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Top five picks from the 2018 Venice Biennale

The spritzes have been sunk, the cicchetti devoured and this year’s Venice Biennale digested – here are our editors’ five highlights

Pavilion of the Holy See

Location: San Giorgio Maggiore

The Vatican’s inaugural contribution to the Venice Biennale comprises a clutch of 10 temporary chapels constructed in the woods on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. A welcome escape from the throng of the Giardini, the chapels follow in the hallowed footsteps of Asplund and Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery, beautiful drawings of which welcome visitors in the Asplund Chapel design by Venice-based MAP Studio.

Nestled between the leafy boughs, visitors can discover Souto de Moura’s stunning stone sanctuary, already nurturing a timeless green-stained patina from the surrounding vegetation. Teronobu Fujimori’s unmistakably Japanese offering is complete with beautifully crafted timber pews and a fluttering of gold leaf, while Flores & Prats’ ‘Morning Chapel’ is carved from a single monumental wall, arching into the sky and punctured with a porthole to capture the first rays of sun. The darkened exterior of Smiljan Radić’s conical tabernacle conceals its innards of suitably spumante concrete cast from bubblewrap, and the spindly timber accordion of Norman Foster’s contribution is a refreshing ‘back-to-basics’ for the father of High-Tech.

Vatican pavilion smiljan radic eduardo souto moura biennale holy see giorgio maggiore

Vatican pavilion smiljan radic eduardo souto moura biennale holy see giorgio maggiore

Souto de Moura’s stone sanctuary (left) and Radić’s bumpy ‘bubblecrete’ (right)

Other contributing architects include Andrew Berman (USA), Francesco Cellini (Italy), Javier Corvalán (Paraguay), Sean Godsell (Australia) and Carla Juaçaba (Brazil), encompassing a global and inter-generational (if admittedly male-heavy) spread of talent, in an attempt to show that the Church is, indeed, catholic. If you like your meditative contemplation with a healthy side of excellent miniaturised architecture and a dollop of Asplund and Lewerentz on top, this is the Pavilion for you.

Flores & Prats

Location: Arsenale

This year, the endless gloom of the Corderie building has been opened up, the windows into the old rope factory unshuttered and the building’s full extraordinary length uninterupted by exhibition paraphenalia. Although this has no doubt improved the visitor experience of the Arsenale, you may still find yourself flagging well before you’ve reached it’s full 317m. Around halfway along however, Flores & Prats’ 1:1 recreation of their stunning transformation of the Sala Beckett theatre is sure to save you from any impending boredom.

Crafted like the scenography of a theatrical stage set, the best bits of the exhibit are still yet to be revealed. Behind the scenes, drawings, models and diagrams are nestled in the rafters of the stage set construction, giving an intriguing insight into the project’s extraordinary design process. Evidence of the painstaking archeological-style excavation and documentation of the crumbling theatre as the architects found it, is displayed as a stunningly illustrated ‘inventory’. Gorgeous models dextrously navigate the line between brightly coloured confection and unprecious well-used working models showing where walls have been removed and remade, doorways and balustrades tweaked and respositioned.

In many ways this exhibit is an archetype for what an Arsenale installation should be: an engaging one-liner at first glance, while a scan of its underbelly reveals an immediately clear and visually evocative expression of both a methodology of practice and the magic of a single project. And if you are so inclined – and not yet entirely Biennale-fatigued – the complete set of stunning, obsessively rendered drawings is also there for your perusal. Biennale 2020 exhibitors, take note.

Flores prats biennale architecture venice arsenale 2018

Flores prats biennale architecture venice arsenale 2018

Source: Andrea Avezzù

Sala Beckett’s full cabinet of curiosities, including countless design iterations modelled and drawn, as well as a 1:1 mock-up of the project’s entrance lobby 

Sala Beckett in Barcelona by Flores & Prats was featured in AR December 2017/January 2018, read our review here

The Happenstance

Location: Collegio Armeno Moorat-Raphael, Palazzo Zenobio, Dorsoduro, 2597 (Fondamenta del Soccorso) 

One of the many unfortunately named ‘Collateral Events’ at this year’s Biennale, Scotland’s Happenstance is anything but. One of the few installations which explicitly engages with Grafton Architects’ theme of ‘freespace’, The Happenstance creates a place for play, creativity and production in the stunning rose-scented gardens of the Armenian Palazzo Zenobio. An essay in reclaiming and reactivating space in the city, the installation has a focus on young people and children and their energy, imagination and potential.The oversized child’s playground of primary-coloured turrets, portholes and arches is proudly incomplete, inviting visitors and participants to add to, extend and remake the structure. 

Indoors, films exhibit other examples of participatory art and the activation of public space: one film captures a group of young people calmly pushing a car on to its side and then just walking away – a light-hearted subversion of the common misconception of gangs of kids flipping cars and setting them on fire.

Unlike many other pavilions at the Biennale, The Happenstance encourages a programme of on-going events from film-screenings to music recitals, engaging the local community as well as Biennale visitors. A project which considers the evolution and ongoing lifecycle of the installation is refreshing, powerful and provocative, and stands in stark contrast to the dry and bloodless exhibitions which tend to characterise much of the Biennale.

Thehappenstance zone bash khan

Thehappenstance zone bash khan

Source: Bash Khan

The Happenstance’s colourful playground before a screening night

Peter Zumthor

Location: Central Pavilion, Giardini 

Overlooking the largest main vestibule of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini from its lofty mezzanine, superstars lurk. This treasure trove of the master architect Peter Zumthor’s delicious scale models, documenting some of his most well-known as well as more obscure and unrealised work, was possibly the most photographed exhibit during the preview (although rumour has it photography has had to be suspended due to an unfortunate camera collision incident).

A spectacular 1:100 model of the Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum in Norway is encrusted in coal, the spindly museum pavilions perched within the blackened terrain. Real life actual water fills the thermal baths of his model of the hallowed Vals, while a fascinating 1:10 model recreates the famous charred cast log interior of the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, the exterior finished only in pummelled white clay rather than the crisp fair-faced concrete carapace that encases the built version.

Peter zumthor models biennale architecture venice giardini 2018

Peter zumthor models biennale architecture venice giardini 2018

Source: Manon Mollard

Zumthor’s models being photographed from every possible angle

It is true that the link to the theme of ‘freespace’ in this exhibit is at best tenuous, but if nothing else, surely there is room within the idea of ‘freespace’ for some truly beautiful architectural models, exhibiting an almost obsessive exploration of materiality and an insight into the design process of one of the most enigmatic architects of our age. It is thrilling to gain a clandestine peek into the soft, messy underbelly of Zumthor’s architecture. There is no mistaking that you are in the presence of giants.

Read more about Peter Zumthor and his work here

Unfolding Pavilion

Location: Calle dei Lavraneri, Giudecca

In the 2016 edition, Alvaro Siza’s aborted Campo di Marte hosted the Portuguese Pavilion, an insightful exploration into what it takes to create vibrant neighbourhoods. This year, it is the turn of another housing estate, – also from the 1980s and also on the island of Giudecca, – to feature as one of the Biennale’s most memorable venues. Tucked away behind the imposing Molino Stucky, a former flour mill and pasta factory converted into the Hilton, Gino Valle’s Social Housing Complex is an intricate three-dimensional network of narrow lanes and open squares, muscular porticos and elevated walkways, currently home to 85 Venetian families. 

Beyond the welcome escape from Prosecco Central, these pavilions bring Biennale-goers and architecture lovers back to another reality. Here, Venice almost becomes an ordinary city, one where architecture is successfully understood as a social tool and housing estates are (or at least were) designed as humane living environments for those most in need of shelter. While the housing crisis is tirelessly making the headlines in the UK and abroad, valuable and very relevant lessons can be learnt from the generous architectures of both Siza and Valle.

The triplex chosen by the Little Italy collective is one of the nine vacant apartments in the complex, abandoned after the last tenants moved out due to the city council’s lack of resources to undertake necessary restoration works. The Unfolded Pavilion renovates the property, temporarily turns it into the setting of a small exhibition, a mix of art installations and original drawings from the Gino Valle archive and, after only a week of public programme, returns it to its owner to find new tenants. The world’s largest architecture exhibition acquires new meaning when its activities survive beyond the six-month expiry date of most displays, seeking to make a lasting impact on the city of Venice.

Unfolding pavilion gino valle giudecca biennale social housing

Unfolding pavilion gino valle giudecca biennale social housing

Source: Manon Mollard

Gino Valle’s Giudecca social housing complex provides generous communal spaces while catering for the needs of individual residents

The 16th International Architecture Exhibition entitled FREESPACE, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara and organised by La Biennale di Venezia is open to the public from 26 May to 25 November 2018

Read our Venice blog to relive the events of the Biennale’s opening week