Dionisio González’s ‘Hotel Bauer’ (2011), from the series ‘Venezia (Las Horas Claras)’
Dionisio González’s ‘Hotel Bauer’ (2011), from the series ‘Venezia (Las Horas Claras)’

“Freespace,” write the curators of this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, “celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project.” The Irish architects Grafton (Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell) have set a brief vague enough to embrace all architects who believe their work is a contribution to the city as well as to culture, which most almost certainly do.

But at its core the statement affirms something critical — that all architecture has an impact, positive or negative, on the public realm. The least architecture can do, they suggest, is to give something back. They point to a bench cantilevered from the wall of the Palazzo Medici in Florence as a gesture to public space. But the bench was also a way for the Medicis to make their petitioners wait in full view, appearing tiny against the giant walls. What can look like generosity is often something very different.

The Architecture Biennale has historically oscillated between two poles. One is the building, the object; the other is the space in between. This opposition was there in the exhibition’s earliest incarnations. In 1979, Aldo Rossi’s exquisite floating theatre embodied the ultimate symbolic object, yet it suggested the theatrical nature of the city of Venice itself, a place in which the public persona has always been performed. In 1980, the “Strada Novissima” became the centre of a Biennale entitled The Presence of the Past, introducing the world to the language of postmodernism by lining up façades to create an indoor simulacrum of a street. Subsequent efforts have tended either towards a celebration of architecture as thing (its formal or haptic qualities) in one year, or the social and physical complexity of the city in another.

This year, Farrell and McNamara draw the two together to suggest that the civic realm is the “significant other” of architecture. It is an entreaty to architects to think beyond their own shape- and myth-making. Of course, almost all architects already suggest that they are remaking the public realm. They talk about the street and the square, piazzas and pavement cafés, social mixing and the civic realm. Vibrant public space has become a developer’s cliché — but in most cases, it is not fully considered as part of the city but merely as an add-on to the development in question.

Aldo Rossi 'Teatro del Mondo', 1979, Venice Biennale Credit: Aldo Rossi Foundation
Aldo Rossi’s floating ‘Teatro del Mondo’ at the Venice Biennale, 1979 © Francesco Dal Co/Aldo Rossi Foundation

So it’s intriguing that the Irish pavilion at the Irish-curated Biennale concentrates on the slow death of the Irish town square. Rather than focus on the buildings, it looks at the spaces: the mostly empty places that once held markets and livestock auctions, that once buzzed with the aftermath of holy communions and processions and are now underused and unloved.

There is an enjoyable perversity in bringing an exhibition about Irish squares to Venice. The photographs gathered by the curators show a procession of bleak, empty spaces surrounded by defiantly ordinary architecture. But take a look at the historic photos: Kilrush in County Clare has its square filled with donkeys and carts, chickens, ad hoc booths and clumps of (mainly men) in flat caps, chatting and passing the time. Today, it is a blank pedestrianised space devoid of people or animals and adorned only by a few parked cars. An old picture of Carrickmacross in County Monaghan on fair day shows a wide street rammed with cattle, people and carts. Another depicts street life in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, its pavement lined with vegetable sellers and curious children. By contrast, the new shots show towns that have forgotten how to be towns.

“One in three people in Ireland live in a small town,” curator Jo Anne Butler tells me. The photographs she has chosen depict towns with populations of less than 5,000 — places that would be called villages in most other countries. “Look closer and there is a very strong sense of identity and a sense of place,” she continues. “There has certainly been a decline, the role of the market has declined, but the space is still there and, with small changes, they could become more active again.”

Kilrush Town_Image by Paul Tierney_ © Free Market
Kilrush Square, County Clare, c1900 and (below) the same place today © National Library of Ireland; Paul Tierney/Free Market

This is a delightfully modest idea for a show. There is no grandstanding, no suggestion that radical architects could come in and solve everything. “It’s not that these towns need to be fixed,” Butler says, “but that they’ve been let down. There are plenty of papers and policy documents but they’ve been fragmented and have overlapped,” and, in the end, haven’t happened. “The change might be as simple as a new surface,” she adds.

If the contrast between the old sepia photos and the bleak new prospects seems depressing, the curators have injected a little colour with a compelling series of snapshots of surviving shops and stores. With their 1960s signage, net curtains, piles of modest products and window displays stuck forever in the 1950s, they point to a disappearing townscape, one that is being replaced either by the generic storefronts of global chains or by nothing at all.

These towns have fallen victim to successive setbacks: first, mass emigration and poverty; then speculation, suburbanisation, depopulation and the migration of agricultural and commercial activity to the edges in purpose-built agri-industrial sheds. The problems are local and particular, but they are not unique. The title the curators have chosen — Free Market — is smart. It hints not only at the overall Freespace theme but at the nature of these squares, which evolved for a kind of exchange that has become defunct. The question is what a new version of exchange might look like. How can civic space be intensified in a town with a tiny population? The curators hope to tour the exhibition to these towns, which mostly have market halls or buildings, to stimulate exactly this discussion.

There is a lyrical saudade about all this, a yearning for the way things were. And Venice is the perfect platform for this odd sensation of a lost golden era. But Venice’s collision of former beauty and decadent public life combined with what it has become — a spectacle on the itinerary of global tourism — is what keeps it so fascinating. The streets and squares stay in the same places, accumulating layers of meaning, traces of history and changes in use.

Snapshots of a disappearing world by Trevor Finnegan

Railway Bar, Banagher Co. Offaly Our Type Series by Trevor Finnegan
© Trevor Finnegan

Railway Bar, Banagher, County Offaly, on show at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture

 J. Mc Kiernan’s Kingscourt Co. Cavan Our Type Series by Trevor Finnegan
© Trevor Finnegan

J McKiernan, Kingscourt, County Cavan, which features at the Irish pavilion

Hanley's Emly, Co. Tipperary Our Type Series by Trevor Finnegan
© Trevor Finnegan

Hanley, Emly, County Tipperary

 Peavoys, Kinnitty Co. Offaly Our Type Series by Trevor Finnegan
© Trevor Finnegan

Peavoys, Kinnitty, County Offaly, which can be seen in the exhibition at the Irish pavilion

J.Daly, Ballydehob, Co Cork Our Type Series by Trevor Finnegan
© Trevor Finnegan

J. Daly, Ballydehob, County Cork

Venice Biennale of Architecture runs May 26-November 25, labiennale.org

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