Danish Pavilion





Basically the Giardini is a romantic park. This pops into your mind as you contemplate the Danish Pavilion’s temple façade, which faces the green interzone. In the romantic park, one could, in principle, saunter about and experience wonderful phenomena, like groups of gnomes, classic sculptures, primeval huts, and round temples. Copious references to history and the outlandish showed up in the park’s spatial sequences. You could think green thoughts in green shadows, as a poet once put it. The park was one continuous stage for art, for nameless longings and for one’s faith in civilized profundity.

In the Giardini, the dispersed pavilions developed over the years from being freestanding monuments inscribed in nature into a more densely packed bazaar of stalls for the respective nations in varying styles. Accordingly, the universal reference to the world was sustained, albeit in a more tightly packed promenade montage. The utopian concept of a peaceful panorama for sensitive wanderers was eventually overlaid by a heterotopia, a compact collocation of small singular worlds that supposedly refer to each other and establish a sense of family while simultaneously drawing, via a kind of bric-a-brac, the visiting public into the separate attractions. What we are dealing with, then, is something that is half park and half bazaar and the closest we can come to a world’s fair.

The pavilions are still standing as picturesque marvels. Taken together, they fashion a rebus without any unambiguous meaning-forming pattern. The field is conditioned by dispersing and gathering forces.

As a rule, romantic huts or temples in parks give rise to a deserted and melancholic effect. In the Giardini, you can similarly sense that the pavilions are left vacant for a considerable portion of the year; you can feel that they are being left alone, all by themselves, for quite awhile, as if they were set pieces in a still life. This out-of-season torpor never fully relinquishes its hold. Furthermore, the pavilions come to life only during an unremitting transit of exhibitions: They do not lend themselves to ever becoming stably domesticated.

What the biennial’s colossal scale entails is that the visitor’s appetite for experiencing the nations’ cultural manifestations, for one thing, unleashes the well-known Stendhal syndrome—one gets a bit dizzy at the sheer quantity of particularly exquisite impressions—and for another, gives rise to a physical fatigue, something to which the Giardini’s dusty pathways also bear witness.

There is an animated sense of community that prevails around the synthesis, which corresponds precisely to what is seated in the English-language term for the collectively shared patch of terrain: the common. In much the same way, you take part in the charming cosmopolitanism that sprouts forth from the Giardini’s old-fashioned manifestation of the respective nations’ willingness to meet on common ground for a common good.

As it moves along its route, the visiting public concentrates its focus on taking whatever is being exhibited into its possession and perceives the architectonic frames, at first glance, as something secondary, as something that one relates to only subliminally.

Walter Benjamin was probably correct in pointing out that architecture is experienced functionally and habitually in passing, in a state of distraction, as a kind of traffic signal. On the other hand, all the exhibitors go to great lengths to work in conjunction with the architectonic interiors, so as to implicate them in the discourse or to impose new dimensions upon them.

The architectonic exteriors in the Giardini presumably play a role in people’s after-images from their visit, as small reverberations in their inner movie theaters, although it is the case that, along the way, their attention is generally dominated by what is being exhibited and by its scenography and its choreography.

The pavilions are, on one hand, propelled by the architects’ and the countries’ urges to come forth with a distinct and masterly gesture. On the other hand, the buildings have, in the course of time, come to be assimilated with respect to each other, like colors in old paintings.

In their jumping-off point, they are fueled by a volition to be representative. They are, first of all, supposed to represent an incontrovertible architectonic expertise. In the next place, they are also supposed to represent the nation as it wishes to stand forth, sustained by its very own imaginative prowess, on the international scene. Finally, the interior spaces, as catalysts operating in an optimal way, have to be able to bear forth what is being exhibited, albeit in such a way that the rooms will still manage to make their impact as autonomous architecture.

The Giardini area, as a consequence of its additive growth principle, is not hierarchically organized in any distinct fashion. For one thing, the two axes—the one that leads from the entrance up to the Italian Pavilion, and the one that radiates toward the right from this line—seem to be equal in importance. For another thing, there is, in an imploding central zone, a tie score between the number of rear façades and the number of entrances.

These facts play a crucial role for the Danish Pavilion, which has been built up in two stages and which, after its expansion, stands with a double façade: a newer one facing one of the Giardini’s main axes and another one, with a temple-like colonnade, that is oriented toward the green inter-zone, which once possessed a more central importance than it does now. The temple façade was designed by the architect Carl Brummer.

When Brummer, in the early 1930s, was entrusted with the task of quickly coming up with a rough outline for the Danish Pavilion, he sketched a neoclassical façade with plain Doric columns in limestone: a building with a conventional aura of antiquity, suitable for the exhibition of art, which was still being regarded, in the first decades of the 20th century, under the invocation of a Greco-Roman continuum. The columned façade is more academic, circumspect, and gracefully antiquated than the rigorously modernized but also more bombastic neoclassicism that was being practiced so widely in the totalitarian states of that day. It also stems from a thoroughly traditional academic schooling, by virtue of its intercolumniation, which faithfully follows Palladio’s recommendation that the spacing between the columns ought to correspond to roughly one third of the columns’ height. On this account, the colonnade’s rhythmic contribution to the basic building does not become either too spinelessly gaping in the interstices or too hermetic in relation to what lies behind. Carl Brummer’s columned façade possesses, in this respect, a splendid optical balance.

Originally, the older building’s interior was comprised of one large rectangular room. This is still the case, but the room has now come to be fitted out with “alcoves,” giving rise to a subdivision of the lengthwise back wall, so as to accommodate the various exhibition arrangers’ respective desires to establish a framing and to exert some modicum of spatial guidance when it comes to the visitor’s attention. Moreover, these alcoves serve to facilitate an adaptation to what are the lower and smaller rooms in Peter Koch’s annex, built in 1960, which presently forms the entrance area that faces out toward one of the park’s central axes. In 1960, the idea of tearing down the columned building altogether was broached. However, a decision was made to preserve Brummer’s building.

In his annex, Koch chose to displace the structure from the central axis running through Brummer’s ground plan in order to link his annex up alongside the earlier building and to build further right past Brummer’s rear façade, which thereby came to be masked.

With his new building situated opposite to the lengthwise low wall of the Swiss Pavilion on the other side of the promenade, Koch chose to create a very low front for his reception system, which is one of the most intimate in the Giardini. His discretion, furthermore, finds its expression in a small, compact counter that is situated to the right of the entrance. The annex’s sections, with the horizontal markings of the roofs, have been terraced in three levels all the way up to the height of Brummer’s wing, the large hall of which, incidentally, constitutes the culmination of the movement through the annex’s interior. Seen from outside, the coalesced houses appear to have forfeited all the qualities that one might associate with wholeness: symmetry, uniformity of materials, compactness, simplicity, formal homogeneity, etc.

From outside, the façades stand forth as a collage of irreconcilable contrasts; from inside, the two houses are experienced as being continuous. The strong bipolarity fades away and turns into a positive attribute of complexity. When, after having walked round the pavilion, you step inside, there is a gradual sense of relaxation that sets in.

As an echo of the columned façade, which presently forms the rear of the pavilion, Koch has allowed solid tree trunks to ascend and penetrate right through the roof situated above the entrance façade’s indentations. This manifestation of peaceful coexistence with nature is a touch that can be spotted again and again on a number of the Giardini’s modernist pavilions. The pavilion’s graduated receding movement away from the promenade also seems, in the manner of a transverse stroke in the aggregate picture, to anticipate the promenade’s impending and sudden ascent toward the larger nations’ pavilions.

On the basis of a far-reaching adjustment strategy, the Danish Pavilion endows the wide promenade with a more seamless course than a more voluminous solitary building could ever have provided. This serves to diminish the perception of separate houses lying along this promenade. Just on the other side of the promenade, the Swiss Pavilion, dating from the closing of the 1950s, demonstrates the very same volition for fastening volumes together in a subdued horizontal line. In this respect, Koch was very adroit at establishing threads of connection that would emanate in several directions at once.

The price of having these relatively low sections facing the promenade is, of course, the low ceilings. The advantage, however, is that you virtually plunge into an unmistakable atmosphere of intimacy. An already given atmosphere of intimacy, tinged by a warm glow from the promenade’s treetops, makes its impact on the visitor through the glass sections and the small oculi in the ceiling. The emotional register associated with this grabs hold of the visitor like a force that is experienced both as something borne forth by a remembrance of things past, which originates within the visitor himself, and as a quality that is seated in the rooms’ architectonic conception.

The course is bodily determined, in the sense that there necessarily has to be a body in motion if the contractions and widenings in the spatial course, by means of which Koch’s pavilion functions, are going to be experienced at all. Unlike the generously spacious central rooms that are found in so many of the other pavilions, the rooms are emphatically modest in character and are somewhat compressed. And even so, the rooms’ intimate and protective boundaries offer the chance to concentrate on what is being exhibited.

This stands in striking contrast to the Nordic Pavilion, located just next door to the Danish Pavilion, which has undoubtedly been designed in a masterful way, as a piece of abstract architecture, and which has been refined through the manner in which the fine-meshed layer of slender girders transforms the brilliant Venetian light into a grayish-douce Nordic light, in keeping with architect Sverre Fehn’s intentions.

When it comes to setting up the optimum situation for the viewer’s concentration on the exhibition plates and objects, designing and installing a show inside the Nordic Pavilion is not an easy thing to pull off, notwithstanding the pavilion’s transparent qualities, as related to the constructive and the diffusing light. This is particularly true because the spectacular space, by virtue of its monumental and wide-open orchestration of indoor and outdoor, upstages whatever is being exhibited. At any given time, the Nordic Pavilion is exhibiting itself as the most striking element.

The Danish Pavilion exists in a kind of symbiosis with Fehn’s large space-art work. Similarly, Fehn, with his façade oriented toward Brummer’s colonnade, is playing in ensemble with the Danish Pavilion, via the crisp and delicate prosody in the series of the roof’s edgewiseplaced girders.

Whereas the Nordic Pavilion—as macro-interior with a grandiose filtering of the space’s light—calls to mind the sublimely magnificent experience of nature and constitutes, as far as that goes, a distinctly contemporary rethinking of a romantic view of nature (that is to say, of nature as a sacred temple), the Danish Pavilion is linked partly to an older idea of the temple standing in Arcadia and partly, perhaps, to the hut’s intimacy as something you push your way into—as space that protects and surrounds.


Carsten Thau was born in 1947. He is a professor in the architecture department of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and a former professor at the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the University of Copenhagen. He has written many articles and books on architecture, design, urbanism, visual arts, and film (including a monograph on the life and work of Danish architect and furniture designer Arne Jacobsen). Two of his recent publications include an anthology of writings on the relationship between architecture and philosophy and a collection of essays titled Architecture as a Time Machine.