Piazza (square) San Marco with the Colonna (Column) di San Marco during the Acqua Alta (High Tide), on the background the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
Piazza San Marco during an ‘acqua alta’ (high tide) © Getty

The British pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s Giardini site sits on a small hill. It is, apparently, the city’s only hill, built on the rubble of demolished structures. Perhaps, one day, it will be the only building above sea level. The rest will be a watery graveyard, punctuated by the occasional dome or campanile.

That is pretty much the image the designers of this year’s British effort — the artist Marcus Taylor and architects Caruso St John — had in mind. Describing “Island”, Peter St John says, “The idea was to not hold an exhibition but instead transform the pavilion into a place. We’ve left the pavilion abandoned, as an empty shell with the remnants of the last Biennale inside and built a platform on scaffolding on top, like a piazza with a beautiful view out over the lagoon.

“At 4 o’clock every day,” St John continues, “tea will be served from a trolley designed by Marcus.” It is a magical proposal. The problem of how to show architecture inside a pavilion in the city with the most beautiful architecture in the world is only rarely resolved, but this structure, at 30 sq metres, is a significant public realm — a combination of performance space, tea room terrace, viewing platform, party venue and a metaphor for the end of the world.

“The idea of the island is ambivalent, as a place of isolation but also sanctuary or refuge,” says St John. In this case, too, the title carries metaphors for contemporary Britain that are too obvious to need outlining.

And for Venice itself, of course. It was the wealthy trading city that exiled itself from the mainland and set itself up as something apart, a city of fairy tales and unimaginable decadence. These days, it is a city slowly emptying of indigenous residents, displaced by tourists and wealthy foreigners.

"The iconic emblem of Venice, the church Santa Maria della Salute, symbolises Venice under repair."
A scaffolded Santa Maria della Salute church © Getty Images/iStockphoto

But apart from the inevitable spectres of Brexit, self-imposed exile and a former seafaring empire obsessed with its past, this exquisitely simple idea also embodies a wealth of other references. In the scaffolding, St John sees “Venice’s history of masques and events in public spaces” and he refers to Aldo Rossi’s spectacular “Teatro del Mondo” (1979), a floating tower of scaffolding clad in timber, which is surely the single greatest image of the architecture Biennale.

But I also see, in the scaffolding, the grids of the tubular structures put up so Venetians can get around during the acqua alta, the ad hoc timber platform terraces they set up on their roofs (known as altana) and the dense forests of scaffolding that greet you as you finally discover that obscure church with the fresco and find it shut and In restauro. The lightweight architecture of the late Cedric Price is also there — the idea of a fun palace in which the architecture is endlessly adaptable.

Scaffolding is the language of construction, the sign that something is happening; it is embodied potential and a beautiful thing in its own right. And like the Biennale, its beauty is precisely in its impermanence and seeming fragility. It is architecture’s cocoon.

Although the platform, the huge new stairsand the scaffolding surrounding the pavilion will be the main attraction, the decision to leave the interior empty is just as fascinating. Or not quite empty, but bearing the traces of the last exhibition held in it, Phyllida Barlow’s show at the Biennale of Art last year.

Partially submerged by backwaters of Hemavathy reservoir, Holy Rosary Church at Shettyhalli. Island, Holy Rosary Church at Shettihalli, © British Council designed by John Morgan Studio, photo by Bhaskar Dutta
Holy Rosary Church at Shettyhalli, India, which served as inspiration for this year’s British pavilion © Bhaskar Dutta/British Council/John Morgan Studio

Many of the national pavilions embody the often difficult histories and representations of different moments in their respective nations’ ideas of themselves. The nearby German pavilion of 1909 was heavily revamped in 1938 by the Nazis, who also inaugurated Austria’s pavilion (designed by Josef Hoffmann). Britain’s building was originally designed as a tea house and adapted in 1909 by the architect Edwin Alfred Rickards (designer of Cardiff City Hall). Its rebirth as a national symbol came at the high point of empire and that confident pompousness is inscribed in its fabric.

Perhaps because of the density of stimulus at the Biennale some of the most memorable national pavilions have played precisely on the surprise — perhaps even the relief — of finding an empty space. A decade ago, the architects Kersten Geers and David van Severen audaciously left the lofty Belgian pavilion empty, painting its stark walls white and leaving a layer of pink confetti, looking a little like a carpet of cherry blossom petals on the concrete floor. Given the name After the Party it was cool in all senses of the word, a space of retreat and repose among the noisy, attention-seeking exhibits.

It was, for me, probably the most memorable of all pavilions. Emptiness can allow you to see the otherwise obscured aspects of the architecture, the light and shade, the qualities of space or, in this case, the layers of occupation and use.

Taylor and Caruso St John’s pavilion hedges its bets. With its platform, its tea and a programme of events, including choreography by Wayne McGregor, poetry from Kate Tempest, Shakespeare in Italian (from a company that usually performs in Venetian supermarkets) as well as public conversation events with architects, it aims to balance the emptiness with carefully curated culture. Like many of the most intriguing projects, it is as much about the city, about the nature — and the future — of Venice, as it is about itself.

National Pavilions: highlights from the Venice Biennale

Emirati pavilion

A sikka/alleyway in downtown Abu Dhabi is claimed for prayers. 

Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia.

The UAE’s pavilion examines the importance of a human scale in building design and planning — not something often associated with the region’s ultra-high-rise centres. The curators seek to show how everyday landscapes—urban blocks, streets and squares—shape social activity, as in this picture, which shows a sikka (alleyway) in downtown Abu Dhabi that has been claimed for prayers.

Korean pavilion

Choon Choi,Paradise Lost 100 Days of Ennui, Desire, and Privation,2018 ©Choon Choi

Choon Choi’s “Paradise Lost 100 Days of Ennui, Desire, and Privation” (2018) is part of Spectres of the State Avantgarde, an “imagined archive” of design projects by the real-life Korea Engineering Consultants Corp, which was established in 1963 to project an image of state power through architecture and engineering.

Finnish pavilion

Pavilion of Finland

Credit Ugo Carmeni/
Frame Contemporary Art Finland

The Alvar Aalto-designed space (pictured) will be transformed into a temporary library to “celebrate Finland’s love affair with public libraries”. The exhibition, Mind-Building, responds to the Venice Biennale’s Freespace theme by tracing the development of Finnish library architecture.

Concilio Europeo dell’Arte


Old town of Bagnoregio

Italian Pavilion

Borghi of Italy — #NO(F)EARTHQUAKE, a collateral event at the InParadiso Art Gallery in the Giardini, documents five Italian villages affected by seismic events—including Civita di Bagnoregio (pictured), a hilltop borgo known as “the dying town” for its susceptibility to earthquakes, landslides and floods. In recent years, part of the hillside has been secured.

Russian pavilion

Kievsky Station, 1936, Arkady Shaikhet

Russian Pavilion, Venice Biennale

Courtesy Arkady Shaikhet

Station Russia looks at the past, present and future of the Russian railway. Criss-crossing the largest country in the world, some of these trainlines run through uninhabitable landscapes where roads cannot be built. This image, taken by Arkady Shaikhet in 1936, depicts Kievsky Station in Moscow.

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