Aaron Betsky The Estonia Pavilion’s “Weak Monument”

If it is difficult to find something that resembled the theme of “Freespace” in the Biennale of that title that curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara have put on in Venice this summer (through Nov. 25), it is much easier to discover examples that might be worthy of the name in the various country pavilions and collateral events that are taking place around town during the run of the exhibition. That is not unusual: the sheer variety of such displays—there are close to a hundred of these pavilions, by my count, if you include those that are not officially recognized—guarantees that you will always find something worth your visit, even if the main Biennale disappoints.

That is first and foremost because the act of putting on a Biennale creates a “freespace” in Venice. It is easy to criticize the event for being elitist, unrealistic, or out of touch with either the discipline or the wider world, but somehow it still manages to attract what this year will probably be more than a quarter million people who come together around something to do with architecture. This is especially true in the opening days, when as many as 50,000 architects, critics, students, and aficionados fill the hotels and bars as well as the various venues where the exhibitions are held. The Biennale transforms the city, through the addition of what is a relatively small amount of construction, into a place that encourages us to see, to learn, to discuss, to argue, and sometimes even to draw or design. It makes the virtual and spread out architecture community real, if only for a few days.

Beyond that freedom of space, this year there are also some beautiful places that were just empty, or nearly so, creating a simple moment of freedom. The best of these that I saw (of necessity, you can only see so much of any sprawling Biennale) were the ones put on by Switzerland and the United Kingdom in their official pavilions in the Giardini, or Public Gardens, and by Estonia in a small church in Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, on the Fondamenta San Gioacchin halfway between the Arsenale and the Giardini.

When you walk into the latter exhibition, you are confronted with a blank wall that runs across the whole parish church, leaving a view only of the top of the altar in the closed off area behind. A park bench sits in front of the wall, whose curb makes it recognizable as a fragment of a city, rather than just a blank plane. The curators of Estonia’s “Weak Monument”—Laura Linsi, Roland Reemaa, and Tadeáš Říha—then covered the portion of the nave you can enter with paving stones.

Aaron Betsky The Estonia Pavilion.

Their point is to make a monument that is not a monument, and to make you regard the city itself for its memories, as the Italian architect Aldo Rossi long ago suggested we do. But the result instead makes a space in front of the wall, one that the curators have liberated from the function for which it was built. It leaves you free to contemplate, to wonder about what the place is, and just to take a rest from the flow of humanity and the competing projects all around you.

Even more empty, but perhaps not as powerful because it makes such an extreme statement, is the British Pavilion. It justly won an Honorable Mention in the judging for the Biennale’s official awards, the Golden Lions. In a comment on Brexit, but again with a different effect, the curators—the team of architecture firm Caruso St. John and artist Marcus Taylor—left every single room in the Neoclassical building completely empty, though they made sure to have the walls painted (white, of course) and the floors cleaned. You wander through the galleries that are usually filled with drawings, models, and photographs, and instead take in the spaces themselves. The spaces have been freed, but offer a sense of temporal displacement, as this is what the rooms look like for the half the year when the pavilion, like all the other ones in the Giardini, sits completely empty.

Aaron Betsky The stark inside of the United Kingdom's Pavilion, runner up for Best National Participation.
Aaron Betsky The roof of the British Pavilion.

This is not the only space the British offer this year. Instead of going inside the pavilion, you can climb up to the building’s roof along a staircase built into scaffolding that completely covers the exterior. That temporary covering not only removes the pavilion’s status as a monument in a way grander than the Estonians were able to achieve with their little insertion, but it also supports a terrace that covers the whole roof, giving you a view from the Lagoon all the way to the Grand Canal. Only the peak of the roof sticks out above the plywood terrace, reminding you of the past—and of gravity. Here you are at one with, but at a distance from, a particularly beautiful slice of Europe, which is exactly the curators’ point.

Aaron Betsky Switzerland's “Svizzera 240: House Tour” won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation.

The third pavilion that most effectively “frees” space is that of Switzerland, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, curated by Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg, and Ani Vihervaara. (The Golden Lion for Best Participant in the International Exhibition went, for reasons nobody seems to be able to fathom, to two photographs of the renovation of a farm into a luxury hotel with no particular distinction by the Portuguese architect and Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Eduardo Souto de Moura, Hon. FAIA.) Titled “Svizzera 240: House Tour,” the Swiss Pavilion presents a looking-glass world of what the curators say they determined, by creating “a vast archive of unfurnished interior photographs from the websites of Swiss architecture firms,” was a standard Swiss domestic environment. Working with spaces that were, as they say, “never meant to be looked at,” they turned these everyday spaces into places of marvel by building models as 240-degree skewed versions of themselves at different scales. These are thus all distorted (down to the floorboards, each of which, perhaps to live up to their country’s reputation for precision, they cut into parallelograms to fit) and at different scales. In one room, you find yourself looking up at a counter that is larger than you are, while in another you barely fit inside the room. The effects are flawless and the transitions are perfect, so that you become completely disoriented, and thus free to inhabit an impossible space. It is so because it frees you from a relationship with reality in which both you and your surroundings are constrained by function and physicality. That might not be a great recipe for a building, but it offers a liberating view of architecture.

Aaron Betsky The Switzerland Pavilion.
Aaron Betsky Playing with scale and perspective in the Switzerland Pavilion.
Aaron Betsky A model in the Israel Pavilion.

Beyond these overtly free spaces, most of the other pavilions and displays approach the question of what frees space by showing the opposite. In the Israel Pavilion, for instance, curators Ifat Finkelman, Deborah Pinto Fdeda, Oren Sagiv, and Tania Coen-Uzzielli have collected examples of schemes for the area in front of the Wailing Wall for “In Statu Quo: Structures of Negotiation,” all of which exclude anybody but Jews. In the Hong Kong Pavilion, just opposite the entrance to the Arsenale, 100 architects have designed 100 small skyscrapers, and each is a stack of prisons, no matter how much the designers try to break levels and grids.

Aaron Betsky Checking out the skyscrapers in the Hong Kong Pavilion.
Aaron Betsky One of the hundred skyscrapers in the Hong Kong exhibition.

Perhaps to have truly free space, you have to have faith … so in my next blog I will discuss the first contribution by the Holy See, consisting of a collection of small chapels in a garden on an island in the Lagoon.