The Venice Biennale, one of the most talked about events on the architectural calendar, has opened its doors to architects, designers, and visitors from all around the globe to witness the pavilions and installations that tackle this year’s theme: “Freespace.” The curators, Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, described the theme as “a focus on architecture’s ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers, providing the opportunity to emphasize nature’s free gifts of light—sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials—natural and man-made resources.” As the exhibition launched at the end of May, the architecture world rushed to Venice to be immersed in what the Biennale has to offer. But while the 2018 Biennale undoubtedly had its admirers, not everyone was impressed.
Read on to find out what the critics had to say on this year’s Venice Biennale.
A veteran in architecture critique, Wainwright praised the welcoming atmosphere present in this year’s Venice Biennale. The writer saluted the “additional and unexpected generosity” provided by the pavilions and the venue itself, in terms of public use and appreciation of nature:
The result is a rich body of projects harvested from across the world that devote care to porches, lobbies, passages, and stairs, making incidental spaces do more than simply take you from A to B, or separate inside out. It is an exhibition revealing the added value that architecture can bring—a broad umbrella, which is also the show’s chief law.
Wainwright believes that among the most “tangible embodiment” of this year’s theme, are not only the projects exhibited, but the work and respect the curators have paid to the city in terms of historic presence. Regardless of all the contemporary elements, the Irish duo managed to work around the existing plans and allow history and modern art to coexist:
History is ever-present this year, and it adds a richness to the proceedings.
Although Wainwright feels as though the resources “have been spread too thin” with the work of over 100 architects scattered across two venues, he had several honorable mentions of countries who were able to create impressive projects. Countries such as Greece, China, Bahrain, Switzerland, and Scotland, to name a few, caught Wainwright’s attention in what they have to offer for the visitors, even in their simplest forms:
It [Scotland’s pavilion] is a modest project, but it demonstrates the power of architecture, however rough and ready, to bring people together in an open, messy, joy-filled space.
“There are years when this celebration of architecture ends up producing some of the least architecturally enjoyable spaces in the entire city of Venice, but not this time.” – Rowan Moore, The Observer
Like his colleague at sister paper The Guardian, Moore celebrated this year’s Biennale, commenting on how the curators were able to make use of the site and provide the visitors with an experience that exceeds the visual experience. He explains that it is an architect’s job to make use and draw attention to what is already existing, which is a notion the curators/architects successfully accomplished this year:
One of Grafton’s contributions is to provide places to sit down and enjoy the environment around you. More than that, it has created something affirmative, a physical reminder that architecture should be a joy both to experience and to make.
Moore describes “Freespace” as being fluid, by allowing events to happen in unexpected places and create openness with the architecture and its surroundings. This is a theme which the majority of pavilions, he says, were able to portray—except for the British pavilion, which in his opinion, had the plainest expression of the “Freespace” theme. Their suspended structure, which was an architectural translation of Brexit, along with the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens exhibited by the Victoria and Albert Museum, was deemed negative by Moore, contrary to the optimistic message portrayed by the Biennale:
The British installation embraces, say its creators, ‘themes including abandonment and reconstruction, sanctuary and isolation’… The message of the biennale as a whole, however, is more positive: you come away with the feeling that there are many architects out there doing delightful and thoughtful work that serves the wide public…
“The main exhibition’s incoherence proves that brilliant architects do not necessarily make good curators.” – Tom Wilkinson, the Architectural Review
Wilkinson’s criticism begins with the selected theme, which in his opinion, contradicts the identity of the selected curators. The term “Freespace,” he believes, is something “wafty and unfocused,” unlike Grafton’s architecture portfolio. He believes that this contrast led to a series of incoherent and conceptually inconsistent exhibitions:
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’?… Perhaps the best way to approach the show is to stop looking for an answer to that question and just enjoy the ride.
Wilkinson also highlights other political and socio-cultural problems which were left unaddressed in the exhibition:
More political problems arose in the manifesto’s examples of so-called freespace, not least in the case of Palazzo Medici… Is their conception of ‘earth is a client’ really a helpful starting place for building more sustainably…? Such fudges creep into the exhibition itself, which never convincingly addresses these issues.
“This is not an exhibition” – Alessandro Bava, e-flux architecture
Alessandro Bava presents perhaps the most adamant opinion regarding this year’s Biennale. Among the many apparent problems he highlighted, one of his biggest concerns was the “disconnect” found between experienced architects, younger practitioners, and their ignorance in of the practice of making exhibitions:
…This biennale seems lost somewhere between the two: most architects improvised as installations artists, forcing their conceptual frameworks into three-dimensional constructs that tend to be anesthetic and mute, with their project encompassed entirely within wall text.
Bava blames this year’s inconsistent and “disappointing” biennale on the identity and credibility of the curators and their theme. He insists that future exhibitions hire experienced curators for the job, so that more focus is given to the “technicality of reshaping the way the planet is inhabited”:
If the architects chosen to direct the Biennale have no previous curatorial, not to mention theoretical experience, should we expect these exhibitions to be anything more than mere displays of taste?… Perhaps one way to start would be to give the exhibition’s curatorial duties to a curator.
See our editors’ picks for the best things to see and do at the 2018 Venice Biennale.