What with so many people, so many practices, and so much happening seemingly everywhere at every hour, any visit to the Venice Architecture Biennale can quickly become an experience in wall-to-wall bewilderment. That may be doubly true this year, as Ireland-based curators Grafton Architects kick off “Freespace”: the organizing theme for the Biennale’s sixteenth edition is enticingly nebulous, and the show catalogue promises an unusually diverse assortment of offerings from an unusually broad wedge of the architecture world.
Among so much unfamiliarity, it was nice to see a couple of familiar faces—and, as it turned out, it was a perfect way to get one’s bearings. Marion Weiss, FAIA, and Michael Manfredi, FAIA, of New York firm Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism are among the exhibitors appearing in the main “Freespace” exhibition at the Arsenale, Venice’s cavernous former ship-building facility. They gave a quick primer on the idea behind the show as a whole: “It’s studiously open-ended,” Weiss says. “The curators have been really committed to this idea of trying to make the generosity of architecture measurable.” Abstract as that objective might sound, Weiss/Manfredi found at least one way to realize it.
Their display at the show consists of two wooden semi-ovals, creating a sheltering forum-like space in the middle, and fitted with shelves bearing remarkably delicate and detailed models of their buildings as well as historical buildings that have inspired them. The models have a “dollhouse effect,” Manfredi says, attracting passersby and drawing them into the center of the space, where a video displays cinematic encounters with recent projects from the duo’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Award-winning practice, like the visitor’s center for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania. The other projects on view—ranging from Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House to Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona—don’t set up direct didactic relationships to the firm’s work, but simply suggest potential parallels, weaving a subtle narrative about public space in the fast-changing urban environment.
“I think everybody has a different interpretation,” Weiss says, speaking about this year’s broad curatorial mandate. “Ours was to make it about the overlap between architecture, landscape, and infrastructure.” There’s a lot of freedom in “Freespace”, but that appears to be the point, giving architects an opportunity to establish their own free spaces within the exhibition, and to imagine new ones for the world at large. It promises to be an interesting week.