My article on the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture appeared in Condè Nast Traveler, May 2018.
Our guide to the very best of the seven-month architecture festival taking over Venice this year.
The Biennale Architettura 2018, or Venice Architecture Biennale, is an architect’s dream—but it’s also a design adventure for visitors, a temporary theme park for interactive and experimental works. Running through November 25, the event turns the entire Venetian archipelago into a playground of events, plus permanent and semi-permanent pavilions and projects that transform historic palazziand parks into design destinations. Here’s our guide to making sense of it all.
The event centers around the Giardini, or the Biennale Gardens, a park where you’ll find the original national pavilions, a potluck of architecture from the early 1910s to today that includes projects from Australia, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
The Central Pavilion, also at the Gardens, is the main stage for this edition of the Biennale, which is based around the theme of Free Space. Biennale curators Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin’s Grafton Architects chose the theme, but what exactly does it mean? “It’s the paradigm of architecture,” says McNamara of the concept. "It's a question about the absence and presence of architecture."
In all, there are 63 national pavilions—and more than 70 architects—at the Biennale that explore the concept, but these six are among the most interesting:
- Another Generosity, at the Nordic Pavilion (which reps Finland, Norway, and Sweden), you’ll find large membrane-like balloons, filled with water and air, that deflate and inflate as viewers walk through the space, a meditation on the relationship between nature and the built environment.
- Dimension of Citizenship, at the U.S. Pavilion, consists of installations, films, and talks that explore "spatial understandings of citizenship," organizers say, at a time when "questions of belonging, of who should be included and how, are posed with every athlete taking a knee, every #metoo, every presidential tweet, and every protest sign or fist raised."
- Robabecciah: The Informal City, at the Egypt Pavilion, is a almost sculptural installation of “old junk,” or robabecciah, showcasing Egypt’s historic “spontaneous” markets.
- UNES-CO, at the Czech/Slovak Pavilion, a futuristic welcome center where the backdrop is a screen showing a live feed of the Czech city of Český Krumlov, which has seen the population in its historic center drop dramatically in part because of an influx of tourists in recent years. The feed shows 15 couples and families who are being paid to live in the city full time.
- Isola/Island, at the U.K. Pavilion, focuses on themes of isolation—both environmental and deliberately man-made—as well as questions of identity, both top of mind in post-Brexit Europe.
- Svizzera240 House Tour, at the Swiss Pavilion, is a bit of a voyeuristic spin on architecture shows: As exhibitors put it: “What is built within the Swiss Pavilion is not a 'house' but a house tour: interior scenes are constructed at a range of different scales and spliced together, creating a labyrinthine sequence of interior perspectives.”
Meanwhile, the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard, hosts the Corderie, a nearly 400-meter corridor that expands the Free Space exhibition; the neighboring warehouses host newer pavilions, including those of China, Italy, and Kosovo.
More Must Sees
- Woodland Chapels, the Vatican’s first ever entry in the Architecture Biennale, is both pilgrimage and installation. To visit, take a Line 2 vaporetto to the beautiful island of San Giorgio, where you’ll find 10 chapels designed by a dozen architects including Andrew Berman, Sir Norman Foster, Carla Juaçaba, and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
- Environmental Justice as a Civil Right, at the Antigua & Barbuda Pavilion, the nation’s first entry to the Biennale, is set in the 15th-century Don Orione Artigianelli monastery on Dorsoduro. The pavilion explores sustainability, including the use of local materials and the importance of public parks—and the redevelopment of Barbuda, after the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
- 1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, recalls the the 1948 Biennale. Greece pulled out, and Peggy stepped in with a Carlo Scarpa–designed exhibit of 136 works; this year, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection celebrates its 70th anniversary by partially recreating the exhibition and bringing together works—from the likes of Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Jackson Pollock—which have not been seen in Venice in decades.
- John Ruskin: The Stones of Venice, at the Doge’s Apartment in the Doge’s Palace, brings to life Ruskin’s three-volume tome on Venetian art and architecture through paintings, including Ruskin’s own watercolors.
- Machines à Penser, at Fondazione Prada, in the ornate Ca’ Corner alla Regina, explores the ideas of exile and escape, with contemporary pieces inspired by (or reacting to) the work of the philosophers Adorno, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.
Where to Refuel
In the morning, hit Gran Caffe Quadri, the centuries-old coffee shop in St. Mark’s Square, that’s a favorite of local resident (and architecture superstar) Philippe Starck: “It’s a powerful concentration of mystery, beauty, oddity, and poetry,” he says of the famed coffeehouse. (In the evening, you can do dinner upstairs at Ristorante Quadri, the lavish and whimsical Michelin-star restaurant that he designed.)
Book ahead for lunch, since the Biennale crowds often fill Corte Sconta, a tiny Venetian trattoria with private garden, and Local, a former electrical shop gutted and transformed into a minimalist locavore restaurant. AMO, the atrium restaurant at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, is another Starck-designed choice near the Rialto Bridge.
Navigating the show
The best plan is to split your visit over two days. Start at the Giardini, visiting the central pavilion before branching off to the other country-specific entries; focus your second day on the remaining pavilions and the Arsenale. If you’ve got more time, spend it on off-site pavilions like the Vatican’s or seeing the contemporaneous shows around town.
The Biennale runs through November 25, and locations are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are €25 ($29) and grant a single admission to each of exhibition venues. You can buy tickets ahead of time online.
Where to stay
The Aman Venice, set in two restored centuries-old palazzi, feels like its own architectural show. The Palazzo Venart Luxury Hotel is a sleeper favorite of Condé Nast Traveler editors that was on the Hot List in 2017. On the island of Giudecca, and a short (free) ferry ride from St. Mark’s Square, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is perfect if you prefer quiet—and it has what’s got to be the biggest swimming pool in Venice.