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Celebrating Freespace - The Venice Architecture Biennale

Opening this weekend, and entitled Freespace, the 16th edition of the world’s greatest architectural exhibition, the Venice Biennale of Architecture, is co-curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, founders of Dublin-based architectural office Grafton Architects, and celebrates „the unexpected generosity the architect may add to each project – even within the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions“. In other words: it celebrates how architects could still find a spark of freedom, within the prison of their own profession.

„It was even a surprise to us to be invited,” McNamara’s and Farrell say, “and that’s putting it mildly“. The working relationship of the female architectural duo goes back to the early 70s when they were students together at University College Dublin. They are also founders and leading partners of the Dublin-based practice Grafton Architects – recognized for its designs for public buildings, especially schools and institutional centers, both in their home country – Ireland – and internationally.

Yvonne Farrell Shelley McNamara


Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are known for their academic work: they have been appointed adjunct Professors at University College Dublin in 2015; the Kenzo Tange chair at GSD Harvard and the Louis Kahn chair at Yale University, and have been visiting professors at EPFL – Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and at the Accademia d’Archittettura in Mendrisio, also in Switzerland, where they were appointed as full professors in 2013.


Nevertheless, McNamara and Farrell are neither celebrities nor notable theorists, despite their teaching, and theirs was indeed a striking appointment, as they stand just outside the circuits of reputation and critical positioning that tend to generate the biennale's curators - who are appointed afresh for each edition.. They are just well-respected architects who over a long period of time, have been doing what most people expect architects to do: create buildings, such as their RIBA international prize-winning UTEC, a “vertical campus” for a technical university building in Lima, Peru, that was completed in 2015, looking bold and unashamedly dramatic, totally in line with the rediscovered style of the moment, brutalism, but leaving plenty of space for intimate, sociable, half-enclosed zones between the university’s laboratories, lecture theaters, library and offices, gaps between that capture the breeze and give space for people to meet and circulate.

Maps Arsenale Giardini


The Campus perfectly illustrates ,Freespace' the theme which the curators of the Venice biennale have set both for the exhibitions they direct themselves, and for the displays by individual countries in the national pavilions in the biennale’s gardens – a catchword which they say describes “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda”, and can also mean the “free and additional spatial gifts” that architecture can offer and “its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers”.


“As was the case for the previous editions of Biennale Architettura, we continue our investigation into the relationship between architecture and civil society, „ says President Paolo Baratta of the Biennale, „ The divide between architecture and civil society, caused by the latter’s increasing difficulty in expressing its own needs and finding appropriate answers, has led to dramatic urban developments whose main feature is the marked absence of public spaces“.


To illustrate what they mean with Freespace, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara cite a tiled concrete bench that Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, installed at the entrance to his house of Can Lis in Mallorca. It is, they say, “moulded perfectly to the human body for comfort and pleasure”. That the same architect could design both this small “word of greeting” and the symbol of an entire nation demonstrates, they say, the range that is an essential quality of architecture.


These unsolicited “spatial gifts” that architecture can add could be at the scale of city – a free public garden, for example – or at the scale of a surface you touch. It may not involve construction – “sitting under a cherry blossom is as happy an architectural space as you’ll find” – but these “emotional components” are what make architecture worth doing, say the curators, who also talk of flows and movement, of people, air, light and atmosphere, in their manifesto: „Freespace celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project – even within the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions. (…) We believe that everyone has the right to benefit from architecture. (...) A beautiful wall forming a street edge gives pleasure to the passer-by, even if they never go inside. So too does a glimpse into a courtyard through an archway; or a place to lean against in the shade or a recess which offers protection from the wind and rain.“


All this nice and and poetic but also potentially platitudinous – as indeed are some of their other statements – if it weren’t for the force and invention with which Farrell and McNamara translate them into construction, and buildings such as their Department of Finance offices in Dublin. Almost all their current projects, including university buildings in Toulouse, Kingston upon Thames, the London School of Economics, or their plans for a new city library in Dublin, include big, accessible, non-prescriptive spaces. And indeed, the proof is always in that proverbial pudding. So let's see what the participants of the biennale made of their briefing.


The core of the Biennale 2018 will consist of the two curators’ exhibitions at the Arsenal Corderie and in the Central Pavilion at Giardini which will feature seventy-one participants overall - including Alvaro Siza, BIG, EMBT, Alison Brooks, DS+R, Chipperfield, Carme Pinós, SANAA, Souto Moura, Peter Zumthor, O’Donnell + Tuomey, Studio Gang, Odile Decq, Cino Zucchi, and Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo. These main sections will be completed by two Special Sections. The first, with16 participants, is titled Close Encounter, Meetings with Remarkable Projects, and presents works that originated in a reflection on well-known buildings of the past; the second, The Practice of Teaching, collected projects developed by 12 participants as part of teaching experiences.


Along with the curator’s exhibitions, Biennale will include 65 national pavilions which will develop their own interpretation of the main theme. New participants are this time Antigua & Barbuda, Guatemala, Holy See, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia

Here's already a small selection of some of the projects:


Unbuilding Walls is the title of the German Pavilion exhibition. Curated by GRAFT (a studio led by Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeint) and Marianne Birthler. The exhibition focuses on urban and architectural designs that address current debates on nations, protectionism division and integration. Unbuilding Walls presents four exemplary projects for sites located on the former border strip between West and East Germany. The exhibition starts from the observation that, despite 28 years have passed since Germany reunification, many sites on, or close to, the former inner-German border are still “voids”, empty spaces in search for a new historical, social and architectural identity, and that such voids in the heart of Europe epitomize current cultural gaps, barriers, fences and walls, far beyond Germany’s specific national perspective. Image: OMA: Axel-Springer Campus, Berlin. Courtesy of OMA.



Island, the British Pavilion‘s exhibition, proposes a quite original and provoking approach to the theme of this year’s biennale. Selected though an open call by the British Council, commissioner of the pavilion, the curators, London-based Caruso St John Architects together with artist Marcus Taylor, decided to leave the pavilion’s rooms empty, and to show no exhibits there. The real exhibition takes the form of an elevated piazza, built above the pavilion’s roof, and supported by a scaffolding that envelopes the whole building, offering a 360-degree view over the Venetian Lagoon and the Biennale. At the centre of this new public space, a peak of the pavilion’s roof protrudes up through the floor, to suggest both an island and a sunken world beneath. The installation has a double meaning. On one side it symbolizes the insular character of Venice, on the other side it is a clear allusion (and criticism) to Brexit and the possible increase in isolation it could imply for Britain. Therefore, the Island could be seen both as a refuge (along with the history of Venice, the curators also cite Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as a source of inspiration) and as a prison. But Caruso St John and Taylor were also inspired by the “Theater of the World”, the floating building that Aldo Rossi created for the first Architecture Biennale in 1979. The British Pavilion’s terrace will be the venue of a diverse program of events, including lectures, live performances, film screenings, architectural talks and debatesi, © British Council: Design by John Morgan Studio, photo by Bhaskar Dutta.


France presents an exhibition entitled Infinite Places. Constructing Buildings of Places? Curated by Paris-based office Encore Heureux (Nicola Delon, Julien Choppin, and Sébastien Eymard), it will consist of 10 “cabinets of curiosities”, made of timber recovered from the last year’s exhibition at the French Pavilion, and focusing on the concept of “place” as something different from that of “building”, and on the “rebirth” of large disused buildings and sites across the French territory. As already implied by the exhibition title, the underling idea is that such places, and all places at large, should be actually considered as somewhat perpetually unfinished, and that such concept requires to change the traditional approach to the built environment and its transformation, as well as to create new regulatory instruments and building codes capable to cope with this shift in perspective.The exhibition features ten exemplary projects of reuse of buildings erected between 1650 and 1977. Most of those redevelopments are aimed to create new spaces and opportunities for local communities as well as to support social projects and initiatives.

French Pavilion - Hôtel Pasteur Rennes


Entitled Building a Future Countryside and curated by Li Xiangning – professor at Tongji University College of Architecture and Urban Planning – the primary aim of the exhibition at the China Pavilion | is to investigate how the rural development of China’s immense countyside could combine modernization with tradition in a “non-vernacular” way, far from that nostalgia for a pastoral past that the Chinese call 'xiangchou.The exhibition highlights a number of exemplary projects by contemporary architects from China envisioning a future countryside, sorting them into six thematic sections: Production, Tourism, Community, Culture, Dwelling, and Future.

Chinese Pavilion-Building A Future Country side-Jintai Village


In Statu Quo: Structures of Negotiation is the theme of the exjibition at the Israeli Pavilion. Curated by Ifat Finkelman, Deborah Pinto Fdeda, Oren Sagiv and Tania Coen-Uzzielli it traces the complex mechanism of the 'Status Quo' within shared holy places in Israel-Palestine, a controversial and fragile system of coexistence.

Israeli Pavilion-Status Quo-Demolition Of The Mughrabi Quarter-Photo David Rubinger


Entitled “Repair”, the Australian pavilion, curated by Mauro Baracco and Louise Wright, will recreate a typical Australian grassland on which large scale projections will showcase examples of Australian architecture that are also aimed at repairing the ecosystems they occupy. Image © University of Queensland.

Australian Pavilion - Repair


The exhibition at the Irish pavilion concentrates on the slow death of the Irish town square.


Ping Pong Pang Diplomacy

The installation Ping Pong Pang Diplomacy by Maloco collective, connects the Spanish, Belgian and Dutch pavilions through a path of multicolored ping pong tables, along with a great three-sided, tri-national ping pong table, celebrating exchange, cross-pollination and architecture. The proposal addressed an open call for a temporary installation that would create a physical dialogue between venues and a metaphorical dialogue between nations. In order to move along the path, one has to measure him/herself up with another person. The 16th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale will take place from Saturday 26 May through Sunday 25 November, 2018.


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