In a series of images released to the press last year, the Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall showed their country's new pavilion for the Venice Biennale'a mysterious black granite box'being floated on a barge past Andrea Palladio's white marble church of San Giorgio Maggiore. The images turned out to be fictions, created with the help of Photoshop. In fact, the building wasn't floated into town but built from scratch on-site in the Venice Giardini.
That the first pavilion of the 21st century was built at all was something of a fluke: most of the Giardini is under heritage protection. But the old Australian pavilion, a white metal box designed by Philip Cox and assembled from a kit of parts in 1988, was classified as temporary. That designation allowed it to be disassembled at the behest of the Australia Council for the Arts, which was ready to retire the Cox building. Among other problems, its entrance was all but hidden between the French and Czech pavilions and, inside, tight proportions stymied artists. (It will be re-erected in Australia.)
The council chose one of the best-known firms in Australia to design the new pavilion, but didn't seem to leave the architects much room for creativity. When it came to the footprint of the building, 'We were given a map with a line on the ground,' recalls principal John Denton. As for the interior, he and his partner Barrie Marshall were asked to provide a white-box gallery. Moreover, Denton says, they were determined not to compete with the art by 'crossing the line into architectural expression.'
All of this left the architects dependent on just a few moves. The first was to shift the entrance of the 3,600-square-foot building from the south to the north end of the site, where it would be easily accessible from a main walkway. The second was to place the steel-framed 50-foot-square gallery atop a much smaller lower level devoted to back-of-house functions. This approach gives the pavilion an 'inverted L' shape, a deep cantilever that seems to project the building toward an adjacent canal.
But the architects' boldest move may have been to place this white box inside a black box. The building's exterior is made almost entirely of African granite honed to a soft finish. 'We wanted to create an enigmatic building,' Denton says'and it worked: the black granite, which can be aggressive when shiny, has been made as recessive as possible. Walking through the Giardini, catching glimpses of the pavilion through the trees, one wonders if it is an object or merely a shadow.
Yet the $6 million structure (for which most of the funds were privately raised) isn't entirely featureless. Four large hatches swing open at the touch of a button, creating connections between inside and out while relieving the otherwise supremely flat facades. Two of the hatches conceal LED screens, which can serve as billboards or as extensions of video pieces, a feature intended to spark artists' imaginations. For the debut exhibition, which opened in May, the artist Fiona Hall painted the interior'the so-called white-box gallery'black and hung pieces created in collaboration with Aboriginal weavers. For the 2016 Architecture Biennale, architect Aileen Sage and urban designer Michelle Tabet will flood the gallery with water, in a tribute to Australia's coastal saltwater swimming pools.
The attention to Aboriginal weaving and Australian pool typologies introduces a note of irony, since to at least one critic the pavilion's key feature is a lack of Australian-ness. Wrote John McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald, 'The building could represent any nation on earth with equal efficiency. It is a statement of our contemporaneity; of our willingness to shed the clich's of Australian identity.' Thus the pavilion, a beautiful object and a cleverly conceived container, highlights a difference between art and architecture: as currently practiced, the former can explore national differences, while it appears that the latter, in order to seem contemporary, must avoid them at all costs.
Owner: Australian Council for the Arts
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Interior designer: Denton Corker Marshall
Australia: Arup (Services and Structural Engineers)
Australia: Advanced Design Innovations (Engineering consultant for operable panels)
6,100 square feet
Final design produced by Boaretto e Associati Srl
Curtain wall: Metal sub-structure with Genius System designed and produced by Fischer Italia Srl
Other cladding unique to this project:
Stone for the operable panels [product: granite, Nero Assoluto, thk. 5mm with thk. 20mm honeycomb]; worked by Arte Marmi Srl and installed by Zanet Srl
Wood doors: Scrigno SpA [product: Filo parete ESSENTIAL]
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Schueco International Italia Srl [product: ADS 65] with push-bar CISA SpA [product: Fast-Touch]
Special doors: Operable panels produced and installed by Alfa System S.a.s. di Galante C. & C.
Suspension grid: KNAUF [product: System D112]
Paints and stains: Sikkens [various products]
Paneling: Internal external plastering KNAUF [GKI, GKB, Aquapanel Outdoor, MagiZink structure 8/10]
Floor and wall tile: Graniti Fiandre [products: Pietra di Bedonia and Taxos Extra]
Other furniture: Kitchen and other fittings produced by Amatori Architettura d’Interni
Downlights: Zumtobel, iGuzzini
Task lighting: Erco
Dimming System or other lighting controls: Tridonic
Platform: Ecospace Srl
Hot Sanitary Preparator Heat Pump: Ariston
Water softner: SIS
Sanitary Fixtures: Catalano, Bocchi
Energy management or building automation system: Honeywell
Photovoltaic system: General Solar PV
Circulation pumps: DAB Water Technology
Exhibition Room Air Handling Units: Rhoss SpA
Amenities - Cross flow air heat exchangers: Officine Volta SpA
Integrated Slot Air Diffuser: Officine Volta SpA
Air condensed Reversible Heat Pump: Rhoss SpA, Officine Volta SpA
Adiabatic Humidifier: Carel SpA
Amenities VRF System: Samsung
Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Sound diffusion system: RCF
Closed Circuit Television: Samsung
Intrusion detection system: Honeywell