Contemporary architecture in Venice is not a chimera
Contemporary architecture in Venice can be found pretty much everywhere, even in St. Mark’s square —see the Olivetti Showroom (link to my post here). By contemporary architecture I am referring to interventions (also interior design) dating back to the 20th and 21st century. While exploring Venice you may encounter all possible expressions, from neo-“something” (an eclectic combo of gothic, renaissance or byzantine) to Liberty and rationalism, all the way to nowadays. Contemporary architecture in Venice does not always look “new”, by the way. When the Fenice Opera House was rebuilt after the fire between 1996-2003, it had to look as if it had never been destroyed. “Au retour”- wise.
Where can we find contemporary architecture in Venice?
In a city where bombs affected architecture very partially, contemporary constructions are present especially where it was possible to rebuild. When Napoleon’s decision to secularize church properties brought a lot of monasteries and churches to ruin in less than a decade, it was in these marginalized areas of Venice where it became possible to build and rebuild. Factories, social housing, the railway station and bridge as well as port structures, even the most avant-garde car garage in Europe occupied the city islands.
The Giardini della Biennale
One of the most interesting areas to be reconverted and to open to international contemporary architecture is the one for the Biennale exhibition. Following Napoleon’s decision, the area originally hosting the monasteries and churches of San Domenico, Sant’Antonio Abate, Concezione Vergine Maria was turned into public gardens. The work was under the supervision of Giannantonio Selva and Pietro Antonio Zorzi and it took place between 1808 and 1812. In 1895 the area was chosen to host the Biennale first exhibition. Currently, 42,000 square meters are used for this purpose while 18,000 square meters are still public gardens.
After the successful results of the first Biennale editions, foreign countries were encouraged to build their own national pavilions. Till 1912 the Venice municipality would financially invest in the construction of new pavilions hoping the single countries would redeem them (and pay for them).
The first was the Belgian one. Then Hungary, Bavaria, Sweden (which was then redeemed by Holland), Austria, Japan and Finland, Nordic countries and so on. The location for all these pavilions was quite arbitrary and when in the 1930s more space was assigned across the Canal of San Piero di Castello, then room for the current 29 national pavilions was found.
Leitmotifs of contemporary architecture in the Biennale pavilions
Each pavilion has its own history. However, while moving around there are leitmotifs and questions arising.
How can a Biennale pavilion represent a country?
If architecture is indeed political art, in these pavilions you wonder how these “containers” of national art works can represent a country.
Take for instance the Hungarian pavilion. Géza Rintel Maróti inaugurated a first pavilion in 1909 and managed to mix some Magyar farming tradition with Hungarian sacred architecture, employing Hungarian artisans, illustrating traditional imagery and folklore using mosaics and ceramics. Even if the pavilion was later on modified (pretty much all pavilions have been, were it just to restore them), the national character shows very clearly.
Of course, we can argue if there is anything like national art. I guess the controversial decision not to let Russia exhibit anything this year because of the aggression against Ukraine shows that whatever would be shown there would have led visitors to think there was some kind of support for Russia. The closed pavilion was instead meant to be a way to protest against this country’s military intervention.
The Biennale Pavilions as exhibition galleries
Another fascinating theme is to think of these pavilions as containers of temporary art. The ephemeral nature of the exhibition they host — just 7 months long, only day time —has been a beautiful challenge for some architects. For some, the dynamic characteristic of this exhibition is something to celebrate.
The pavilion of Finland by Alvar Aalto (1954) is a great example. While waiting for the Nordic Countries pavilion to be designed, Aalto created an interesting geometric object with the colors of the Finnish flag, blue and white. However, Aalto did not just plan a pavilion for temporary exhibits. Even the pavilion itself would be temporary, or at least was meant to be temporary. The pavilion is in fact made of wooden planks you can dismantle, store and reuse. All is meant to recall Lappish camps of tents. Quite ironically, it was never dismantled and the mobile nature of this architecture masterpiece got “frozen”. Aalto worked for free and the pavilion was eventually donated to the Biennale in 1976.
Space and light in the Biennale pavilions: inside out
Another aspect these pavilions face is also the relation between space inside and space outside, not to mention the dialogue between the light inside and external daylight.
The Nordic Countries pavilion designed by Sverre Fehn in 1962 is an interesting piece of contemporary architecture in Venice in this sense. Compact, simple and huge (400 square meters), the Nordic Countries pavilion feels like an open city square with a roof. Trees grow inside and make their way through large concrete slabs whose vertical position contributes to a sense of lightness. Not many concrete slabs seem to float in the air, but these ones do. The diffused light comes in with no contrast and the large transparent glass windows make us feel as if we were outdoor. Quite a nordic concept, where daylight is welcome everywhere, but it’s never too aggressive.
Experimental architecture in Venice
It has been noted that some pavilions in the Venice Biennale Giardini are quite experimental. If celebration and nationalism strongly influnced the first pavilions, then some broke with traditional architecture and started playing with the fixed hierarchy of spaces. No more a central space where everything happens, but a central void. A great example is the Pavilion of Austria designed by Josef Hoffmann.
Or the Pavilion of Japan (1956) by Takamasa Yoshizaka, raised above the ground with an oriental garden of pebbles below, mirrors and a bridge to enter.
Not to forget Carlo Scarpa’s project for the Venezuela Pavilion, dated back to 1954-1956, an amazing space for art and for architecture lovers.
A cafeteria “sui generis” by Tobias Rehberger
Not just pavilions. Contemporary architecture in Venice at the Giardini can be enjoyed at the famous cafeteria designed in 2009 by Tobias Rehberger in the Razzle Dazzle style. Originally employed for warships or military tanks to create an optical illusion and confound enemies, this style is used here to create a bizarre effect. The Title? “Was du liebst, bringt dich auch zum Weinen” (what you love, also brings you to crying).
A hope for the future
A few weeks ago the Biennale 2022 directed by Cecilia Alemani closed recording an extraordinary interest (+ 35% in respect to 2019 edition, over 800.000 visitors). I asked several Venetians if they went, and no, they didn’t go. It is impossible to calculate how many residents visited the Biennale as tickets cost all alike. My fear is that the Biennale is seen as a great event, but still too little of interest for the ones living here. Even its gardens and pavilions are not too familiar. So, what about if this park, originally public, was kept open even when the Biennale is not going on? I am sure both residents and visitors would love wandering around its architecture masterpieces and enjoy a drink or some chocolate in the winter. It would establish a stronger dialogue with the city where they were built. Mis-quoting Rehberger, less tears and more involvement.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
In the cover of this blogpost: Detail of Venezuela Pavilion by Carlo Scarpa at the Venice Biennale Giardini, Biennale 2022
Marco Mulazzani, Guida ai padiglioni della Biennale di Venezia dal 1887, Electa, Milano 1988 (in Italian)
www.youtube.com/@ederake (in Italian)