Winning Australia Venice Biennale pavilion design controversial in its simplicity


The Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is getting a much-needed facelift. On 3 April 2012 it was announced that a design by architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall was chosen for the new venue, which will open in time for the 2015 biennale.

Rendering of the main entrance for the new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, slated to open in 2015. Image courtesy of Denton Corker Marshall © Denton Corker Marshall.

Denton Corker Marshall, whose previous projects include the Melbourne Museum, the Museum of Sydney, and the Australian embassies in Tokyo and Beijing, were chosen from a shortlist of six Australian firms in a unanimous decision by the Australia Council, which owns the pavilion. The winning design, a no-frills rectangular structure made of South Australian black granite, stresses simplicity. ”We didn’t want anything that was mannered in a way that affected the simplicity of the space for the artists,” said one of the firm’s directors, John Denton.

Canal view for the new Australian Pavilion. Image courtesy of Denton Corker Marshall © Denton Corker Marshall.

The previous pavilion, built in 1988, was intended to be a temporary site, and many Australians rallied against it. Melbourne architect Norman Day criticised the building, suggesting that it gave attendees “the impression that we are a backyard group of hillbillies working out of a dunny [Australian slang for restroom].” Even the original architect Philip Cox has spoken out against the structure, which was largely erected to secure a prime location in the Venice Giardini della Biennale. Only 29 of the countries in attendance at the event claim a spot in the central area.

However, the selection of the new pavilion did not escape controversy, either. The Australia Council decided to make entrance into the competition available through invitation only. The Australian architectural collective OpenHAUS said the invitation-only decision was “to the detriment of the Australian architectural profession, to architectural discourse in Australia and to Australian art and design culture in general”. Other critics say the selection process edged out young and less-established firms, and a petition to reverse the decision attracted over 750 signatures from excluded architects.

The current Australian Pavilion for the Venice biennale.

Due to the pressure put on them by the Australian architectural community, the Australia Council launched a semi-open competition, accepting submissions from any firm with experience designing a public art gallery and working internationally. Many saw this as a non-concession, raising the barrier high enough to exclude all but those who had originally been invited. In addition, the committee came under fire for restricting proposals to Australian firms only.

East view of the prospective Australia Pavilion. Image courtesy of Denton Corker Marshall © Denton Corker Marshall.

Critics ultimately chalk up the problems with the selection process to its reliance upon private donations. “The actual role of the Australia Council is pretty much confined by the amount of government funding,” Australia Council chairman James Strong told The Age. “What everybody is realising is that there are finite resources for the arts.” Yet by relying on private funding, the project may be restricted by the whims or preferences of its financial backers, leaving some to wonder whether the pavilion truly represents the “spirit” of Australian culture.

Chairman of the Australia Council, James Strong

The new Australian Pavilion will cost an estimated USD6 million. Among the major donors to the new pavilion is Sydney banker Simon Mordant, Australia’s 2013 Venice Biennale Commissioner, who donated USD1 million to the project. Construction is slated to begin after the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and be completed in time for the 2015 edition of the event.


Related Topics: biennales, art in Venice, funding of the arts

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Winning Australia Venice Biennale pavilion design controversial in its simplicity — 1 Comment

  1. NO SORRY the new proposal can not be built in the giardini, there is no identity of australia in that black box !!! probably the person who made the 3dmax has no idea about the composition of biennale pavilions, in venice, not only in giardini, but also in arsenale and in other places of venice, all pavilions, esp the ones in giardini have unique structures due to their structural materials, this proposal has no specific structural solution and also a special cladding system, as present australian pavilion, of philip cox, has, i know philip cox very well, from 2008, when i was visiting sydney, i met with maritime museum of him, in darling harbour, his way of thinking with structural steel is excellent,
    then wait for my article about his pavilion in giardini, several times visited by me,
    yesim kamile aktuglu

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