Eleven AM Wednesday morning in Venice was the big moment: time to find out who would be brining home the Golden Lions from this year’s Architecture Biennale.

The moment was postponed somewhat, as things in Italy tend to be, as a crowd of worthies filed slowly into the Giardini. Seen making their way through the throng were architect Rem Koolhaas, Italian Minister of Cultural Lorenzo Ornaghe, and assorted members of the distinguished exhibition jury (though not, interestingly, the sole American on the panel, Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, who it was later learned had left a day early). Biennale director Paolo Barrata was first to take the stage, and he praised the daring of architects everywhere—“those strange animals,” as he called them, who come to Venice every other year to “meet and to think that another world may be possible.” Brief remarks followed from 2012 curator David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, and then the action really started.

Of the national pavilions, the U.S. and Poland each received special mentions; Russia received its first-ever award. ARCHITECT head honcho Ned Cramer beamed as the official citation praised the installation he co-curated for demonstrating “the power of individuals to change society in effective ways.” To the surprise of some observers, top honors went to the Japanese Pavilion, curated by Toyo Ito. The exhibition featured a sequence of sometimes stunningly intricate models, all of them proposals for new housing to replace buildings destroyed by Japan’s tsunami last year.

Among the exhibitors in “Common Ground”—Chipperfield’s collaboration-themed International Exhibition—Italy’s Cino Zucchi claimed special mention, with Grafton Architects taking the second-place Silver Lion. In the end, the gold went to what was certainly the tastiest installation of them all: Urban-Think Tank and Justin McGirth’s exploration of the Torre David, Carracas’ towering super-slum, which brought exposed bricks, thumping music, and sensational Venezuelan food to the heart of the Venetian Arsenale.