If the Venice Architecture Biennale is anything to go by (and it is, arguably, the field’s biggest worldwide celebration), then for architecture, the days of loud manifestos and grand gestures may be behind us. Building up on a series of biennales that took a more humanistic approach, this year, Venice was all about subtle drama, human connections, textures, history, and free, open spaces for improvisation – all orchestrated around the curators’ chosen theme, Freespace. 

Grafton Architects directors and 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale co-curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s call for architects to elaborate on the idea of architecture’s power to enlist and transform in-between, unassuming and possibly neglected areas into essential space for living and enjoying, received a rich variety of responses from architects from all over the world, making the displays at Arsenale and the Central Pavilion a rewarding and thought-provoking experience. This is not a biennale about the high profile and luxurious, rather about small projects that make a big impact in everyday life, schemes that may appear modest but offer not only inspiration, but also positivity and ‘generosity of spirit’.

The vast and dimly lit Corderie galleries were bustling with installations, ranging from films to models and specially constructed large-scale pavilions. Displays felt immersive and informative, yet not overwhelming – 71 firms took part this year in the curated section, compared to the 88 participants of Alejandro Aravena’s 2016 show. Explorations on the use of landscape and nature, housing, history, and, inevitably, public space, are common themes throughout. However Freespace’s opened-ended nature invites different readings.

In a – perhaps unconscious – gesture to honour the host country, contemporary Italian architecture felt highlighted with works by Aurelio Galfetti, Cino Zucchi, Francesca Torzo, Laura Peretti, and Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo. 

Equally well represented were Britain and Ireland, the selection from which offered a real who’s who of the more contemporary and pragmatic thread of modernism – a strand of architecture that Grafton’s own work is also a natural part of. Caruso St John, 6a, Sergison Bates, Niall McLaughlin, Hall McKnight and O’Donnell + Tuomey famously favour a sharp – if not on occasion austere – modernism based on craft and texture that is palpably present during this year’s Freespace show, where the architects’ painstaking attention to materials, light and proportion shines through.  

Of course, this exhibition is not just about Europe – Pritzker-prize winner Wang Shu and his partner Lu Wenyu’s Amateur Architecture Studio occupies a prominent entrance spot with their photos and drawings of Chinese landscapes, while the 2016 biennale’s curator Aravena and his office, Elemental, also take part. Further offerings come from all corners of the globe, such as Australia’s John Wardle Architects, India’s Matharoo Associates, China’s Vector Architects, Vietnam’s VTN Architects, Brazil’s Grupo SP and Peter Rich Architects from South Africa. 

Established names, such as Souto de Moura, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, SANAA, David Chipperfield, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Studio Gang, and Peter Zumthor are also part of the event – with Souto de Moura winning the Golden Lion for best participant with a pair of stunning aerial shots of his Alentejo project, São Lourenço do Barrocal estate. Yet their presence does not overshadow the overarching theme, allowing the participants’ spatial reflections take centre stage. ‘Starchitecture’ was mostly noticeably present only by its absence, although the accents it has provided in the past were arguably missed, as there was a certain uniformity, at least in scale, among this year’s otherwise undoubtedly beautiful installations.

Even so, Farrell and McNamara’s down-to-earth and open approach is firmly optimistic and thoroughly welcome, highlighting all the weird and wonderful projects that often go overlooked but deserve to be seen and celebrated. ‘Architecture is by its nature optimistic’, the pair told us in a recent interview. ‘We would like to think that the work presented in the Biennale will stimulate discussion of space itself and the value of sharing.’§

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RELATED TOPICS: VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE, IRISH ARCHITECTURE, ARCHITECTURE EXHIBITIONS