Not Being There… Venice and the Architecture Biennale

Guidecca, Venice 2016. Photo © Herbert Wright

by Herbert Wright

If you were at the Venice Architecture Biennale opening, you may have found me there, but only if you had a QR reader. My voice speaks from a Kowloon neighbourhood in a film at the Hong Kong Pavilion, as I will explain.

But was I physically there at the great gathering of the great, the good and the journalists that is the Biennale opening? I wasn’t, and I have mixed feelings about it. 

Let’s face it, not everything is fab at VAB (as I call the Biennale). There is way too much to take in at the Arsenale and Giardini. The Central Pavilion’s group show alone needs a day to absorb, and this year there are an overwhelming 61 national pavilions, 17 collateral shows, pop-ups and events that spread into the canals and alleys of the city itself. If you consider giving each of the 112 participants just 5 minutes attention each, you would need 9 hours 20 minutes to see it all non-stop. That’s if you could travel instantaneously across VAB’s vast territory and not eat or rest or go to the bathroom. Eating can be a serious challenge — the queues for food can be slow and cruel, especially under bright sunshine.

As well as teleportation, another superpower would help you cover the biennale in realistic time — invisibility. Why? Because half the architectural people you’ve ever met will spot you, and you will lose count of how many want to stop and chat, or even propose an immediate serious meeting. Without invisibility, you could try a good disguise, but a false moustache (no matter your gender) and hat may mean the sunshine bakes you like a potato in the oven. 

There is a deeper problem. If you wanted to invite attention to important ideas that could change our world for decades to come, would you want to present them in a place that distracts attention? Such as perhaps the most beautiful city on Earth? Yes, you can try and shut out ‘la Serenissima’, but it is always there, like a sad, beautiful, dying lover who is waiting, calling, yearning… In my two* Biennales, there was always a point when I asked myself, ‘how long must this hectoring parade of architectural notions wrench me from the drug-like dream of beauty and mystery just around the corner?’  The biennale can become like a new Spotify mix on exhausted earphones while the orchestra plays Mahler’s 5th around you. 

Well, at least I have a Venetian solution to propose for that last dilemma, and you heard it here first. The city has big spaces where its ancient magic does not operate. Behind the Piazzale Roma, the docks have expanded, even creating the new island of Tronchetto, to accommodate the vast cruise ships that long menaced Venice like invading aliens. In March, Italy banned these monsters from entering the lagoon. The endless, voluminous passenger buildings, ‘non-places’ of ‘super-modernity’ in Marc Augé’s words, could be anywhere in the world. Their silence must be deafening now. The Bienalle could fill them, and they offer road vehicle access, helpful for installation logistics. 

Am I being serious? Sure, about as serious as those sandwiches in plastic triangular boxes available from the Co-op at Fondamente Santa Chiara on the Grand Canal by the Piazzale Roma. They’re serious survival tools when you need to refuel quick so you can move on. 

Yes, we know the nightmare of the tourist strip that runs from Santiago Calatrava’s disability-indifferent Ponte della Costituzione, past the sublime, solid horizontality of Angiolo Massoni’s modernist Stazione Santa Lucia, down the insanely busy Strada Nova, past the human traffic jam on Rialto bridge to the Instagram hyper-node of the Piazza San Marco. We know why so many Venetians hate us visitors, like companions of the evening hate their clients but need the money. And yet, the endless interface of water and architectural perfection in palazzos and churches remains transcendental. And just three minute’s walk from the tourist runs, there are alleys that are so quiet you can hear footsteps around corners. They echo just like Casanova’s did in 1755 or Sophia Loren’s in 1955. 

Venice is a city of memories and emotion. That brings me to Hong Kong. Its pavilion was unstaffed at the opening, but that QR reader enabled access to its films, including E-Motion-AI City by Tszwai So of Spheron Architects. (Online access will hopefully be soon). The film follows a couple with a two-year old girl, at home and in their intensely urban neighbourhood. These are places of memory and emotion. But the film is haunted by a mysterious figure, and equally by my commentary about how the digital world and real world could become indistinguishable. How would we live together when that happens? 

How will we live together? is the question that this year’s curator Hashim Sarkis asks. Despite all my complaints of the surrealistic pressures of the Biennale, yes, I want to see the splurging cornucopia of responses in Venice. Doubtless they will raise more questions than answers. Doubtless they will be exhausting to process. But is it all so bad if an Italian coffee awaits you just outside the Arsenale? On the via Garibaldi, you can reflect and watch Venice walk by, in the a world that is neither digital or a new architectural vision. 

Italy’s MOSE barriers protect the Venice lagoon from three metre tides, but Venice will be gone one day. Greenland has started to melt fast, and if all its ice melted, sea level would rise by 7.2 metres. Should we anticipate Venice’s demise with virtual versions, at far higher resolutions than those parts replicated around the Venetian Hotel in Macau?

London, May 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in June 2021 as Biennale de Venise, comme si vous n’y étiez pas. *The French version says I attended three VABs, but I mis-remembered, it was just two!

Also published in June 2021 – my review of what you can find online from Venice Architecture Biennale on the CoBo Social platform

An earlier 2021 column from Chroniques d’Architecture, now in English as Confessions of an Architecture Critic

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on
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1 Response to Not Being There… Venice and the Architecture Biennale

  1. Pingback: Confessions of an Architecture Critic | The Other Site

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