Art and the City – The Venice (Architectural) Biennale

Had a couple of deadlines this week but I’m back with a vengeance.

Ah Venice!

There’s something about being there, knowing that hundreds of years ago, it looked almost exactly the same as it does now. It’s the ultimate time-bubble, and so naturally it would be one of my most favourite places.

Two weeks after I left Liverpool last year, I decided I would go to Venice to see the Biennale.  Granted, it was the Architectural Biennale, and not the more well-known Art Biennale (which just closed last month).  But I thought, well… the line between art and architecture is so thin these days – particularly because of the advent of installation and conceptual art – that yeah… why not. Furthermore, the theme of the Biennale was People Meet in Architecture, and being a graduate student of World Cities and Urban Life, I thought it my duty to check it out.

Founded in 1895, the Biennale, now a non-profit Foundation, is one of the oldest festival organisations in the world. Most people don’t realise that the Foundation actually runs more than six different signature events in Venice. The two most famous ones are the Art Biennale, and the International Film Festival.  Then there are the Architecture Biennale, and the very little known Biennales of Contemporary Music, Contemporary Theatre, and Contemporary Dance.

While the Venice Biennale was never initiated as a means of rejuvenating or branding the city, it has become a major example of how events are used for city rejuvenation and place-marketing.  Granted, Venice is never short of tourists, but the Art Biennale and the Film Festival, and to a lesser extent, the Architectural Biennale, probably account for  more tourists than all other times of the year.  With the luminaries from the film, art and architecture world that these events attract, it also ensures that Venice continues to stay relevant to world cultural development (and in the headlines of international media) year after year.  So as far as I can see it, the Biennale Foundation is probably the single most important piece of property the city has.

I got to Venice during the last week of the Architecture Biennale, in early November and I wasn’t expecting to see this when I got there:

Acqua alta, or high water, which only got worse the longer I stayed.  I counted myself rather unlucky, since all the times I had previously been to Venice, I had never encountered this phenomenon.  The acqua alta was so bad that I had to take circuitous routes back to my hotel from Biennale venues everyday, and even then, I still had to tippy-toe past mildly flooded areas.

The Venetians themselves were well prepared. They all had knee-high wellies they busted out.  Which was interesting because it was very clear who were local (or at least resident), and who weren’t.

But enough about the water…let’s talk about the Biennale.

Now I’m not really an architecture buff, myself, so I really didn’t know what to expect for this Biennale.  I wasn’t so sure I necessarily wanted to read reams and reams of text about lofty, avant garde architectural concepts and ideals.  Rather, I preferred presentations that were actually pieces of installation art.  Thankfully, the Biennale had plenty of these – and many of them were very experiential; you were immersed in them and touched, heard, or felt them.

Some of them were quite literally amazing. Here are the highlights according to me:


Ceryth Wyn Evans, joanna(chapter one).  This was the first thing you saw when you entered the main Biennale pavilion in the Giardini.   It blew me away.

Suh Architects + Do Ho Suh, ‘blueprint’.  It was a full-scale reproduction of a New York brownstone, strung from the ceiling.  It raised issues of what or where home was, and was also, in my mind, a companion piece of sorts to the Korean House in Liverpool (see last week’s post).

Andrea Branzi + Studiobranzi, Ten modest suggestions for a new Athens Charter.  This was the only conceptual exhibition that I enjoyed.  Each of these “suggestions” was accompanied by an architectural model envisioning how the anti-city proposed would look like.  Fascinating. Here’s one below:

Rotor, Usus / Usures, Belgian Pavilion.  This was awesome.  Everyday materials with flaws in them – the carpet of a building, a subway train station railing and seats, wooden cabinets from offices – were exhibited as artworks.  It was like a building was turned inside out.  One was forced to ask: where is the line between art and everyday life?

Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground, Canadian Pavilion. This one was amazingly eerie, and a bitch to capture on photo.  You walked into a dark space, where you saw this immense “creature-thing” made out of thousands of white filaments that were mechanically rigged to move / twitch on occasion.

The Venezuelan Pavilion.  Shut. I thought this an inadvertent conceptual piece and political commentary on the regime in Venuzuela.  Apparently the no-show was just for the Architectural Biennale and this year’s Art Biennale featured Venezuelan artists with community-oriented projects. Hmmph.


Anton García Abril + Ensamble Studio, Balancing Act.  Two massive steel beams intersect and are balanced on either end, on large man-sized springs.  Surreal and thought-provoking.

Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo Architects, Cloudscapes.  This was the second best piece in the entire Biennale.  The creators accomplished a feat of climate engineering, producing a cloud in a confined space. When I got there in the morning, the cloud hovered in the middle of the chamber, so that, walking up the ramp, I could walk through and above the cloud. It gave me goosebumps.

Danish installation artist, Oliafur Eliasson, Your split second house.   THE BEST EXHIBIT, by far.  When I approached it, I thought lightning was striking the exhibition floor. I then realised it was twirling hoses spraying water all over the space, and cleverly timed strobe lights.

Piet Oudolf, Garden.  What at first glance appears to be an overgrown garden, is actually a carefully designed installation by Dutch garden architect Piet Oudolf.  He also famously helmed the gardens for The High Line in New York.

Other Venues outside the Giardini and the Arsenale

1000 Singapores, the Singapore Pavilion at the Isitituto Provinciale per l’Infanzia (the orphanage).  I thought the premise / question proposed a rather clever one: if the world were to live at the same population density as in Singapore, what portion of its land area would actually be inhabited?  The answer: only a third.  However, to feed this population, one would still need more than the earth’s current land area.

Byzantine mosaics on the facade of the Basilica San Marco.  Not exactly part of the Biennale, but I felt it to be still one of the most stunning pieces of art and architecture in Venice.

There were also pavilions or presentations that were less arresting.  Rem Koolhaas’ outfit, the Office for Modern Architecture presented a conceptual piece on preservation vs development, called Chronokaos.  I didn’t get it.  The American Pavilion presented something about architecture and social change, but again the way it was presented had me quite lost.  And then there was the Swiss Pavilion, which presented case studies of more than two dozen of its bridges spanning the Alps. It was compulsively captivating, if a tad over-the-top.

All in all, I think my experience at the Venice Architectural Biennale was generally delightful, largely because it wasn’t over-crowded like the Art Biennale would have been. There were just enough people walking through the exhibition venues so you could experience the displays and not feel utterly alone.

Going first thing in the morning also made a whole lot of difference, because so many of the presentations were experiential, and it was nice to feel that they were (mostly) meant for my private enjoyment!  Some of the exhibitions absolutely required an early visitation. Cloudscapes, for example, maintained a distinct layer of cloud in the chamber that you could transcend in the early morning.  By late morning, the cloud had dispersed to become fog that filled the entire chamber, doubtless because of the air currents burgeoning crowds stirred up.

By the time I left Venice, I had an atypically restful time – acqua alta notwithstanding.  I end this post with some classic and meditative views of Venice on the water, that explain my enduring love for this dream of a city.

 Il gondolieri

La Serenissima – Most Serene Republic of Venice

Next week: The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; and the Suzhou Museum, Suzhou, China. Designed by I.M. Pei.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
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