Behind The Scenes Of The Venice Biennale Pavilions

23 May 2016

When the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale officially opens its doors on May 28, a lot of work has already been done behind the scenes. I guess a lot of teams will also heave a sigh of relief on that day. Both at the level of the Biennale itself, as of the participating countries and events, it requires plenty of effort and time to ensure an interesting and appealing exhibition.

In this post, I will look in more detail at the different aspects of the preparation behind the scenes of a national pavilion, such as the challenges of the project timing, the composition of the teams and the relationship with the Biennale organization in Venice. I won’t go into the role of the curators, as this was already discussed in my post ‘Who are the curators of the 2016 Architecture Biennale’.

Original article

Project timing

The first dilemma which the participations face is when they should start the whole process. Should they move as fast as possible to appoint a curator or to select a theme (the order depends on the country) or should they wait until the official theme of this year’s Biennale has been set? The first option allows them to plan carefully and to create an interesting exhibition without any constraints. The disadvantage is that it will most likely not be aligned with the overall theme and they might have to tweak their original ideas if they don’t want to be completely off-road. The second option will ensure a project in line with the overall theme, but requires a faster turn-around and the necessary creativity to come up with an original idea compared to the other participations. Both options are valid and it seems that the national participations are spread across both options.

Architecture Biennale timeline

The overall timing of the Biennale Architettura 2016

As you can see on the timeline, the theme ‘Reporting from the Front’has been announced by Alejandro Aravena at the end of August last year. The countries then have 1.5 month to register their participation.

However, when I looked at the announcements of the different countries, I discovered that Australia (The Pool) already announced the full details of their exhibition in April last year, so 3 months before the appointment of Alejandro Aravena. Their planning even started while the 2014 Biennale was still open, with a new eight member organizing committee (VBC). The selection process for the creative team and exhibition theme began with an open expression of interest, in response to a detailed brief prepared by the VBC. The call went out in late November 2014 and 20 submissions were received by the end of January 2015. The VBC shortlisted five teams and invited each to further develop their proposals prior to face-to-face interviews with the full committee in April. After the selection of the team, they continued to develop their exhibition to have it packed and ready to head by boat to Venice by the end of February 2016. This large distance actually reduces their preparation time with approx. 2 months compared with for instance European teams, who can ship to Venice in a matter of days.

The United States (The Architectural Imagination) decided on the curators and the theme at the end of June 2015 and reported the full details of the project on August 28, hence prior to the official announcement of ‘Reporting from the Front’. And even though Belgium (Bravoure) only announced the official representation in November, the theme was set early July by the commissioner and the interested teams had to apply by August 26, so also before the overall theme was made official.

Architecture Biennale Belgium Bravoure

Bravoure, the project on crafts(wo)manship of Belgium (© Filip Dujardin)

It is clear that countries with a very strong link to ‘Reporting from the Front’ decided much later on the curators and on the concept of their pavilion. The United Arab Emirates (Transformations: The Emirati National House) announced the curators and the theme at the end of October, while Germany (Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country) did this at the end of November. Some countries were even stretching it further, such as Spain and Egypt who organized their open calls for proposals only in February of this year, although it has to be said that the curator and theme had been defined beforehand.

ARchitecture Biennale Germany Making Heimat

Freising refugee accommodation — project of Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country (Architect: Fiedler + Partner, © Reinhard Fiedler)

In the end, all participations refer in one way or another to the ‘Reporting from the Front’ theme set by Alejandro Aravena, whether this was conceived this way or not. The ‘faster’ pavilions just need to rely more on marketing to link their concept to the social aspect or the battle at the front.


Social media are amongst the most often used marketing tools, as they give easy access to potentially interested visitors from all over the world. Several pavilions are very active on social media, either through their own account or via the account of the commissioner. Most participations use Facebook and Twitter, but there are also a few who mainly focus on Instagram, such as Portugal and Greece.

As a visitor, you can follow the different actions behind the scenes, from the appointment of the curator, over the team meetings to the set-up in the pavilion. Australia is amongst the most active ones and already started its Facebook campaign in April 2015. The team uses the platform to find inspiration, to look for volunteers, to show progress but most importantly to inspire and attract visitors to the pavilion. I can admit that their tactic works and that it is the pavilion I am most intrigued to explore. Let’s hope it lives up to the expectations.

Architecture Biennale Australia The Pool

Some examples of the posts of The Pool from Australia on Facebook (© The Pool)

The Philippines participate for the first time to the Architecture Biennale and are using social media to create awareness and to attract visitors to their pavilion. They first presented the whole team in different posts. Afterwards, they also showed pictures of the mock-up of the installation, which they built to resemble the Palazzo Mora where they host ‘Muhon: Place Markers In The Search For Emerging Identity’.

Architecture Biennale Philippines Muhon

The construction of the mock-up of the Venetian palazzo in the Philippines (© Philippine Arts in Venice Biennale)

The organization of La Biennale is also quite active on different social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They recently started a series with an overview of the previous 14 editions of the Architecture Biennale, to give you some historical background. They share from time to time information from the pavilions, but also practical information such as on the online presale of the tickets. If you plan to visit the Biennale, this is an account you really should follow.

Project team

The curator is often the driver of the whole exhibition and the concept. He is also the best known team member, especially towards the media. He/she does however rely heavily on a support team behind the scenes. (As mentioned earlier, I won’t go into the role of the curator here, but you can read more about it by clicking here.)

The national teams preparing the exhibitions under the supervision of a curator are quite large. If we look for instance at South Africa (Cool Capital), the team consists of 4 people from the curators’ architectural agency, 5 consultants for graphic design, catering, web development, filming and documentation and a construction team in Venice to set up the whole installation. Singapore (Space to Imagine, Room for Everyone) has a team of 4 with 1 curator, 2 co-curators and 1 curatorial assistant, and they rely on the lean support of a graphic designer, administrative staff and public relations. The curatorial team is usually only present at the pavilion to set-up the exhibition and during the press days, before the official opening.

Architecture Biennale South Africa Cool Capital

Eetstad, one of the projects for the South African pavilion (© Cool Capital)

The roles within these teams are quite varied. They do not only have to come up with an interesting concept, but they also have to develop it, market it, create publicity and other materials, talk to the press (and bloggers such as The Venice Insider and make sure everything gets shipped on time. For some countries, the latter is literally from the other end of the world.

The project teams are almost always new to the Architecture Biennale in Venice, or at least in their project role. I assume many of them have attended previously as a visitor. This implies that they have to start from scratch and need to rely on the existing working relationship between their national commissioner, who is often the same across different editions, and the Biennale organization. There are of course similarities with other exhibitions, which I’m sure many of the team members participate to, but I think the support and experience of the commissioner is crucial for running a smooth project. This could be about simple things such as how to get around in Venice or about the habits of the visitors, which in fact might have more ‘Biennale experience’ than the team.

Architecture Biennale Singapore lanterns

The Singapore team finetuning the prototype lantern in the manufacturer’s office in Italy (© Viabizzuno)

Pavilion hosts

The most visible members of the teams are the ‘hosts’, who receive the visitors in the pavilion and who play a crucial role towards the perception of the pavilion. For this role, the participations mainly rely on interns or volunteers. Some countries hire from within their country and send them to Venice for a period of a couple of weeks to one month. They either get accommodation or a fee to cover the costs, but the experience of being part of such an event is the most important reward. Other countries hire (Italian) interns via the Biennale. In general, their roles include opening and closing of the pavilion, greeting and overseeing visitors, distributing or selling publications, answering questions from the visitors and providing feedback to the team. Some pavilions now also ask for social media skills to keep the world up to date on what’s happening in Venice.

From my experience, I think it’s a real challenge for the pavilions to find people who do not only sit at the entrance looking down at their mobile phone or a book, acting like their only role is to avoid damage to the exhibition and to avoid getting ‘difficult’ questions on the concept of the exhibition. I would really love to see them show an open mind, so visitors are stimulated to ask questions and they can act as guides.

Architecture Biennale New Zealand Islands

New Zealand preparing the islands at Palazzo Bollani in Venice (© Charles Walker — Future Islands)

Luckily, the selection processes seem to move in this direction. New Zealand requires the hosts to be able to answer questions on the exhibition ‘Future Islands’, on New Zealand architecture and on New Zealand in general. The United Kingdom created steward-research fellowships. These are not mere volunteers, but they work at the pavilion 4 days per week and use the remainder of the time to undertake a research project inspired by the pavilion. These 50 VeniceFellows were trained at an event, where the curators guided them through the concept of ‘Home Economics’. The United Arab Emirates treats them as custodians and docents of the pavilion, where they will get hands-on experience managing the exhibition. The internship starts in the UAE, where the interns undergo a comprehensive educational program based on partnerships with leading cultural institutions. I look forward to visit these pavilions and check whether this approach works and adds value to the exhibition as a whole.

Architecture Biennale UK VeniceFellows

The UK VeniceFellows at one of their preparatory events (© British Council)

Relationship with the Biennale

The teams I have been in touch with all have good to very good working relationships with the organizing team of the Biennale. They are in constant contact, at minimum once or twice per week. To be honest, I didn’t realize this would be so often. The Biennale has no (or limited) input in the design or content of the pavilion, except for practical issues of local regulations and permissions and for logistics support. They are of course approving certain documents such as press releases and poster design, to ensure a consistent branding of the Biennale.

Venice Biennale offices

The headquarters of the Venice Biennale

We can now start counting the days until the opening of the Biennale (May 26 for the press, May 28 for the public) and to our visit. From what I have read and seen so far, it promises to be very interesting. If you want to prepare your trip, I suggest to read my posts ‘What to expect from the 2016 Architecture Biennale’ and ‘Who are the curators of the 2016 Architecture Biennale’, as well as the previews of the different pavilions. If you are still in doubt after all this information, check out why the curators think why you should visit their pavilion. You can find these answers in my YouTube video.

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