Two days before the end

It has been a gruelling week in Venice and our team really deserved some time to relax. After all, we were dismantling a Lithuanian pavilion for the Venice Biennale of Architecture. ‘That’s what you get for being an assistant curator — hard labour behind the spotlights’ I thought. It wasn’t easy, but it was finally over. Half a truck of the Lithuanian swamp which was brought to Venice was given away to the local farmer. The other half of the pavilion — tools, drainage pipes, foam table tops, equipment — were loaded back in the truck going back to Lithuania. To celebrate this supernatural achievement my colleague and I decided to meet a local architect who worked with us. His name was Alessandro. He suggested to join him at the wine bar somewhere between Cannaregio and Castello.

While walking there we could not notice how quiet Venice has become. At the end of November, it started to look like a village, incomparable to a bustling architecture pilgrimage hub which it was one week ago during the final hours of the Biennale. Previous Architecture Biennale held in 2016, was visited by 260,000 people. Not much, but have in mind that there are only 50,000 Venetians. Five architecture lovers for each local! It is a considerable increase in the city where precious open space is constantly flooded. “Venice, Invaded by Tourists, Risks Becoming ‘Disneyland on the Sea’”[1] — a few years ago stated The New York Times. But oddly enough, the same article defended Biennale visitors comparing them to local residents, as tourists somehow suddenly become better if they buy a ticket to the Biennale. “The locals and the art enthusiasts have developed a sort of alliance against the [tourist] crowds who march on St. Mark’s,”[2] — suggested the article and Paolo Baratta, the president of the Biennale, expanded: “We are a model of what could be,”[3] having in mind that Biennale with all its crowds is the model of what the city could become. Really? I have doubts.

Having all these questions in my head we finally reached the bar. Alessandro arrived shortly together with his girlfriend. He was roughly the same age as me — somewhere in his mid-thirties with a lush beard and looking very neat. Like many locals, he lives in the Castello which is the same area where Venice Biennale is located, so he knows it inside out. My friend, his girlfriend and I ordered beers. He — after a short talk with the wine bar owner — came back with a glass of wine. It did not take long before our conversation diverted to the post-Biennale Venice.

“Venice is liveable again,” he quickly summarised with a smile on his face, “it is possible to walk on the streets”. This was a short, but very precise remark, as you would expect from him. Although it was not the first time I heard something like this from the Venetian — during one of our pavilion dismantling cruises, a cargo boat helmsman explained how he is always relieved in winters when tourists are gone, but Alessandro made it clear — architects are the problem too.

Every second May architecture elite and self-obsessed curators flock Venice for the opening of the Venice Biennale of Architecture. They come here to engage in critical research, create new learning environments and embrace the possibilities of expanding architectural discourse. I don’t know what exactly these words mean, but as a person who also had to write similar descriptions, I see them as space fillers, a sort of ‘lorem ipsum’ of architecture. These over-the-top smart phrases are used to show how smart author is, but give nothing to the content. Now, all of these people have left, parties have ended and locals are happy again.

It is trendy nowadays to talk about liveability. Copenhagen is leading the way of liveability through bicycles and health, but other cities have much more down-to-earth ideas. Access to drinkable water, clean(-ish) air to breath, access to the roof over your head — in most parts of the world this would be a good description of a liveable environment. And here comes Venice where liveability means fewer architects pretending to solve world problems.

Meanwhile, I was sitting in a local wine bar where the owner very unhappily poured me a beer and pretended not to speak any English. It was the unnerving realisation that I helped to diminish the quality of life in Venice while our project was trying to show ‘how to change habits of thought and adapt to the radically changing environments’. But Alessandro did not seem to be upset at us or the Biennale. He described this event almost as a harvest, something that comes and goes with seasons — working hard when Biennale is closed, helping out different pavilions and projects and resting when Biennale begins and streets fill dense with bodies. The only difference between harvest and the Biennale is the outcome. Good harvest creates valuable products, while the end of biennale creates… well, that is what I wanted to find out.

The joyless finale

Venice Biennale of Architecture is a true pilgrimage destination for the architects. Every year hordes of designers flock to Venice to keep up with the latest trends and brush shoulders with the stars of the industry. But I never felt very excited about this event nor really understood the meaning. Even after becoming an assistant curator for the Lithuanian pavilion I was still asking various architects and thinkers, like Beatriz Colomina, James Taylor-Foster, Mimi Zeiger, Pippo Ciorra and others one question — ‘is Biennale still relevant?’. The answers they gave me were mixed, but always on the optimistic side, that Biennale with all its flaws is a very important and necessary event. Well, it must be important, because it is a huge attraction for all architecture superstars, especially during the opening.

Sofas at the Dutch pavilion.

In music, sports and harvest everybody tends to celebrate the end, not the beginning. In music, the encore is a culmination, not an opening act. In sports biggest celebrations are at the end of the tournament after the final whistle, not during the reveal of the line-up. In harvest when the results are visible evaluation and celebration can begin. But biennale is an event where we celebrate the opening, but ignore the end. Although it is not much different from any other competition — it has a defined start, rules and the end. But it seems that nobody really cares about the outcome and the product generated through time. The speed is the key. An incredibly slow architecture profession is not immune to the fast-paced trends of social media.

During the opening of the last Biennale pictures of Virgil Abloh seemed more valuable than photos of the pavilions. Even the best pavilions were announced during the official opening — architecture was evaluated before it could be seen by the public. At the Venice Biennial of 2010, the Golden Lion for the best project was awarded to the installation by Junya Ishigami + Associates which collapsed hours later after opening[4]. A note saying ‘I‘m sorry. It‘s broken’ was placed nearby. That is basically a standard for excellence in architecture today. Next step would be to announce the best pavilions before even building them. And this absurdity is already happening. German Design Awards are given to public space projects which are still under construction. In this headless aim for freshness, appreciation of decay and witnessing things end gives new, paradoxically, fresh view.

The end is more honest than the beginning. And there is no need to get over-philosophical here. Simply, in the end, we see the result and at the beginning, we are fed promises. Many pavilions at the Biennale this year were promising us things. But did they deliver?

After picking up my Service pass at the counter of the Arsenale two days before the end I headed through the curtain covered entrance to inspect how did the promises held up. Some pavilions and installations offered to add things during the Biennale, some suggested to create learning spaces and produce things on the spot. In the end, most have failed.

‘Process’ is particularly difficult to exhibit — it cannot be observed from the start to the end and parts of it is always behind the scenes. Pavilions and installations focusing on ‘processes’ at the end often looked like abandoned spooky houses — somebody was there, attempted something, but long they are gone. What was left were some bizarre stories and legends floating in the air. These processes and event spaces represented a psychological decay. Ideas and ambitions during six months slowly evaporating to thin air.

Handrails at the Austrian pavilion.

Other pavilions with a more ‘static’ concepts were slowly decaying. Big traffic, long duration and harsh climate did not help to preserve a sharp image. Not to mention that using white colour for walls and floors, fabrics and natural wood did not work out well. White spaces became grey, fabrics dirty and smelly, wooden surfaces and handrails nasty. It was clear that during the final days everybody stopped caring.

It seemed that there is no real purpose of having biennale for six months. Nothing better is achieved through this time, only extra dirt and decay is collected. Even the argument that more people see it, the better, does not seem a valid one. People unhappily run around the spaces, often without stopping and mindlessly take pictures of eye-catchy installations, like the one of BIG, which in essence had nothing to do with the theme of the Biennale and was there only to advertise their projects in the USA. I stood for a while in a room where Caruso St. John did a piece on the facades. Nobody stopped, nobody cared.

Room by Caruso St. John.

Can I blame anybody for the lack of excitement? Probably not. I too wasn’t too happy seeing what I considered the saddest thing in the Biennale — The Fuji Kindergarten by Tezuka Architects. This 11-year-old project is featured on every existing architectural website, every biennale, triennale and quadrenniale in the world. And yet Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara curators of the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2018 managed somehow to squeeze this project to fit their theme ‘Freespace’. Terrific acrobatics.

But the most bizarre installation in the Biennale was by Dorte Mandrup. A very upraised piece on conditions of Greenland during the last days of the Biennale was worn-off to the level that I genuinely thought it was planned like that. Plaster, paint fallen off the walls, even the title text was damaged, holes in the floor. Not mentioning that everything white was dirty. I must say, it honestly looked awesome, until somebody explained to me that it was simply run-down. What a disappointment. Slowly decaying installation would have been great.

A room by Dorte Mandrup.

Most of the Biennale felt tired. Dutch pavilion was dirty and uninviting, Austrian — abandoned, Australian — barricaded exit doors with piles of dead plants and Romanian took an example from Junya Ishigami and placed notes ‘Non usare per favore‘ in Italian and ‘Please do not use!‘ in English on some of the installations. Let‘s be honest, Lithuania didn‘t shine here too. We also managed to kill some plants, but maybe it was less obvious in the all-consuming ambiguity of what we were exactly doing.

Australian pavilion.

In the end, only one pavilion managed to stand out — beyond my own belief it was Swiss. Honestly, I am very sceptical about what they did there — it seemed like an installation from a fun park. Even looking deeper — all of the experiences, differences in scales, proximity, basically everything, can be experienced in Venice. Just leave Biennale and you will find yourself in a Swiss pavilion! But nevertheless, I must take my hat off, because it was the only place where I could see happy smiling people. Professors, students, architects, Germans, everybody felt like children for a minute. It was pure joy this pavilion conveyed. And as you would expect from Swiss — it looked fresh, like it was built yesterday — it was probably the only place where you could still find clean white walls. Again, great job.

If the best pavilion would have been awarded at the closing ceremony — the winner would not have changed. At least this time. But I bet my ass that overall atmosphere and attitude would have been much different. If the pavilions, architects and curators would be forced to aim for longevity rather than the preview day, we would maybe at least see some real results. Instead, we are forced to read ambitious statements while surrounded by failed promises.

What did I learn about the Biennale by seeing the final days? Firstly, be careful with white colour, natural materials and fabrics — generally, they aren’t great for withstanding heavy traffic for six months. Secondly, the process is a difficult concept to exhibit, nobody did it right this time. I know, it is trendy to talk about it, so if you really must do it, at least do not promise things, because, in the end, it might look very different from your statements. Also, the jury gives awards at the beginning, so there is no point of promising to add and develop things throughout the Biennale. Thirdly, decay is a beautiful thing and should be embraced. Dorte Mandrup’s exhibition, in the end, felt perfect. Even smelly flooded carpets in the room with a beautiful video by Miller & Maranta gave extra meanings. And lastly, fewer architects pretending to solve Venice and world problems — the better for Venice.


[1] Horowitz, Jason. “Venice, Invaded by Tourists, Risks Becoming ‘Disneyland on the Sea’.” The New York Times. August 2, 2017. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/europe/venice-italy-tourist-invasion.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kim, Erika. “Junya Ishigami Wins Golden Lion for Best Project at the Venice Biennale.” Designboom. August 30, 2010. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://www.designboom.com/architecture/junya-ishigami-wins-golden-lion-for-best-project-at-the-venice-biennale/.