There is always something of a festive atmosphere in the Giardini. Compared to the dark, dense atmosphere of the Arsenale’s long, long halls, the Giardini is a bucolic paradise, with the often eccentric national pavilions scattered around a large mature park. The various national curators all interpret the main theme with varying degrees of fidelity, bringing their architectural A-game in a city-wide contest of gentle one-upmanship.

Over the past decade, the world of architecture has become a little less male and mono-cultural and 2018’s curators, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Ireland’s Grafton Architects, marked only the second occasion that women have helmed the Biennale over 16 events. This year, the one-upmanship was also challenged by a spontaneous 100-strong presentation by women architects, standing before the Central Pavilion in a call for greater representation. Venice is usually awash with starchitects and their entourages, but for the most part, the old guard were conspicuously absent, implying that diversity could finally be making headway.

McNamara and Farrell’s theme of ‘Freespace’ was open to a wide variety of interpretations, especially in an age when doubling down against borders and marking territory is more pervasive and problematic than ever. Their definition – ‘a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself’ – shaped the work on display along the 300m length of the Arsenale, an infamously arduous slog through the trenches of current architectural discourse. The Giardini, on the other hand, feels like less of a trek. For a start, it’s already an architectural zoo of some distinction, with the various permanent national pavilions presenting a hugely diverse journey through 20th-century architecture, and that’s before you’ve even factored in the various curated displays.

The Giardini’s centrepiece, the Central Pavilion, features overspill from the Arsenale. This included a stunning display of Peter Zumthor’s meticulous architectural models, each an architectural project in its own right as an exploration of materials and space. It was a highlight in amongst an expansive series of installations, covering topics ranging from architectural history to traditional techniques.

This year more than ever there was space to breathe, aided by the addition of temporary viewing platforms on the Hungarian and British pavilions. The latter stirred up a few simmering issues about the UK’s imminent departure from Europe, with its symbolically empty pavilion intended as a platform for all the other participants to use it for events. The Belgian pavilion, too, recast its interior as a metaphor for the staging of a continent-wide body, pledging unity and co-operation through physical space.

Australia’s pavilion featured 10,000 plants to symbolise the country’s vanishing natural landscape. Curated by Mauro Baracco and Louise Wright, of Baracco+Wright Architects, it was an oasis of green that made its point with succinct simplicity. Others chose to bombard visitors with stats and information – the Spanish pavilion was a case in point, while Encore Heureux’s ‘Infinite Places’ was a chaotic but engaging exploration of the architecture of re-use. Germany took a similar tack, albeit with crisper and more corporate presentation, tracking the myriad spaces created out of the country’s challenging history of rupture and reunification.

Switzerland’s pavilion received the Golden Lion by playing to the crowd with shifting scales and genuinely playful interaction between the visitor and the space. Alessandro Bosshard, together with Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara, pulled out all the stops, transforming crisp Swiss design into an environment rife with uncertainty, the uncanny valley of expectation. In stark contrast, Korea’s plunge into the complexities of the country’s state-sponsored modernism demanded careful attention. Russia’s typically bravado display celebrated the nation’s monumental rail system, while America, with its show entitled ‘Dimensions of Citizenship’, slathered the stark black and white realities of modern American discourse with the kind of complex nuance that only architecture can provide.

Elsewhere in the Giardini, Japan’s pavilion was a treasure trove of beautiful, dense drawings, curated by Momoyo Kaijima of Atelier Bow Wow and Laurent Stalder and Yu Iseki. Exploring buildings, their relationship with people and their surroundings, it was a space that rewarded careful, considered studying. The Nordic pavilion’s ‘Another Generosity’ marked the return of the blob, with four colossal balloons filling Sverre Fehn’s refined concrete space, reacting in scale depending on the surrounding climate. The Dutch pavilion, Work, Body, Leisure, set out aspects of the Netherlands’ architectural and social history, all housed in a playful maze of orange lockers.

The fringes of the Giardini are where Brazil, Austria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Egypt and Greece can be found, along with Venice’s own pavilion. The latter presented a big data overview of a city with centuries of history as a pivotal hub of economics, art and intellectualism. Brazil took a similarly dense approach to information, presenting ten vast infographics that approached the quality of abstract paintings. At the neo-classical Greek pavilion, ‘The School of Athens,’ curated by Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser, showed 56 models of academic ‘common spaces’ in an installation that seemed to embody the Biennale’s approach; built space is contiguous, but it’s the forms and appearances of separation that define our experience and identity.§

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