The pavilions of the Giardini della Biennale form a unique family of international architectural talent. Originating in 1895, this enclave features buildings ranging in character, each reflecting a period and its designer.
The Australian lot adjacent to the canal remained unattended until architect Phillip Cox offered to place a “temporary” building on the site to be funded by his own resources and those of other sponsors.
At that time Australia's industry leader, BHP, agreed to finance a significant portion of the work, along with Transfield, a building company whose historic origins could be traced back to Italy. Predominantly prefabricated in Australia, the building was shipped to Venice and erected in 1988.
Cox was deliberate in his approach to integrate the building's typology with the site. The building's transverse section manages the site with steps located between two pavilions and strategically around significant site trees. The long eastern façade window permitted the users to visually connect with the site and the city and with its distinguishing feature: the canal.
The architect was conscious of maintaining a low building profile so the impact over the canal was restrained. By stepping the building he was able to keep under croft spaces to a minimum and create a variation in the scale of internal display.
Any visitor to Australia will recall the informal nature of both people and place, and this character can be seen in the pavilion. The provision of an extensive southern eternal gathering space overlooking the canal amplifies an informal environment, the zone where people can feel more relaxed, more connected with the bigger room, the Giardini. Cox intentionally provided an accommodating environment. He was aware that a building within the Giardini would be used only two to four weeks a year and that it needed to be durable and maintenance-free for the remaining months.
The Australian pavilion is approached walking southeast along the main avenue approaching on a slight gradient up toward the British Pavilion. One passes architects Stirling, Scarpa, and Fehn en route along with a series of buildings, each with intrigue and its own particular notoriety.
The forecourt that services Britain, France, and Japan also serves as the long axial entry arcade for several other pavilions, and a walled corridor between two countries (the former Czechoslovakia and France) brings one diagonally to the entry area for Australia's rather subtle pavilion. Crowds swell at this veranda entry, and people seem to become easily accommodated within the surrounding landscape. The visitor is instantly familiar with the hospitality of such an enclave, and conversations flow around the trees with great freedom; in many ways the nature of this entry maintains a certain dignity with regard to the exhibit inside. Australia is romantically linked with the outdoors. Few other pavilions extend their arms to embrace the advantage of external space; but entry onto a deck, under a veranda, is typical Australian vernacular. This is a location of wonderful transition, kept alive by window connections to both the outside and the treed courtyard.
The building suffers from a lack of display width-exhibits nowadays require flexible spaces, and one can imagine the advantage of a big room. While the entry room is easily negotiated with adequate wall space and connects with the lower gallery from an overlooking balcony, it is nevertheless quite long and narrow. It is singular but undeniably awkward to curate, and the addition of a storeroom at the southern end creates unusable space. Also, there is a variance of light levels throughout the building that contributes to the difficulties of exhibition management.
Australia is romantically linked with its landscape. In its architecture there is only marginal reference to the formality and order that typify other cultures. At the time the pavilion was designed, Australia's shackles of English heritage were being dismantled and a freedom specific to the growing mix of cultures was in the process of becoming the fabric that identified Australian society.
In many ways the Australian Pavilion is representative of its time. The slightly curved roofline was an initiative by Sydney architects in the early 1970s. It represents the cultural breakaway from the traditional hip/gable; at that time the steel primary frame was being adapted into residential construction. Prefabricated technology had existed in larger industrial buildings and shifted into housing in the late 1960s. The Australian Pavilion represents an evolving culture, experimental but not yet internationally confident.
The building amplifies impermanence and enjoys a scale more parallel with the Australian house than the public room. Walking around the Giardini, one sees evidence of the advantage of large volumes for the display of exhibitions, and yet clearly the smaller-roomed pavilions suggest a more hospitable environment. In such pavilions exists a comforting personality, spaces more familiar to the human, easy to transverse and dwell within-therein lies the ease felt by visitors as they occupy these pavilions. Where the French Pavilion is a big personality, the Australian Pavilion a personality cloaked within the concern that the visitor should be led caringly by hand.
A recent competition has selected a building to replace the existing pavilion by the year 2015. The winning scheme is produced by one of Australia's leading, large, international companies. It will occupy the site with a new and singular presence. Absent will be the wonderful humility of the existing structure, likewise its connection with external place-references to Australia will be limited. This new vision is integral with the international stage.
Perhaps the most enduring quality of the existing Australian Pavilion is that it represents a country's point in time with elemental belonging. An inexpensive and innocent building, it relies on the installation of art to provide the grace and heroics that inform this pavilion's memory.
Wandering in the Giardini, we are seduced by exhibits that take us to places untapped in our mind. Occasionally the accommodating pavilion lends its hand toward that moment or can feel equally inspiring … alone.