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Grafton’s Venice Biennale 2018: Freespace remains a nebulous concept

While there are some interesting contributions, the main exhibition’s incoherence proves that brilliant architects do not necessarily make good curators

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects are two of the most exciting designers working today. Their buildings span that delicate divide between the spectacular and the thoughtful to succeed both as social structures and images. This is a challenging feat to pull off, and you might think that anyone who cracks it could happily transfer their skills to the field of curation. Sadly, the current iteration of the Venice Architecture Biennale – which Farrell and McNamara have overseen – proves otherwise.

Difficulties clouded the horizon as soon as Grafton released their manifesto setting out the theme of the exhibition. ‘Freespace’, we learned, meant something so absolutely nebulous, so wafty and unfocused, that it really could mean anything at all. The dismaying contrast between this text – with its talk of ‘nature’s free gifts of light’, ‘addressing the unspoken wishes of strangers’, and the promise that the exhibition will be ‘spatial’ (what exhibition isn’t?) – and Grafton’s meaty, assertive buildings could hardly be more striking or more strange.

‘“Freespace”, we learned, meant something so absolutely nebulous, so wafty and unfocused, that it really could mean anything at all’

More political problems arose in the manifesto’s examples of so‐called freespace, not least in the case of Palazzo Medici. Grafton maintain that the palazzo’s facade‐abutting bench is an example of a private commission providing a public amenity. This is an eatable cake fantasy of the sort that the British public has learned to distrust, and history proves that this dubiousness is not a recent development, since the Medicean bench was in reality a place to display petitioners, and therefore a means of monetising public space. Is this a sound basis for the ensuing assertion that ‘everyone has the right to benefit from architecture’, or does it introduce a fatal ambiguity? Likewise, is their conception of the ‘earth as client’ really a helpful starting place for building more sustainably (whatever that might mean), or would a sharper political analysis be more productive? Such fudges creep into the exhibition itself, which never convincingly addresses these issues. 

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Michael Maltzan’s housing for homeless people in LA. Photograph by Italo Rondinella, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Farrell and McNamara attempt to flesh out their theme in two main displays. The heart of the Central Pavilion is given over to 16 architects, each of whom they have invited to analyse a canonical modern building and to produce a large‐scale model based on their investigation. The results are certainly appealing and well‐executed, but they do little to illuminate the concept of ‘freespace’ – unless, of course, the point was that the exhibition as a whole is a ‘freespace’, in which Grafton relax the dictatorial fist of the curator in favour of a more open‐handed, collaborative approach.

If this is the case, it has an obvious ethical appeal and a kind of conceptual consistency. But it simply doesn’t work. A curator has to curate, and fairly ruthlessly at that, otherwise objects might as well be chosen at random and visitors may ask themselves ‘why am I here?’. There were times walking around both the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale when this question crossed my mind, often while reading Grafton’s frustratingly diffuse wall texts. These function something like flaccid shoehorns for cramming heterogeneous objects into the same grab‐bag.

‘A curator has to curate, and fairly ruthlessly at that, otherwise objects might as well be chosen at random and visitors may ask themselves “why am I here?”’

The remaining spaces of the Central Pavilion are occupied by displays good, bad and indifferent. Peter Zumthor’s models were almost edibly seductive (but in this case I found myself asking ‘why are they here?’); Crimson Architectural Historians introduced a more political note with their presentation on cities as centres of migration; and Michael Maltzan contributed a highly effective display which presented his housing for homeless people in LA with great clarity. Other displays were less successful, but even the better ones left me none the wiser as to the meaning of ‘freespace’. Perhaps the best way to approach the show is to stop looking for an answer to that question and just enjoy the ride.

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O’Donnell + Tuomey’s clamberable model‐cum‐display case, which combines elements from two of their projects of vastly different scales and locations, an opera in Shanghai and a house in Connemara. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

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Peter Salter and Fenella Collingridge’s mad, cobbled‐together piece of furniture. Photograph by Francesco Galli, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

However, in the other main space curated by Grafton – the Arsenale’s lengthy Corderie building – the incoherence was so striking as to be inescapable. This is not an unusual scenario at Biennales, admittedly. The better displays here resolve the classic problem of presenting interesting work in a manner both spatially impressive and thematically appropriate. O’Donnell + Tuomey’s clamberable model‐cum‐display case combined elements from two of their projects of vastly different scales and locations, an opera in Shanghai and a house in Connemara. It also allowed visitors to peek out of one of the building’s high windows, which the curators had uncovered for the occasion. This introduction of light into the usually gloomy building is a nice intervention and, for all its modesty, it seemed to come closer than any of Grafton’s other gestures to clarifying their notion of freespace.

‘The introduction of light into the usually gloomy Corderie building is a nice intervention and, for all its modesty, it seemed to come closer than any of Grafton’s other gestures to clarifying their notion of freespace’

Other Arsenale successes were to be found in Peter Salter and Fenella Collingridge’s mad, cobbled‐together piece of furniture, supposedly inspired by Stokesay Castle but resembling something between a hair dryer from an old‐fashioned salon and a fairground waltzer. Their tinkering approach, with its curious material juxtapositions, works far better at this scale than when blown up to architecture, and among this relatively thin gruel it has a very attractive physicality. On a much grander scale, Flores & Prats’ presentation of their Sala Beckett theatre was gorgeous; the huge fragment scaled up to fill the cavernous height of the building was one of the best spatial interventions in the Biennale, and their smaller working models showing the entirety of the complex project were equally appealing. I won’t dwell on the less interesting displays; there were too many of them to enumerate here.

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Flores & Prats’ presentation of their Sala Beckett theatre, with the huge fragment scaled up to fill the cavernous height of the building, was one of the best spatial interventions in the Biennale. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Beyond the spaces directly curated by Grafton, contributors ranged equally freely from the Biennale’s theme. Some of the national exhibitors did gesture towards freespace, among them Caruso St John’s British Pavilion, which was itself left empty while being surmounted by a huge carapace of scaffolding supporting a viewing platform. This intervention, titled ‘Island’, was touted as a comment on Brexit, and an invitation was extended to other national exhibitors to share the space below. I was torn between seeing the project as an stimulatingly incongruous bit of punkishness from its usually staid designers, or simply lazy. I was less ambivalent about the Spanish Pavilion, which, with its walls covered in inscrutable drawings, was just plain bad; let’s have a moratorium on infographics for 2020.

On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore meanwhile, the Vatican – which was participating for the first time – populated a wooded garden with an elaborate cruet set of chapels. The Holy See invited 10 well‐known architects to design the structures, and they were all finished to a very high standard, but then the Vatican has had millennia to perfect its talent for extracting donations. With the exception of Terunobu Fujimori’s church for Moomins, the results are tastefully dull. Back on the main island, a special prize (a mangy lion?) should be awarded to the Italians, whose national pavilion marks the climax of the Arsenale with something resembling a tourist office. It culminates in a display of such purgatorial guff – ‘I can be a visionary value creator who will design future scenarios for user‐centric services’ was one of the choicer phrases – that I had a hard time deciding whether it was parody.

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Caruso St John’s British Pavilion was itself left empty while being surmounted by a huge carapace of scaffolding supporting a viewing platform. This intervention, titled ‘Island’, was touted as a comment on Brexit. Photograph by Italo Rondinella, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

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Terunobu Fujimori’s church for Moomins, one of the 10 Vatican chapels. Photograph by Alessandra Chemollo, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Thankfully there are some more interesting contributions. The Swiss received the Golden Lion for their ketamine‐woozy warren of mis‐scaled show‐home interiors; a nice trick that visibly enraptured its visitors, but was perhaps something of a one‐liner. The Dutch Pavilion demonstrated the benefits of employing experienced curators, who presented a rich selection on the theme of ‘Work, Body, Leisure’ (including a recreation of the Lennon‐ Yoko bed‐in, from which Beatriz Colomina interviewed guests). The Estonians contributed a well‐designed exhibition on what they call ‘weak monuments’ in a disused church, which they had divided with a banal concrete pavement and wall.

One of the best national pavilions was that of the Argentinians, who showed a long vitrine filled with a slice of planted earth recreating the pampas and topped by a flat screen across which clouds raced. On popping your head through an aperture in the vitrine’s mirror-glass walls the seemingly narrow space is reflected into infinity: a very neat effect suggesting the illusory freedoms and actual constrictions to be had by inhabiting national myths. It could also be read as demonstrating the limitations of freespace when this notion is presented free-floating, without material support or political basis.

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The Estonians contributed a well‐designed exhibition on what they call ‘weak monuments’ in a disused church, which they had divided with a banal concrete pavement and wall. Photograph by Tõnu Tunnel, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

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Bahrain’s Pavilion comprises a well‐made rectangular structure suspended from the ceiling beneath which visitors can duck to hear recordings of the Friday sermon. Photograph by Francesco Galli, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Other successful pavilions in which something like freespace rears its head included those of Ireland, which documents the disused marketplaces of the nation’s small towns (Trevor Finnegan’s photographs of these towns were excellent and should have been made more of) and Bahrain, which comprises a well‐made rectangular structure suspended from the ceiling beneath which visitors can duck to hear recordings of the Friday sermon. The somewhat carceral aspect of the structure posits the sermon as producing an ideal freespace, often politically curtailed in reality. Greece exhibited a collection of models showing the communal spaces in educational institutions, demonstrating the virtues of a simple idea well executed; likewise Luxembourg, which made a lucid statement about the dwindling public ownership of cities and proposed a speculative solution using beautifully made models of elevated buildings. The problem of the right to the city was also broached by the V&A’s controversial display about Robin Hood Gardens, featuring a forlorn sliver of the structure’s facade. Critics have accused the museum of exploiting the ill‐treated building and its residents, but although their anger is justified, it is misdirected: the message here could hardly be clearer or less flattering to our national building culture.

Finally, the highlight of the Biennale was for me not to be found in the Giardini or the Arsenale, but on the island of Giudecca, tucked away behind the looming Hilton. Here, the Unfolding Pavilion, appearing this year for its second iteration, occupied a 1986 public housing complex designed by Gino Valle. A vacant triplex flat had been retooled as an exhibition space and filled with the work of young Italian architects, but I confess that this did not detain me long: the real star was the estate itself. It is usually inaccessible to visitors, but the principle of the Unfolding Pavilion is that it opens closed buildings to public access, and in the case of this magnificent structure this was a real treat. Ironically, the organisers of the Unfolding Pavilion – who profess to be uninterested in the theme proposed by the chief curators of the Biennale – thereby offered the most rewarding instance of freespace in Venice, albeit briefly: the display lasted only five days, and Valle’s estate has withdrawn from the public once more.

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The Unfolding Pavilion, appearing this year for its second iteration, occupied a 1986 public housing complex designed by Gino Valle. Photograph by Tom Wilkinson

Read more about the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 in our blog.