Visitors who explore the areas outside the two large exhibition areas of the Architecture Biennial, namely the Arsenale and the Giardini, will discover tranquil places, small oases of silence far away from the hustle and bustle of madding tourism. They will not only be rewarded with the wonderful palazzi and courtyards behind the high walls of Venice that so often form a closed front, but also with the architectural contributions by smaller countries that repeatedly dish up surprises. Many of these countries have consciously preferred direct contact with the city over the enclosed exhibition grounds; others were looking for a cost-effective location outside the Biennial for financial reasons. Anyone visiting the pavilions of countries such as Portugal, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Slovenia or Singapore, simply need to bring along a little energy and be prepared for the adventure of winding alleys and the one or other wrong turn.
Four buildings, four films
Gallerie dell'Accademia lends itself as a starting point for a tour of the most interesting contributions outside the Biennial grounds proper. West of it, at Ca'Foscari near Canal Grande, we find the Portuguese exhibition space which, under the title "No place like this - 4 houses 4 films" has dared approach the topic of residential buildings in an unusual way. Here, four completely different houses on the sea's edge, in a plain, next to a railway line, and in the inner city of Lisbon are presented in the classic way in the form of plans and wonderful models, but also as highly distinctive short films produced by young filmmakers. As a social and political document, one film that uses a building project to illustrate Portugal's transition from dictatorship to democracy depicts the residential area Bouça of that Old Master of Portuguese architecture, Alvaro Siza. During the construction of the first part of the structure, right-wing extremists blew up the architect's car. The short films by Juliao Sarmento and Joao Onofre (clearly inspired by the early films of Peter Greenaway) rely on alienation and analogies are very different from the above-mentioned piece. For example, we see a yacht floating over the buildings of Lisbon and into the swimming pool of the patio houses by Ricardo Bak Gordon. In another work, the spatial and physical qualities of a contemporary villa in a landscape are visualized using cleverly selected sections of the female body - with amazing accuracy. Portugal, the palazzo of which also transpires to be a beautiful place to relax, has thus successfully found new ways to communicate architecture at the highest level.
Overcoming gravity and gravitas
On the other side of the Canal Grande, northwest of the Accademia, we come to the Luxembourg, Slovenian, Iranian and Cypriot pavilions - they are all pretty close to one another. The best way to get to them is to take the first small bridge on the left after crossing the Accademia bridge, and then follow the green dots on the pavement to "Slovenia", while the large white marks lead you to "Luxembourg". En route you will stumble upon one of the many surprises Venice always has in store: a small but refined photo exhibition on the oeuvre of Luigi Nervi, who was probably Italy's greatest post-War engineer: in the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin. Overcoming gravity and gravitas, the physical and intellectual constraints of engineering, is also what the somewhat hidden Luxembourg contribution to the Biennial sets out to achieve - at home in a small Piazzetta it does so in a quite different manner, namely by means of an enfilade of entrancing installations. Taking as their motto "Rock-Paper-Scissors", four young architects cause sugar cubes to float over coffee cups or invite you to take possession of the private study of architect, where you can forget the outside world and simply spend time.
The sound of walking across the forest floor
The Slovenian pavilion is not far off, in architecture gallery A+A, and offers much acoustic and visual enjoyment with a show dedicated to the oeuvre of landscape architect Ana Kucan. "All Shades of Green" not only presents illuminated drawings and models of contemporary landscape gardening, but also tries to let visitors experience the intangible level of nature and free spaces. Here, you can interactively discover different "soundscapes" such as the sounds of a forest, city or river, meaning you suddenly think you are walking across the forest floor in the midst of this densely packed city. The Biennial contributions by Cyprus and Iran are both near-by, well intentioned but overly strident - since they rely solely on colorful images, even if the old Persian gardens on show are stunningly beautiful.
On the way back it is well worth taking a break at Campo Santo Stefano, where Paris' "École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs" serves up a contemporary and very enjoyable range of the subjects it covers, with short films or a fashion show by the youngest Parisian fashion designers let you learn a lot about space and the body, and certainly more than you get from the somewhat over-long video speeches by French star architects. But perhaps the one or other will be more attracted to the exhibition on Stanley Kubrik's photographic oeuvre, which is no less interesting, and is to be found vis-à-vis at Palazzo Loredan.
Aquila or The Fragility of the Built Environment
Anyone who has found lodgings close to St. Mark's Square and wants to go to the Biennial by foot can simply visit three other very interesting exhibitions along the waterfront: In Palazzo Ducale there is a photo exhibition called "SISMYCITY" on what the earthquake did to Aquila in Central Italy (a disaster most of us have as good as forgotten) - it highlights the entire fragility of our built environment. Anyone exhausted by looking at these images can rest in the rooms housing "Taiwan". The nearby former prison of the Republic of Venice is now the venue of a somewhat bizarre lounge of deceleration that quite in passing offers information on the space of everyday life in Taiwan, its urban density and the lack of names for its transport routes.
Singapore is everywhere
Singapore's contribution to the Biennial is far more informative, and located in a side alley off the water front in a small garden tucked away behind Chiesa Santa Maria della Pietà. A highly attractive bridge-like tunnel has been created through the garden and house, inviting you to immerse yourself in Singapore's everyday life and future. Once again, the focus is on the density of Asian cities, their transformation from flat courtyards into ever higher complexes of office blocks and residence that possess any number of different functions. The exhibition makers provide countless graphics, building typologies and models, that nevertheless also give you an idea of the multi-ethnic nature of Singaporeans and the areas in which they live. The show gives a proud but critical account of their country's successes. They cheekily and ironically start their exhibition with the suggestion that as its density increases Singapore could house the world's entire population, thus saving resources. The idea is of course not really meant seriously, but does say a lot about the growing self-confidence of Asia's Tiger states.
A cultural quarter for Hong Kong
This time round, Hong Kong's contribution is incomparably more conventional - it is located opposite to the main entrance to the Arsenale. It documents an ongoing competition to expand Hong Kong to include a new cultural quarter - the stars of the international architecture scene were all invited to take part. Then there is an installation and "density and free spaces" in the former British city-state. What is far more interesting than the exhibition is the discussion series in which an attempt is made to explore living conditions and sustainability in the city and its still rural outskirts; the discussion is astonishingly open and controversial if compared with most such debates in Asia.
Mestre to have its own museum
Anyone wanting to find out more of the city behind the scenes and installations should simply use an afternoon to explore Mestre, Venice's industrial alter ego, and get to know the Venetians' lifeworld - the majority of them live in Mestre and not in the old city. A new Museum of the 20th Century is to be built in Mestre - the competition for it was won just before the Biennial opened, by Anglo-German architectural duo Sauerbruch-Hutton, and the entries are on show at an exhibition during the Biennial.
The Biennial's theme of "People meet in Architecture" can be experienced here first hand, as it can in many of the satellite exhibition pavilions - and more so than in the Giardini. Detours and wrong turnings that nevertheless get you to your destination are always the best way to experience a city for yourself.
The following having already appeared as part of our series on the Architecture Biennial:
› Oliver Elser on the central exhibition by Biennial Director Kazuyo Sejima
› Dirk Meyhöfer on "Desire" in the German Pavilion
› Sandra Hofmeister on urban free spaces and vacancies in the French and Dutch Pavilions
› Annette Tietenberg on the British Pavilion, where a school of seeing has set up shop
› Carsten Krohn on the end of "signature architecture" and the beginning of a the production of atmospheres
› Dirk Meyhöfer on the emotional states en route to reanimating the Russian industrial city of Vyshny Volochok