Looking back at making Venice's Biennale

By HY William Chan, Architecture Insights, 3 December 2012

Last-minute touches being made by Zaha Hadid's students, photograph by HY William Chan.

As the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale draws to a close, Byera Hadley Travelling Scholar HY William Chan looks at the making of two of its most influential exhibits.

Herzog & de Meuron and Zaha Hadid were architects who were revered among students during my undergraduate time at architecture school. Indeed, I was extremely keen to see their work even though both firms are not new to the Venice Biennale scene.

Even more so, was my intrigue in finding out how studios of such international repute and iconic status would answer this year’s rather down-to-earth and socially responsive brief – the common ground within the profession.

Having unprecedented access to the daily installation progress was exciting and akin to reading the sketchbooks of these architectural thought-leaders.

Herzog & de Meuron

Unlike the subject of their exhibition, the Elbphilharmonie, Herzog & de Meuron were actually one of the first architects to complete their installation for the Biennale well ahead of schedule. Sectionals of their long-awaited yet unfinished Hamburg opera theatre were the main feature.

Slices of pre-cut foam were reassembled on-site among timber shells to create the large 1:20 scale models, with two of the three suspended from the ceiling. The isolated studies emphasized the respective dramatic spaces and circulation routes within the opera theatre, prompting visitors to peer inside.

Larger-than-life newspaper clippings of the controversial project became the wallpaper plastering the exhibition hall.The turbulent process in planning and building were eye-opening for me, particularly as a result of the world’s financial crisis. I found it bold yet sincere for such a Swiss practice to acknowledge the public critiques – both the good and bad.


Zaha Hadid Architects 

On the other hand, Zaha Hadid Architects constructed Arum piece by piece with only one week before the Vernissage opening. The floral-like funnel structure was formed by unique reflective metal panels which had been precisely modelled and calculated.

Each petal had their protective film painstakingly removed by hand while fingerprint smudges were avoided at all costs. Prefabricated based on Maya computer generation, they were individually numbered and grouped, ready to be bolted together. During construction the sculpture was supported by timber scaffolding.

Zaha’s students from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna exhibited their academic work alongside the installation, referencing its tribute to structural engineer Frei Otto.

Unforeseen concerns at the last minute regarding the stability of the top opening were quickly resolved by altering the panels.

I was astonished by the construction efficiency resulting from the reliance of 3D modelling and robotic fabrication. At the same time, it proved that margins of error from the latest technology still occur, especially when least expected. It is the creative problem-solving skills of the architect that triumphs in the end.

The three-month long 13th Venice Architecture Biennale concluded on the 25 November. Student architect HY William Chan recently presented his scholarship experience in Venice at the 2012 Sydney Architecture Festival. He eagerly awaits the next installment of the biennale in 2014.