Venice Biennale 2018

72 hours in Venice: Essential Guide to Venice Biennale ’18

Every two years architecture lovers and professionals arrive in Venice for the Venice Architecture Biennale. This international festival of architecture runs from late May until November. Studio Gennaio visited the Venice Biennale shortly after it opened this year. But what is the significance of this festival? Why do we attend? And how does this benefit our clients?

A trip to Venice of course always sounds like a good idea. Visiting the Venice Biennale, however, is much more than canal cruises and Aperol spritzes.


The Venice Biennale is split over two main sites – the Arsenale and the Giardini. Each is packed to the rafters with architectural models, designs, infographics, installations, videos and much more. The scale of the Venice Biennale is impressive in itself and so one cannot fail to find inspiration in some corner.


The Giardini hosts around 30 pavilions, each belonging to an individual country, and each containing as much architecture as you would typically find in your local museum or gallery. Then there’s the Central Pavillion where big names of the architecture world present their work. And then there’s the half-mile long stretch of the Corderie at the Arsenale. Plus the other more informal pavilions and fringe events happening around town. This year there is the addition of the first Holy Sea Pavilion on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And so it goes on.


The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale was Freespace, and it was curated by architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects. For us, there were three main reasons for visiting – precedent, inspiration and knowledge. As we toured the Biennale, we found examples of each of these through some key themes which resonated with our Studio values:


1. Generosity of Space

Generosity of Space is a key theme throughout this year’s Biennale. 


An exhibition called “Freestanding” presents models of three freestanding canopies from Sigurd Lewerentz’s famous sacred spaces. They create a place to shelter and for public interactions to take place in the harsh climate of Sweden, and show a variety of architectural styles. Architect Petra Gipp created these large-scale models which visitors can walk through and experience the space.


Caruso St John explored a building’s façade’s potential for social generosity. Their exhibition, entitled “The facade is the window to the soul of architecture” was found in the Central Pavilion. In it they show beautiful elevations of some of their own completed projects. 


Other architects looked at a specific genre of architecture. Alison Brooks Architects focused on housing, creating four inhabitable spaces, each offering different sensory experiences that were free to be explored. They were all generous in volume, height and natural light, creating spaces that “enable human potential”. We found ourselves reflecting on our own residential projects, identifying parallels and generating new ideas of our own.


The generosity of space in historic public buildings was explored by David Chipperfield‘s investigation of the Altes Museum in Berlin. Inês Lobo, meanwhile, focussed on neighbourhoods, with a bench for 100 people which weaves its way around pre-existing nature and artifice in Piazzale Guglielmo Marconi, Bergamo, Italy. The most adventurous explored a whole region – a 750km walking trail across Armenia, called the Transcausian Trail, where the architects (Gumuchdjian Architects) see themselves as the makers of public spaces along the route.


The British Pavilion (entitled “Island”) in the Giardini allows you to test out public space for yourself. It offers a new viewing platform on the roof (accessed by stairs or lift) where tea is served at 16:00. The exhibition hall is left empty for pop up exhibitions by other nations.

2. Architecture activating society

Assemble is a London based design collective, who won the Turner prize in 2015. In the Central Pavilion we saw their creation of some 8000 unique and very beautiful encaustic tiles. We were particularly interested in how Assemble had set up an ongoing community project in Toxteth, the Granby Workshop, which created jobs and skilled craftsmanship in Liverpool.

Assemble Studio - Granby Workshop
Assemble Studio – Granby Workshop

BC Architects & Studies took it a step further, showing four projects under the title “The Act of Building”. They argue that architects should engage communities in the act of construction, which is a subject Studio Gennaio has researched previously.

3. Models and Design Process

The Venice Biennale was full of hugely interesting projects. Here are a few of our favourites from a design process perspective. We found the level of thought, research and visual investigation really inspiring.

Flores & Prats, a Barcelona-based practice, recreated part of their Sala Beckett. What lay behind the replica was exciting: a record of their design process, which studied and recorded the existing building with vast, beautiful models and drawings. Their project builds on what was already there. They curated the historic elements, retaining the collective memory, while re-energising the space. This is something Studio Gennaio looks to do in all its projects.

A similar approach was taken by Architecten de Vylder Vinck Taillieu, who presented their intervention in an old psychiatric centre in Belgium. Again they retained the old, taking on the project mid way through demolition, after much of the roof and floors had already gone. They stabilised the existing building and inserted seven glass spaces that could be used for therapy sessions and workshops.
Peter Zumthor’s “workshop” of models in the Giardini Central Pavilion was breathtaking. It demonstrated his ability to create site-specific spaces that rely on his choice of materials. He captures these materials spectacularly in models throughout the design process, from concept to final project, all the time creating a real sense of atmosphere and place.

A project by Skälsö Arkitekter showed how the practice had reenergised abandoned military bunkers on a Baltic island off Sweden. First they carved into these spaces, which had been filled with concrete when abandoned to make them inhabitable. Then they re-used the materials they had dug out for new projects on the site.


Finally, we particularly enjoyed Jensen and Skodvin’s protective roof over a spring water source in China. They illustrated the considerable challenges they faced in both the design and construction phases of their project. This was demonstrated through a playful and interactive game where you try to plot a route through the forest yet avoid damage to any trees.

4. Fabulous materials



The Holy See pavilion is found on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, a short boat ride from San Marco. This is the first year that the Holy See has participated in the Architecture Biennale. It follows on from Pope Francis in his 2013 Evangelii Gaudium exalting “the use of the arts in evangelisation, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new language of parables”.


The pavilion is comprised of 10 chapels, each designed by a well-known architect. In this sense, it is a kind of pilgrimage for both architects and believers. Each chapel is very different, and uses a wide range of materials, but they each have two key things in common – an altar and an ambo (pulpit or lectern).

One reason why these chapels are so noteworthy within the Venice Biennale is that they are all completed constructions. Within a festival of models, designs and plans, here are 10 buildings which are finished and which the visitor can explore for themselves.


There is a clear sense of transience in some of the chapels. They are not necessarily intended to be a permanent fixture. Francesco Cellini‘s chapel seems to float above the ground. It is respectful of its site, avoiding any lasting damage. Andrew Berman‘s chapel is made of simple, readily available materials. Although its design and construction is precise, it could be easily recreated. Javier Corvalan‘s Nomadic Chapel is designed to be transportable. The architect imagines the tripod support (a Venitian “bricola”) being replaced by a rock or another type of support in another place. Similarly, Sean Godsell‘s chapel is designed to be packed up, transported and relocated anywhere in the world. The architect compares this to the Church as a “resilient, dynamic entity capable of surviving thousands of kilometres away from Rome”.

Carla Juacaba‘s chapel is more site specific and designed for permanence. The highly polished metal reflects and becomes one with its surroundings. Flores and Prats‘ Morning Chapel is specifically designed in response to its site. It is best visited in the morning to benefit from the morning light shining through a circular hole in the chapel’s wall.

In Terunobu Fujimori’s Cross Chapel, the element of the cross is part of the structure of the building. It is adorned with gold leaf which makes the cross shine from the light above, drawing the visitor’s eye directly to it. It stands out even more as it is surrounded by black charcoal on the pure white walls. The pews are angled in a V shape, simple and comfortable.
Eduardo Souto de Moura‘s chapel, built with Vincenza stone blocks, is cool and calm. It is a simple and appealing space which makes the visitor sit for a while and reflect. The construction is beautifully precise.

Norman Foster‘s chapel causes the visitor to focus on the water and the sky. This is not evident when you enter the chapel – only when the direction changes once you are inside. It is a surprise and reminded us of our 2017 Made in Roath installation.
Smiljan Radic’s chapel also uses illusions to trick the visitor. It pays homage to the roadside shrine which is so common in his native Chile. Radic plays with scale and volume, referencing chapels which hope to be bigger than they are. The door is oversized but only wide enough for one person. The walls are thin, which makes the chapel seem much bigger. The material is playful – the formwork for the concrete walls was covered in bubble wrap, creating a mesmerising texture.



We flew with Flybe from Cardiff to Venice. This flight runs twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the summer. If you opt for the shorter Sat-Tues break, be aware that the Biennale is closed on most Mondays. However, you should still manage to fit in plenty on Saturday afternoon, Sunday and Tuesday morning.
Top tip: Schedule a visit to the Arsenale on either Friday or Saturday to make the most of late-night opening.
We stayed at the beautiful Ca del Pape. Ideal for families or small groups it has two double bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a small kitchen. It is ideally located for both the Arsenale and the Giardini, and there are many bars and restaurants close by. Arrive by waterbus from the airport (Red or Blue lines both stop nearby) – it’s cheap, and helps to kill some time if you’re waiting to check in. Save some cash for a water taxi for the return journey though – much more fun!
Contrary to popular belief with some planning it is in fact possible to eat very well in Venice. We enjoyed some fantastic meals at Salvmeria and Nevodi, both on Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.

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