Anne Hanley, The Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014
Venice has two great biennial summer festivals. The Art Biennale, which takes place during odd-number years, and the Architecture Biennale (Biennale dell’Architettura) which alternates with it. This year the Architecture Biennale ( labiennale.org ) runs for an unprecedented six months (June 7 – November 23, 2014). It’s a great time to visit. If you’re fascinated by new trends in architecture, it is an unmissable treat. This year’s theme, Fundamentals, has been extremely well reviewed . And for Venice-lovers keen to poke about in far-flung and inaccessible corners of the city will appreciate the event too, as spin-off shows in venues around town open the doors on innumerable hidden gems and buildings which aren’t normally open to the public.
Which are the main Biennale venues?
The star Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas – director of this year’s festival - has turned the usual Biennale order on its head, placing his main curated exhibition in the central pavilion of the leafy Giardini exhibition park and leaving the superb spaces inside Venice’s historic Arsenale, which is near the Giardini, to a show mainly by young Italian architects.
The Giardini show, called Elements of Architecture, takes a very particular look at the nuts and bolts of the architects’ trade, from ramps and doors to toilets and dividing walls. Here too, you will find the national pavilions.
Alternative Biennale venues
With 65 nations sending exhibits to the Architecture Biennale, the Arsenale and Giardini simply can’t accommodate them all. And so the events and exhibitions – both sanctioned by the Biennale organisers and spontaneous – spill out around town: information can be found on the Biennale website, and on posters around town. However you feel about the contents of the shows, the venues are certainly worth a detour to see. And unlike the shows at the main venues, most of these side-bar events are free.
The Republic of Armenia is staging its offering inside the Collegio Armeno at Palazzo Zenobio, with its picturesquely unkempt gardens and courtyards in the Dorsoduro area of the city; the beautiful 15th-century Giudecca canal-facing Palazzo Trevisan will host no fewer than four exhibits, from Switzerland and Liechtenstein; prize-winning young African architects will feature at Ca’ Asi in Castello; Spain’s Cataluna region is exhibiting in a disused naval dockyards in northern Castello; and to enjoy Kenya’s contribution, you’ll have to make your way across the lagoon to the island of San Servolo.
How to visit the Biennale
Military-style planning is needed if you’re planning to ‘do’ the Biennale thoroughly: between the Giardini and the Arsenale, there’s a huge amount of ground to cover. Don’t even think of trying to do the lot in one day: a full two-day ticket may be expensive at €30 (€22 under 26 years old), but it will give you the time you need for a satisfying visit rather than a frustrating dash. Don’t forget to scan the confusing list of discounts: you may find you’re eligible for a cut-price ticket.
Where to buy tickets
Tickets can be purchased on line through the Biennale site, at ticket offices at the main gates of the Giardini and Arsenale, or at the Biennale HQ in Palazzo Giustinian by the San Marco-Vallaresso vaporetto stop. For the first couple of weeks of the event, on busy summer weekends, and in the days before the Biennale closes in November, you may have to queue to purchase tickets. At other times, you should walk straight in.
The main Biennale sites are closed on Monday. Many of the off-site collateral shows close on Tuesday. Plan your visits carefully.
Where to refresh and recover
Located at the far eastern end of island Venice, in an area which is placidly residential at other times of year, the Giardini and Arsenale are far from the city’s main wining and dining districts. But if the generally uninspiring café-style array of food in the Biennale catering areas don’t inspire you, there is some hope just outside.
The Serra dei Giardini ( serradeigiardini.org ) is a café-snack bar inside a magnificent greenhouse in the non-exhibition sector of the Giardini: staff can be brusque but it’s a pleasant place to rest if you can nab a table outside.
For some traditional fare with a real spit-and-sawdust neighbourhood feel, the Trattoria dai Tosi (Castello 738, Seco Marina, trattoriadaitosi.com ) is always a good bet; they serve decent, cheap pizzas in the evening.
Still further east from the Biennale sites, the umbrella pine-filled park in the Sant’Elena district is home to the jolly Vincent Bar (viale IV Novembre 36) which offers a range of salads, filled rolls and simple pasta dishes at pavement tables with a view through the trees to the lagoon.
Busy via Garibaldi is home to several light-lunch eateries. The trendy evening spot is El Refolo (Castello 1583): immediately recognisable by its jumble of high tables and stools outside – and, at Biennale time, by milling crowds awaiting their turn to join the action at this hole-in-the-wall joint, El Refolo serves sandwiches, cold cut and cheese platters, plus good cheap drinks. There are lots more suggestions on my guide to Venice's best restaurants .
More modern architecture?
Though Venice offers more to fans of the Gothic and Baroque, there’s modern and contemporary architecture hidden away here too for anyone with an appetite that even the Biennale can’t sate.
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava left his unmistakable mark on Venice at the controversial Ponte della Costituzione, the fourth bridge across the Grand Canal linking the railway station with the road transport hub at piazzale Roma. Across the lagoon on San Michele, Britain’s David Copperfield was responsible for a subtle extension to the city’s cemetery island. The pared-back work of Japan’s Tadao Ando can be seen at the Palazzo Grassi and at the stunning Punta della Dogana galleries; his latest miniature Venetian gem is the Teatrino Grassi, a curving white space where screenings and performances of mainly contemporary works take place (for all three see palazzograssi.it ).
The master of modern architecture in Venice was the city’s own Carlo Scarpa, whose modernist designs can be seen in the ground floor and garden of the Querini Stampalia gallery (www.querinistampalia.org), at various points in Venice’s university buildings and at the marvellous Olivetti Store ( negoziolivetti.it ) in piazza San Marco.
About Anne Hanley
Anne has lived in Italy for over 25 years. She is the Telegraph expert in Venice - her favourite Italian city. See her Venice guide here
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This article was written by Anne Hanley from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.