To market, to market: the Irish Pavilion pitches up in Venice

View of a high street shop interior in Bunclody
The Irish pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale is titled ‘Free market’. It examines the unique variations of rural towns in Ireland, focussing on the market square as a typology with lost potential. Pictured here, a high street shop interior in Bunclody.
(Image credit: Paul Tierney)

At the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, Ireland will use its pavilion to look closely at the country. Not at Dublin, where a growing tech hub hosts the headquarters of Google, Facebook and Twitter, and not at its national state recently thrust into headlines and conversations across the UK in the face of Brexit. Instead, the pavilion has set up shop in the market squares of declining rural towns taking a refreshingly useful and non-conceptual approach to a problem, and putting in the work to find out how it might be solved.

Titled ‘Free market’, in response to ‘Freespace’ the main theme chosen by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, the Irish Pavilion explores the typology of the market square through ten case-study towns across Ireland. Once a place for exchange and congregation, the market square has fallen into a period of decline due to the changing economy, the influx of cars, supermarket life and technological isolation.

Without critique, the exhibition charts historic data, documents contemporary life with photography and gets out onto the streets recording sounds and talking to people to build unique portraits of each town.

Irish Pavilion at 16th Venice architecture Biennale

The Star in Roscarbery, County Cork. @our.type

(Image credit: Trevor Finnegan)

The exhibition is driven by a collective of six curators – five from Ireland and one from the Netherlands – who banded together across common interests in urban life, design and research. They all knew each other somehow through different networks and connections: Laurence Lord and Orla Murphy teach together at the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy in University College Dublin. Lord also works with Tara Kennedy and Jeffrey Bolhuis at the Cork Centre for Architectural Education. Kennedy is a co-founder with Jo Anne Butler at Culturstruction, their collaborative architecture and design practice – and Miriam Delaney lectures at the Dublin School of Architecture, Dublin Institute of Technology, is connected in another way and seems to know everyone, somehow.

While the down-to-earth group bonded over common ground, they are each located in different parts of Ireland – which allowed the exhibition to gain its wide, yet detailed reach across the country. Instead of a ‘too many cooks moment’, it seems that group-thinking, breadth of skills and intellectual manpower has proved a productive combination.

The curators want to bring the experience of the Irish market place to Venice. It’s a post-modern idea that, in the midst of a Biennale buzzing with sustainable models and utopian ideals brings the international audience back down to reality, to the architecture and design that effects a majority on a daily basis – one in three people in Ireland live in a town after all. In terms of the UK and Brexit, architects and thinkers focussing on small town communities and rural problems is exactly what we need, perhaps other European countries can relate and avoid a similar crisis.

Ireland at the Venice Biennale

Kilrush town centre in County Clare. 

(Image credit: MAGNAPARTE © Free Market)

‘Free market’ aims to capture the sensation of being in a market square in Ireland, all inspired by the work of fiction writers, artists, poets and playwrights, the people who have lived and experienced life there and three commissioned soundscapes will be broadcast over the Free Market Radio.

Yet, the pavilion isn’t without future vision. The exhibition positions the market place as a site full of potential, a place of social, political and cultural exchange, central to community cohesion. Proposals for the spaces drawn up by designers and planners, as well as ideas from theorists, critics, policy makers, architects and planners will all meet at the pavilion. A free copy of the Free Market News brings together nearly 40 contributors who lay down ideas into print and bring in wider debates.

On the pavilion’s return to Ireland, the exhibition will journey back from whence it came, to market. It will set up in new formations with a temporary structure that will redesign itself in each context, continuing to grow, gathering and developing its breadth, experience and knowledge.

See all the latest news and stories from Venice Architecture Biennale here

View of Kilrush Town

Participant Towns include: Athenry, County Galway; Ballinrobe, County Mayo; Ballyshannon, County Donegal; Bunclody, County Wexford; Castleblayney, County Monaghan; Kilmallock, County Limerick; Kilrush, County Clare; Macroom, County Cork; Mountmellick, County Laois; Templemore, County Tipperary. Pictured here, a photograph from Kilrush Town. © Free Market

(Image credit: Paul Tierney)

Kilrush Square in County Clare

Kilrush Square in County Clare.

(Image credit: National Library of Ireland)

J. Mc Kiernan’s in Kingscourt, County Cavan

J. Mc Kiernan’s in Kingscourt, County Cavan. @our.type

(Image credit: Trevor Finnegan)

Bandon in County Cork

Bandon in County Cork.

(Image credit: National Library of Ireland)

Kilrush Town, Ireland

Kilrush Town. © Free Market

(Image credit: Paul Tierney)

Monaghan in Clones County

Monaghan in Clones County.

(Image credit: National Library Of Ireland)

Railway Bar in Banagher in County Offaly

Railway Bar in Banagher in County Offaly.  @our.type

(Image credit: Trevor Finnegan)

Newtownbarry Wexford (now Bunclody), Ireland

Newtownbarry Wexford (now Bunclody).

(Image credit: National Library of Ireland)

Peavoys in Kinnitty, County Offaly

Peavoys in Kinnitty, County Offaly. @our.type

(Image credit: Trevor Finnegan)


For more information, visit the Irish pavilion at Venice Architecture Biennale Free market website

Harriet Thorpe is a writer, journalist and editor covering architecture, design and culture, with particular interest in sustainability, 20th-century architecture and community. After studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Journalism at City University in London, she developed her interest in architecture working at Wallpaper* magazine and today contributes to Wallpaper*, The World of Interiors and Icon magazine, amongst other titles. She is author of The Sustainable City (2022, Hoxton Mini Press), a book about sustainable architecture in London, and the Modern Cambridge Map (2023, Blue Crow Media), a map of 20th-century architecture in Cambridge, the city where she grew up.