Last Saturday, as the midday sun beat down on the rooftop terrace of Ca’ Guistinian, the Grand Canal palazzo where the Venice Biennale has its headquarters, winners of this year’s architecture awards sipped prosecco in celebration. But many of those who had attended the preview of the world’s premier architectural exposition were baffled by the jury’s choices. That the Swiss Pavilion won the Golden Lion for an installation called House Tour—a witty if one-note take on apartment hunting—was surprising enough, but more controversial was the “special mention” nod to the pavilion of Great Britain. The Brits had left their pavilion completely empty and installed a roof deck with a glorious vista of the Venetian lagoon and its islands. While the viewing platform, reached by a sturdy exterior steel stair, fit the overall Biennale theme of FreeSpace, the ironic fact was that a pavilion won an architecture award without presenting any architecture at all.
The air of Venice was heavily perfumed with honeysuckle, but the jury’s selection smelled strongly of compromise. In fact, their deliberations were said to have been as hot as the May weather, if polite. The jury included architects Sofia Von Ellrichshausen, Frank Barkow, Kate Goodwin, Patricia Patkau, and Pier Paolo Tamburelli. Regarding the honor for the British pavilion, one juror cited the relief of entering the cool, calm, empty interior amidst the cacophony of the crowded Venice Giardini, one of the main venues of the Biennale, and its many national pavilions overstuffed with images, objects, data and text. “Accessibility” and “legibility” were cited by another juror as important criteria for the Biennale, which is expected to attract a wide public before it closes November 25th. The 2016 edition of the exposition drew a record 260,000 visitors.
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