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The Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture


We are VERY EXCITED about today’s story, from our architectural columnist Stuart Harrison! Stuart has just returned from Venice, where he checked out the recently opened Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Australia’s national pavilion in Venice was designed by Melbourne based Denton Corker Marshall, and was constructed last year. Within this structure is a new exhibition, ‘The Pool‘, designed this year by young Sydney based architects Isabelle Toland and Amelia Holliday of Aileen Sage Architects and Michelle Tabet.

Today, Stuart shares his insights on both the pavilion itself, and the exhibition within. Almost as good as being there.


6th June, 2016
Stuart Harrison
Monday 6th June 2016

VENICE! A city that bustles with travellers and one that drips with architectural history. It also hosts the world’s leading architectural exhibition, the Venice Biennale of Architecture, which has just opened for its 15th year. The show is split mainly over two locations. The first in the luscious Giardini is a showcase of national pavilions. The second, located in the huge Arsenale (Venice’s former shipping building powerhouse), is a series of curated shows under this year’s overall creative director, Alejandro Aravena, current Pritzker Prize laureate.

Australia has a new national pavilion in the Giardini. Designed by Melbourne based Denton Corker Marshall, it is a bold black stone cube, sitting next to a canal. The new pavilion was ready in time for the opening of last year’s Art Biennale, and is a space designed for the controlled display of art – a white box sitting inside a black one.

Each year a different team is selected to be the creative directors of an ‘Australia exhibition’ within the pavilion. Young Sydney based architects Isabelle Toland and Amelia Holliday of Aileen Sage Architects and Michelle Tabet developed the concept of The Pool for this year’s show.

The exhibition explores idea of architecture, culture and Australian identity. It uses ‘the pool’ as a building type itself, and references notable Australians who have famously worked within or talked about pool-related things. The exhibition also explores its theme through the qualities of light and movement, and the memories the quintessential Australian pool has for all of us, from the moulded plastic backyard pools of our suburbs, to the outdoor Olympic pools where most Australian kids learn to swim.

Each country’s pavilion needs to deal with the idea of national identity, either by building on ideas of that nation or by critically rejecting them. In some ways, this year’s exhibit plays with ideas of Australian-ness associated with water, swimming, lifesaving and leisure. On the contrary, the new Pavilion that houses the exhibition itself, has tried to reject them. The Pavilion presents the idea that Australia is a cool sophisticated country that can do minimalism as well as anyone in the north.

The building itself is more than a black box – an entry ramp gives a series of shifting views as you walk up to the entry deck. The previous pavilion, designed by Philip Cox and now removed, also had a deck – the new one learns from this, with a slightly bigger outdoor space on which to sit and relax. One of the more dramatic aspects of the new building is a giant flap-like shutter than opens onto the canal side. This gives much needed light and views from the interior, and this year’s exhibit makes the most of this.

The exhibition puts a pool inside the pavilion, creating a wonderful immersive environment within the gallery’s tall main space. Here the shallow water reflects on the walls and ceiling, decorating these large white surfaces with the effects of water, used as both material and light feature.

But can you get into the pool? Yes! During the opening events, kids and a few older ones got into the water, and instinctively knew what to do: Play. Wet footprints marked the pool’s edge for a time.

Scattered throughout the gallery and out on the deck are new custom design chairs. The Anerle-Aneme chair is steel framed with blue bands of fabric. It’s the result of a collaboration with indigenous fabricators, and designed by Alice Springs based designer, Elliat Rich. There is space to sit, where the sounds of voices talking around the pool can be heard. Those voices are of eight significant Australians who have contributed their stories of the pool. It’s a powerful listing of living legends, from Christos Tsiolkas to Anna Funder to Tim Flannery to Ian Thorpe. Each of these voices fade in and out, overlaying conversations within the atmospheric space.

The room’s back wall is spread with raw timber bleachers, recalling those of older public pools, a great place to sit and watch the theatre of the water. Fitzroy Pool in Melbourne is strongly recalled, as written on a brilliant blue painted wall are the famous words ‘DANGER DEEP WATER: AQUA PROFONDA’ – a recreation of the heritage-listed signage at Fitzroy. As the story told in the excellent accompanying exhibition book goes, the 1950s pool manager had the sign made to warn Italian kids – but ‘AQUA’ is misspelt. (The correct spelling is ‘acqua’ – ‘aqua’ is the Latin spelling). In a nod of respect to the much loved original sign in Melbourne, the typo remains.

Interior of The Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Exhibition design by Aileen Sage Architects and Michelle Tabet. Photo – Brett Boardman.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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