Former mentors and protégés in the Rolex Arts Initiative were generously punctuating the profoundly atmospheric spaces of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s dramatic display of models in the Central
Pavilion against a vivid blue backdrop proved one of the biggest draws of the exhibition, a landscape of seductive, table-top models of everything from his haunting memorial to the women killed for being witches in Vardø, Norway, to
his ambitious plans for LACMA, reconceiving the art museum as a kind of huge, mesmerising oil slick spreading across the freeway. All this took place against a persistent click of snapping cellphones in what was surely the show’s most
Kazuyo Sejima and SANAA were here with one of the Arsenale’s most enigmatic exhibits, a piece of pure form so minimal to almost wasn't there. The see-through cylinder seemed to take the Japanese architect’s minimal approach to an extreme,
asking existential questions about quite how invisible architecture might be - does it need a door? How close can it be to sculpture? Its ethereal material quality looked exquisite against the centuries old fabric of the Corderie,
the one-time naval rope-making factory.
Alvaro Siza is always on site, one of the few architects with a permanent presence thanks to his ochre permanent pavilion left over from the 2012 event. This year the Portuguese master also appeared with another quietly charismatic, sculptural
installation in the Arsenale, a curving piece, part bench, part mysterious, enveloping form. Sir David Chipperfield, a former curator (along with Sejima) was present in the Rolex Pavilion (which celebrated his thoughtful urban collaboration
with Simon Kretz) and in the Corderie with an installation based on the James Simon Galerie on Berlin’s Museum Island where he has abstracted the classical language of Karl Friedrich Schinkel into an attenuated, abstracted memory.
Chipperfield’s presence this year extends off-site too, quite a way off site in fact with a major retrospective of his work displayed in Andrea Palladio’s stunning basilica in nearby Vicenza. What more impressive venue could there
be? Only, perhaps you could point to the Doge’s Palace itself which Chipperfield is currently restoring and redesigning.
Francis Diébédo Kéré , a former Rolex Awards for Enterprise jury member, also appeared in the Arsenale with a theatrical-looking interpretation of curators Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell’s ‘Freespace’ theme. A timber frame draped
with red curtains, it looked like a luxurious pavilion but was in fact based on a design intended to give some privacy to refugees living in temporary accommodation in Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. It seemed the perfect embodiment of
mass luxury, architecture as an art which can give dignity to the dispossessed. If the question was how can architecture create freespace, a public good as a beneficial side effect of its processes? Then here was one striking answer
among so many impressive others.