekend

The title of ‘Freespace’, which Farrell and McNamara have chosen for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, appeared at first a rather open one. But accompanied by its thoughtful manifesto, emphasising the generosity of spirit and sense of humanity at the heart of making architecture and making of spaces for people and exchange, it has elicited some rich responses from across the spectrum of exhibiting architects, pavilions, and installations and events around the city.

With the biennale install being the usual race to the finish for this Saturday’s opening, we’ve selected seven must-see pavilions and installations from the biennale and beyond. 

1. British Pavilion            

01 british pavilion island © british council

01 british pavilion island © british council

Source: British Council

Take some solace from the rest of the biennale at the stark British Pavilion, which has been completely emptied and scaffolded over to support a new public space atop its roof. Island, curated by Caruso St John and artist Marcus Taylor, is ‘a place of both refuge and exile’, and intends to conjure themes of abandonment, reconstruction, sanctuary and Brexit with a programmed series of performances and debates.

2. Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin In Reverse

4. deck of robin hood gardens with alison smithson

4. deck of robin hood gardens with alison smithson

A large three-storey chunk of Alison Smithson (pictured) and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens council estate in London – rescued from demolition – has travelled to Venice and been installed as the centrepiece of the Pavilion of Applied Arts. Accompanied by a new documentary film of the estate by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, this third collaboration between the La Biennale di Venezia and the V&A is designed to highlight questions around the housing crisis and the future of social housing. V&A at the Pavilion of the Applied Arts

3. Scottish Pavilion

Scotland + Venice

Scotland + Venice

The Scotland + Venice project The Happenstance celebrates Scotland’s Year of Young People, exploring how young people in Scotland respond to the biennale theme of ‘Freespace’. Artists and architects have worked with young people across Scotland to develop a ‘living library of ideas’, which has been brought to Venice to establish a literal ‘Freespace’ in the garden at the Palazzo Zenobio. 

4. Irish Pavilion

Ireland la biennale di venezia 5781

Ireland la biennale di venezia 5781 matthew thompson

Source: Matthew Thompson

Ireland’s team of six young architects and designers will explore the importance of the rural marketplace, reasserting this declining space as one of social, political and cultural exchange. As well as evoking the character of a market space, Free Market Radio and Free Market News will give perspectives on market towns.

5. Australian Pavilion

Denton corker marshall australian pavilion

Denton corker marshall australian pavilion credit john gollings

Source: John Gollings

Australian Pavilion by Denton Corker Marshall

Ditch the pruned greenery of the Giardini for some wilder grasslands in the Australian Pavilion, which will house some 10,000 plants, including 65 species from the Western Plains. The exhibition, Repair, will focus on architecture’s huge impact on the natural world, reassessing its relevance and role by focusing on solutions that integrate the built and natural environments.

6. Vatican City Pavilion

Copyright  chapel fp draft3 02 8446

Copyright laurianghinitoiu chapel fp draft3 02 8446

Source: Laurian Ghinitoiu

Among the more unusual national appearances will be Vatican City, which is making its Venice debut with 10 pop-up chapels built by architects from around the world. The structures have been drawn up by the likes of Norman Foster (pictured), Eduardo Souto de Moura, Terunobu Fujimori and Smiljan Radic. The chapels will sit in a large wooded area on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

7. David Chipperfield Architects Works 2018

1220 10 rd 180514 n9


This major exhibition of 20 key Chipperfield projects promises to be a rich display – ranging from the recent Amorepacific headquarters in Seoul to classic projects such as Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie refurbishment. It nicely emphasises teamwork, with the practice asking each of its respective design teams from around the world – in London, Berlin, Milan and Shanghai – to choose how to present their respective projects. Basilica Palladiana, Vicenza, until 2 September 


Comment: Sarah Mann

Sarah mann bw © british council lucia scerank...

When Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s brief for Freespace was published as a basis for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018, it felt immediately like an opportunity to commission a pavilion that broke out of its boundaries in some way. 

I believe that our current social and political situation gives the British Pavilion a new imperative: how to approach national representation when a nation is in transition.

During the selection, jury members were struck by the boldness and simplicity of Island, the proposal by Caruso St John Architects and Marcus Taylor. It offered an unmediated experience of architecture rather than an exhibition. Their reimagining of the pavilion forms an ‘island’. The apex of the original building’s roof pierces through a high platform, leaving the galleries below empty. The project presents the pavilion as a meeting place for visitors, a platform for new ideas and a new piazza for the biennale. 

Taking this provocation, we wanted to use their challenge to demonstrate architecture’s capacity to be open and generous to open up the pavilion, creating a structure for visitors to enjoy a new perspective of the city of Venice and a new experience of the building. 

The Tempest, Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa and the work of contemporary British poet Kate Tempest. All explore the idea that an island can be a place of refuge or exile. 

To provide a platform for multiple voices and interpretations of Island, the British Council and the curators have invited cultural organisations to create a vibrant programme at the British Pavilion, with specially commissioned work by international and local artists, musicians and performers. Much like any other public space, occasionally things will happen; you may come across a performance, a project, a conversation you weren’t expecting. 

Sarah Mann is director of architecture design fashion at the British Council

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