Venetian Blind – Hugh Pearman on how to make the most of the Venice Architecture Biennale

Now let me see. How many Venice Architecture Biennales have I been to? It could have been all of them, but it isn’t – I still kick myself that, as a stripling, I had the chance to go to the very first international one, the seminal, oft-referred-to “Presence of the Past” curated by Paolo Portoghesi in 1980, which ushered in the PostModern era with its “Strada Novissima” in the Arsenale buildings and had Aldo Rossi’s floating Teatro del Mondo in the lagoon. But I turned the gig down, on the grounds that it looked a bit weird, or cost a bit too much, or something, I forget. What idiot DOESN’T go to Venice, given the chance?

Me, it seems, because I only got into the Venice habit in 1991. That sticks in my mind because of Jim Stirling and Tom Muirhead’s little bookshop in the Biennale Gardens, which opened that year and is now a mini-pavilion in its own right, still looking excellent. Jim was there in his blue shirt and some kind of scarecrow-like sunhat, pronouncing the building to be “a bookship-boatshop” ready to sail off into the lagoon. Since then, I’ve been a regular.

This reminds me: ice-cream. It’s very important to keep your energy levels up at the Biennale. Because the Giardini with its many pavilions and the Arsenale are at the eastern end of the island, while your hotel and the various other venues will be anywhere else, you will walk miles, usually in searing heat and humidity. You fondly think you’ll go everywhere by vaporetto, but then the one you want doesn’t turn up or it’s too full of tourists when it does and they are surprisingly slow anyway.

What you really want is a rich friend who’ll lend you one of those zippy boat-taxis, because you’ll be impoverished if you pay for them yourself. But you haven’t got a rich friend, so you walk, and get lost and very tired. The architecture biennale may not quite be the vast sprawling thing that its art partner is in the alternating years, but it’s quite vast and sprawling enough, thank you. So you need, not only regular injections of the mandatory orange Aperol spritzes, but – if your body can take it – frequent doses of delicious ice cream. My favoured supplier is to be found on the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, strategically between the Giardini and the Arsenale.

Because the whole world of architecture comes to the Biennale, all you have to do is sit down somewhere near the main venues, and everyone will come past sooner or later. The key restaurant here, for obvious reasons, is the one closest to the doors of the Arsenale part of the exhibition. But you’ll feel the urge not to linger, to press on, to see as much as possible. Well, do that if you like, and pre-book loads of meetings with people at various venues and sign up for talks everywhere if you must, but I confess I don’t do Venice that way. I take the flaneur’s approach. Venetian Blind, you might call it. I take it as it comes, prepared to be delighted, surprised or disappointed. Often the latter. I swear I once did the whole vast Arsenale section in 30 minutes flat, so tedious was it.

This year’s is curated by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who is also this year’s Pritzker Prize winner. It’s one of the social-conscience Biennales (another, curated by Massimiliano Fuksas in 2000, was called “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics” which was pretty good though hard to pronounce). Title this time is “Reporting from the Front”. This is not about whizzy models of mega-buildings and sundry wonder-environments, rather issues – among them (quoting Aravena) “segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and community involvement.”

I’m pleased to see that they’re trying to discourage one of the Biennale’s continuing weaknesses – architects pretending they are installation artists when they are SO not – but I hope there’s space for some wit and joy among all the earnestness .

I’m sure we’ll find this in the British Pavilion, curated by young ‘uns Jack Self, Shumi Bose and Finn Williams with their “Home Economics” offering. Though experience tells me always to head for the French pavilion first, since they are excellent at the Bof! moment. Like the year the whole pavilion was inhabited (literally) by vegetable-chopping hippies, or the year when Jean Nouvel was in charge, and put a notice on the French pavilion directing you to a vaporetto moored outside, fitted out as some kind of boudoir. Somehow the Brits always seem a bit stuffed-shirt in contrast – our dauntingly aloof multi-compartmented pavilion does not help – though not this time I hope.

Some loftily ignore the national pavilions (always patchy) in favour of the central show, but not me, I love them. If in doubt, always check out the Belgians, Dutch, Greeks, Hungarians and Japanese as well as the French. There’s an all-new Australian pavilion this year, and the pavilions of Ireland (designing for dementia) Poland (the plight of the construction worker) and Turkey (links between the naval Arsenals of Istanbul and Venice) look well worth the visit. While as a supplement to the British Pavilion, I’m tempted by architect Alison Brooks’ look at the civic role of state-sponsored housing as part of the Time-Space-Existence exhibition at the Palazzo Mora, alongside architects from many other countries. And, obviously always seek out a selection of the promising looking fringe exhibitions scattered across the city. But don’t try to do everything, you won’t succeed and you’ll go mad if you try. And remember: the best architecture exhibition is all around you, all the time. It’s called Venice. Escape from the tourist/exhibition hotspots – it’s easy – and let the place wash over you.

Hugh Pearman is Editor of the RIBA Journal
@hughpearman