Remaking the Australia Pavilion

What is it?

Along with 30 other national pavilions, the Australia Pavilion is located in Venice’s Giardini, the site each year of the extraordinary Biennale di Venezia. In the late 1980s, Australia was given the opportunity to take one of the last plots within the Giardini, however it was necessary that we occupy the plot immediately lest we forfeit it to another country. Philip Cox donated his time to design a temporary pavilion that could secure the plot until a more permanent solution was found. The pavilion opened in 1988 and, as no-one ever got around to finding the permanent solution, still stands today.

The Australia Council for the Arts, owner of the pavilion and co-ordinator every second year of the Arts Biennale, has recently announced plans to finally rebuild the pavilion. They have set a nominal budget of between AU$4 and $6 million and declared they will hold an invitation-only ideas competition to establish a successful design.

What do we think?

We understand that the voice the pavilion gives to Australian design within the international framework of the Giardini is tired and outdated. It is true it has some historic value, its cement sheet cladding, expressed steel framing and curved tin roof being prevalent in Sydney bush architecture during the 1980s. However, this is not a widely shared part of our architectural heritage, nor can it be said to represent the modern Australia, a country with a diverse culture and mature artistic identity.

Even more damning is repeated claims that the pavilion does not work particularly well as an exhibition space. Having volunteered last year during the Architecture Biennale at Australia’s Now and When exhibition (discussed in a previous post, here), we found it to be adequate but not terribly inspired – perhaps the pavilion’s best quality is its chameleon-like ability to be transformed each year according to the current exhibition director’s vision.

Cox’s Australia Pavilion is a simple building that has done well to last as long as it has and should feel no shame in gracefully making way for a fully-considered building designed and built to persist. This is an opportunity to create a new design for the world stage that truly reflects Australia’s unique artistic and architectural identity. Thus it is in equal parts exciting that such a design is being considered, and disappointing that the Australia Council is pursuing a closed, invitation-only competition.

What should we learn?

Australia is a complex place. As the inestimable architectural historian, Philip Goad, has said, it is an archipelago of identities that resists easy characterisation. Finding a design for the new pavilion will be no mean feat – how to create one building that represents a nation with multiple peoples, geographies, histories and climates? To find evidence of this heterogeneity, we need look no further than Australia’s current artistic output – nowhere are so many disparate artistic directions being simultaneously pursued with such energy and verve.

As such an important supporter of the arts, the Australia Council should know this better than anyone. It is inexplicable that they wish to undertake a closed competition for the design of the Australia Pavilion, when they have an entire country of fresh ideas at their disposal. An open competition would do many things, all of them good: it would invoke a powerful burst of creativity from the architectural profession (which architect wouldn’t enter?); it would thrust the representational role of architecture into the wider public eye; and, ultimately, it would generate a new pavilion both of and for Australia.

(Christine Phillips and Tania Davidge have created this online petition calling for an open competition for the new Australia Pavilion. Sign it, we have)

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

3 thoughts on “Remaking the Australia Pavilion”

  1. I’ve just spent a month at the Australian Pavilion as a volunteer and quite like the Pavilion. It’s more modern and in tune with its environment and the hot summer weather of the Biennale season than many of the other pavilions. Most of these are outdated, heavy and not particularly suitable as exhibition spaces. In comparison, the Australian Pavilion seems quite contemporary! We get a lot of positive comments about the building and architecture. I do agree with you about the potential failures of the Pavilion as an exhibition space, however this has not been a huge problem for the Hany Armanious The Golden Thread exhibition. It actually seems that Europeans are more appreciative of the art and architecture at this pavilion than the Australians.
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to finding out how this all pans out!

    1. Hi jk, thanks for your thoughts. When we volunteered at the Australia Pavilion last year, we found a lot of people had plenty of positive things to say about it too. The Now and When exhibition was particularly engaging, so I’m sure that helped!

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