The new DCM-designed pavilion at the Venice architecture biennale is host to a very Australian public space – the swimming pool. By Jaynie Anderson.

‘The Pool’ at the Venice biennale

The Pool by Aileen Sage Architects, in the Australian pavilion.
The Pool by Aileen Sage Architects, in the Australian pavilion.
Credit: Brett Boardman

In May, well before the 15th International Architecture Exhibition opened in Venice, Italian journalists were already speculating about the Australian pavilion. They were intrigued by the potentialities of the “singular approach” of its exhibit, The Pool, as a vital public space in the architectural debate in a biennale this year focusing on social housing. Where would a pool fit in? As a form of social play? In a city built within a lagoon, the installation of a pool to celebrate what water means to Australians provokes a confrontation and synergy between the significance of water for both cultures.

Venice is a city with a unique architectural past. She, for she is always feminine, thrusts into the critical limelight an incomparable set of possibilities for future architecture at each biennale. A few revealing statistics… In this biennale there are 88 participants from 37 countries. Fifty are participating for the first time, and 33 are under the age of 40. Only 10 are women, and three of those are the architects of the Australian pavilion. Described as its “creative directors”, Amelia Holliday and Isabelle Toland of Aileen Sage Architects and Michelle Tabet appear in a photograph placed towards the very end of the excellent catalogue that accompanies the show, capturing them standing on blocks at the edge of an ocean pool at the Coogee Surf Lifesaving Club in Sydney. Dressed in blue and black, these young women present a new and seemingly casual image of the creative director in the 21st century, one that deftly undermines the traditional image of an architect.

This is the inaugural architectural exhibition for the new Australian pavilion in the Giardini, the park that hosts most of the biennale. This is the first pavilion added to the Giardini in 20 years. Most of the others were built more than 50 years ago and intended as temporary buildings, even though the architects were well known. Some now look tacky, even shabby. By contrast, the professionalism and beauty of the permanent Denton Corker Marshall structure stands out.

In the broadsheet that accompanies The Pool, called “Diving In”, Holliday, Toland and Tabet define the concept behind what they are showing: “The Pool is a place, a platform, a bridge between people. It is a well-known Australian public space, where the personal and the communal intersect.” The actual pool installed in the space is seemingly simple yet respectful of the sharply defined DCM onyx room in which it sits. It fits into an almost triangular space with rippling shallow water, mirrored in the ceiling. Outside the pool are welcoming seats and deckchairs, designed by an Indigenous co-operative from Alice Springs. There is an intriguing scent around the pool, developed to evoke the smell of the Australian bush after a fire or what emanates from wet earth after rain. Watching the first people who came in to view the show, they were perplexed by it. Some ran their fingers through the water, suspecting a scent such as chlorine. They walked away slightly bewildered: the smell was Australian, but they could not quite define it.

At the critics’ preview I sat in one of the deckchairs, listening to the stories of eight collaborators. It was an immersive space for listening and sensing. The complexities of the stories are told in the accompanying book catalogue, as distinct from the broadsheet. At the opening there was a very large crowd that did not lend itself to the thoughtful contemplation demanded by the installation but suggests that the exhibit will be popular.

The accompanying book is elegantly produced with succinct texts and breathtaking images. There are words from Tim Flannery on Australia’s artesian water, from Ian Thorpe on the role that pools play in our national psyche, and Hetti Perkins on her father Charlie’s role in the Freedom Ride, as well as many others. A rather marvellous, if brief and well-illustrated section, entitled “On the Edge”, features the idiosyncratic architecture of coastal rock swimming pools, predominantly in New South Wales. Whoever accomplished this unconventional catalogue should be congratulated for the concise nature in which thoughts are expressed and enhanced by well-researched imagery. No other pavilion at the biennale has a similar catalogue.

True to tradition, this architecture biennale features a main pavilion centred on the year’s concept, encapsulated in its title, Reporting from the Front. This year, the feature is Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, whose pavilion is the symbol of a seemingly novel form of social architecture. Aravena contends there is no need for luxury when simple means can create solutions to global problems. “Elemental” architecture, as Aravena defines it, occurs when architects do not create elegant solutions for repressive regimes but try to resolve the issues of global housing by do-it-yourself means, creating low-cost housing whereby residents can transform their lives. At times, the results look like radical chic; at times banal; at others, like the brilliantly coloured fables of fairytales.

How countries responded to this brief is the basis of the biennale. Most are overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task. Australia’s pavilion may at first appear eccentric, but it shows architecture through a different lens. The Pool is a metaphor for all of our identities, a democratic leveller for the body. The Australian pavilion is only comparable with one other, that of the People’s Republic of China, which has taken Taoism, the flux of the universe, as a metaphor for Chinese society and culture in a subtle way with a wonderful installation. Architecture is the most political of the arts, we are told frequently in the biennale signage. 

Another component of the Venice architecture biennale recipe is to show retrospectives of stellar architects in different locales throughout the city. In this case, the outstanding retrospective at the Palazzo Franchetti, Campo Santo Stefano, was that of Zaha Hadid, who died before she could see the project realised. Her career is documented here by many architectural models of great originality and beauty. It is an exhibition of an architect who believed in achieving the impossible, and of all architects is the most attractive to young minds at the biennale.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Italy, Australian artists are conspicuous, notably Stelarc, whose renowned “Ear on Arm” performance image caught the imagination of Milan, where it became a signature piece in the exhibition 2050: A Brief History of the Future (Breve Storia del Futuro). There is an optimism about the way in which Australian art and architecture is presented to the world in Italy. The critical reception bodes well for the future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Shed pool".

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Jaynie Anderson is a visiting professor at the Fondazione Cini, Venice.

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