Every two years, the Venice Biennale is dedicated to contemporary architecture, but the 29 national pavilions in the Giardini are themselves a type of permanent architecture exhibition, a collection of buildings representing different periods and styles from all over the world.
Let’s take a tour around the Giardini to trace a history of modern architecture within this small world.
A classic salon
The Biennale was established in 1895 and the first foreign pavilion built was that of Belgium in 1907, which, like many others, was later rebuilt.
The oldest ones still in their original form are the British pavilion (built in 1909 by Edwin Alfred Rickards) and the French pavilion (1912, by Faust Finzi), both showcasing the classical taste that dominated official and public buildings at the time. Even from the point of view of the visual arts, the Biennale was still a “conservative” exhibition, and in 1910 a work by Picasso was removed from the show for being too modern!
The classical trend would remain popular until the 1930s, as clearly exemplified by the pavilion of the United States, which was inspired by the Renaissance villas built by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century.
The first expression of modern architecture in the Giardini can be found in the Austrian pavilion of 1934. A late project by Josef Hoffmann, one of the protagonists of the Vienna Secession, it introduces the concept of the exhibition space as a “white cube”: a simple, symmetrical structure leaving decorations aside to enhance the works of art displayed inside it.
Shortly thereafter, in 1938, Germany too rebuilt its pavilion with the aim of celebrating the Third Reich. Even if much discussed, this project by Ernst Haiger has remained almost the same since then, as an “admonishing memorial stone”² for the history of the country.
During the postwar period several important pavilions were rebuilt by prominent architects of the time.
Gerrit Rietveld, who, like Piet Mondrian, was a member of De Stijl, created the new Dutch pavilion in 1954. While some critics of the time criticized it for being just “a big box”, we now appreciate its simple shape and the homogeneously lit inner space.
Also in 1954, Carlo Scarpa designed the pavilion for Venezuela. The decision to assign the project to the Venetian master was due to the commissioner of the pavilion, the Italian Graziano Gasparini, being a student of Scarpa’s and an honorary citizen of Venezuela. The attention to detail, the addition of an outdoor exhibition space, and the windows in the ceiling creating direct contact with the sky are all peculiar elements of Scarpa’s style of architecture.
In 1956 Alvar Aalto designed the Finnish Pavilion. Still in use today, it is a tiny wooden building originally meant to be a temporary, foldable structure to be stored after the exhibition and reused during the following one, while Finland awaited the construction of a proper Scandinavian Pavilion.
Sweden, Norway and Finland finally had their pavilion built in 1961. The project was designed by Norwegian Sverre Fehn, and it is one of the greatest achievements in the Giardini. Displaying a “stupefying simplicity”³, the pavilion achieves perfect integration with the natural environment. Built around the trees that were there before the construction, two sides of the hall are completely transparent thanks to big glass windows. The special brise-soleil system used in the ceiling allows constant natural light inside the pavilion.
Since the construction of the Nordic pavilion, only two other national pavilions have been built in the Giardini area: the pavilions of Australia and Korea.
The Korean pavilion was created in 1996 as a collaborative project between Seok Chul Kim and Venetian Franco Mancuso. The building partially reuses an older construction that existed on top of an artificial hill facing the lagoon. In such a privileged location, the pavilion uses transparent walls and wooden screens to provide shade, appearing completely immersed in the nature around it.
The first Australian pavilion, built in 1988, was completely rebuilt last year (2015), thus becoming the newest national pavilion of the Biennale. This project by Denton-Corker-Marshall is no “white cube” anymore but a “black box”: gently introduced by a path and terrace on one side, on the other it appears as a solid object overlooking the canal.
1 from: Marco Mulazzani, “I padiglioni della biennale di Venezia”, Mondadori Electa, Milano 2004.
2 Jörg Haspel, “The German Pavilion Revisited”, http://commonpavilions.com/pavilion-germany.html
3 Gotthard Johansson quoted in Marco Mulazzani, “I padiglioni della biennale di Venezia”, Mondadori Electa, Milano 2004.