Understanding the Venice Pavilions

VENICE • THE SETTING FOR ART PRESENTATIONS


Surrounded by the green of the park, the pavilions represent a collection of high-value 20th-century examples of architecture, led by the nation’s best architects, including Hoffmann, Rietveld, Scarpa and Giacometti.

 

The traditional site of La Biennale Art Exhibitions, the Giardini was originally a French garden created for Napoleon, who is said to be one of Venice’s worst enemies in history. When Napoleon left the city, the garden was available for use but no Venetians were inclined to.

In 1895, the Giardini became home to the Biennale with great success. The Biennale organisers then encouraged other countries to build their own pavilions to present artworks from their country, with the understanding that each nation would itself be responsible for all the costs of construction, upkeep and programming, but would get a chance to present at the Biennale. Until 1905, the exhibition was all concentrated in this building where artists from any country exhibited together, without division. Belgium was first, inaugurating its pavilion in 1907, followed by Britain, Hungary and Germany in 1909. Now there are 29 national pavilions, with each nation presented through its own pavilion. 

Curators and artists needed to adapt their requirements to the pavilion, and just as every nation changes over time, over the course of decades, the pavilions underwent numerous additions and transformations. In this way, the architectural structures of the pavilions exhibiting the art became part of the art experience itself.

Although pavilions do change over time, and therefore sometimes cannot be recognisable, they still carry the original spirit of design within them. 

The original Biennale building was called “Pro Arte” when its construction began in 1894. It was built by the Town Council architect Enrica Trevisanato, with a liberty facade designed by Marius de Maria. 


Austria Pavillon by JOSEF HOFFMAN

Austria expressed the intention to build its own pavilion in 1910, but the plan was only implemented two decades later and the pavilion inaugurated in 1934. Designed by Josef Hoffman and Robert Kramreiter, the pavilion reflects Hoffmann’s distinct style and favour of clean lines and emphasises the use of simple shapes. It is characterised by containing both modern and classical forms, and is considered to be an ideal exhibition space.

With this refined style, Joseph Hoffmann quickly became Vienna’s most popular architect, incorporating a revolutionary minimal style in the early 1900s, steering away from the florals and frills of the then popular Art Nouveau.

From the moment you enter the building, you see two rooms that repeat, as though inverted in a mirror, super symmetrically separated from each other. This double presentation is so symmetrical that, when you enter, you may not know which way to turn, but apparently experience shows that most people turn to the right first. Here comes the argument made in modern architecture, and asymmetry is recommended for that very reason.

After Austria’s Anschluss* 1 with Germany, the Austria Pavilion was offered for sale and temporarily used as a storage space for Italian film productions by Cinecittà while Austrian artists exhibited in the German Pavilion. In 1948, after World War II, Austria returned to its own national pavilion.

In 1984, exactly 50 years after its construction, the Pavilion was completely renovated under Hans Hollein, who carefully restored the building to its original state. For example, the glass doors introduced in the 1950s were again replaced by roll-up doors in line with the ideas of Josef Hoffmann.


Dutch Pavilion by GERRIT RIETVELD

Found at the entrance of the Giardini, Gerrit Rietveld designed this pavilion as a small-scale museum with the apparent intention and anticipation that artists would use it in the way it was conceived. But according to the Rietveld Pavilion Foundation, the pavilion was “not only hit hard by its incidental extensive use, but also the long periods of disuse and the abundant rainfall which can happen in Venice”. Therefore, on the occasion of the 93rd Aperto Biennale, a fundamental restoration was completed, intended to make more intensive use of the pavilion in the future. 

The pavilion actually consists of a single square with all the walls available as exhibition space. When Willem Sandberg, the then-director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, saw the pavilion in 1954, he wrote a note to Rietveld saying: 

‘Dear Riet, this morning we were in your pavilion: it is perfect — you made a small space great. It is the most beautiful space I know.’

The pavilion has gained great international prestige, and the Rietveld Pavilion Foundation believes that the building will always be an exponent of the Netherlands Architectural Heritage, and will remain an appropriate setting for the presentation of Dutch culture.  


Swiss Pavilion by BRUNO GIACOMETTI 

In 1951, Bruno Giacometti, brother of the famous sculptor, won the competition for the Swiss Pavilion to be built in the Venice Biennale. Interestingly, Max Bill, the avant-garde painter and sculptor, submitted an almost identical project to the same competition.

A latecomer in the pavilion series, the Swiss Pavilion is different to other pavilions. Firstly, it has a lot of greenery. Giacometti studied the relationship between nature and the space before he started building the pavilion in 1952.

His idea was to create modern architecture that could maximise the greenery and light of the park and enhance the spatial impact of the pavilion’s interior, while not impairing the serenity of Giardini. 

The most striking feature of the pavilion is not immediately obvious. Although designed as an exhibition space for different and changing collections of artworks, the pavilion is essentially a miniature version of a modern art museum, with a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery and garden, and a much smaller and more intimate connecting gallery which houses prints and drawings. Each of these spaces responds to daylight in a slightly different way, and the architectural elements are shaped in such a way as to avoid detracting from the works of art themselves. Giacometti divided the space to create separate volumes, which, in a composition which could be described as playful, he then placed underneath the park’s leafy canopy.

In an unrelated but interesting fact, apparently the famous sculptor Alberto Giacometti turned down all requests to exhibit in the Swiss Pavilion for the Biennale, even though his brother Bruno designed the building. In 1952, Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to make changes to the main, and largest, Biennale building, the Italian pavilion (originally designed in 1932 by Duilio Torres), and he designed the Sculpture Garden. The garden is within a patio of the Italian Pavilion and creates a new rectangular courtyard within the existing building, and Scarpa removed some of the previously built smaller rooms to make a new transition space where visitors could relax in the garden-court between exhibits. Overall, the design plays with light, shadow, water and greenery. Three heavy, elliptical columns support a canopy roof which is shaped as though three circles have been removed from a rectangle. The garden has not been in use for many years and was completely restored only recently.


Italian Sculpture Garden by CARLO SCARPA

In 1952, Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to make changes to the main, and largest, Biennale building, the Italian pavilion (originally designed in 1932 by Duilio Torres), and he designed the Sculpture Garden. The garden is within a patio of the Italian Pavilion and creates a new rectangular courtyard within the existing building, and Scarpa removed some of the previously built smaller rooms to create a new transition space where visitors could relax in the garden-court between exhibits.

Overall, the design plays with light, shadow, water and greenery. Three heavy, elliptical columns support a canopy roof which is shaped as though three circles have been removed from a rectangle.

 

1 Anschluss: A united Austria and Germany that would form a ‘Greater Germany’.



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