One half for the Biennale, one half for Venice
A conversation with AKT & Hermann Czech on opening up the Giardini (and the Biennale) to the city of Venice (and its inhabitants)

Spatial displacement processes and the loss of essential infrastructure over the last decades have led to a steady depopulation of the city of Venice. For the first time in its recent history, the population of Venice’s old town has reached a historic low, falling below the critical 50,000 mark. In the context of a shrinking Venice, the Austrian Pavilion, Partecipazione / Beteiligung, calls upon Venice’s biggest cultural event to face up to its political and cultural responsibility as a “laboratory of the future”. In this interview, we talked with the curators about the institutional resistance encountered by their ideas, what it means to understand the Biennial as a political statement and what the Biennale can do to become a countermodel to current harmful spatial practices.

This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.


KOOZ The Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023, Partecipazione / Beteiligung, calls on the Biennale to face up to its political and cultural responsibilities in a shrinking Venice by opening up half of the pavilion as a meeting space for the adjacent district and local initiatives. What prompted the idea for your proposal as one which is deeply tied to the Venetian context and its fragility?

AKT Rather than exhibiting architecture, we wanted to make an architectural statement: to reveal architecture’s social and political dimension. Given the fact that architecture is obviously site specific, we chose to directly engage with the site, the symmetry of the pavilion, its location within the Giardini of the Biennale and the bordering wall which separates the Giardini from the city of Venice.

We wanted to make an architectural statement: to reveal architecture’s social and political dimension.

Since the beginning, we were very interested in the bordering wall and the spatial implications of moving this threshold, between Biennale and city, into the pavilion. Whilst the city would have benefitted from having more space, the Biennale would have lost half of the pavilions' usable area including the courtyard. That was when the participatory nature of the project came into place as the result of our understanding of participation as a practice that is deeply rooted in the disposition of space. To claim your right to the city you have to own a piece of the city, you need a space.

To ensure the project did not remain a pure architectural act in and of itself, we then engaged the neighbouring population and local initiatives in researching the actual relationship between the city and the Biennial. Aware of the critique, which is mostly still debated on a local and regional level, we thought it would be important that this happens where it belongs, “within” the Biennale.

To claim your right to the city you have to own a piece of the city, you need a space.

The exhibition spaces on the Biennale-side of the pavilion critically present the expansion and the exclusive nature of the Biennale added by the rejection of our proposal. As a result of the rejection, the research we present through both the exhibition and catalogue becomes even more relevant.


KOOZ When analysing the Biennale’s expansion, you mentioned that whilst in the beginning it was limited to cultural foundations, now it’s much more permeated within buildings which actually belong to the everyday lives of venetians, like workshops or apartments. How did you document the expansion of the Biennale up to 2022 and what were your most interesting discoveries?

AKT During the Biennale Arte 2022 we engaged in proper fieldwork. We visited each pavilion and collateral event throughout the city of Venice, documenting them and enquiring on their previous use. We soon realised the ambiguity of the phenomenon. There are positive examples but also a lot of negative ones. As soon as a location loses its original function the site is immediately turned into an art space and becomes a lucrative investment which can be rented out for a higher price throughout the Biennales. That’s what the Biennale does, it creates a market.

That’s what the Biennale does, it creates a market.

KOOZ You call it a proper real estate agency…

AKT That´s what it is and this is quite apparent on the “bacheca biennale”, the section of its website where all potential locations are listed.

HERMANN CZECH We are not interested in destroying the Biennale, as it is an important institution in Venice, but rather to ensure that the ambiguity of certain ways of its conduct are addressed and handled. With a project like ours, the Biennale could set a very important example. The Biennale should develop a strong counter concept against such tendencies in the city, instead of fueling them.


KOOZ Apart from the amount of space that the Biennale claims for the 6 months of its opening, there’s another 6 months in which it is inactive. Your project is kind of a prototype of what could have been if we think of a more entangled relationship between the Biennale and the city of Venice, both in terms of its activity when it’s active but also from November until May…

HC In the past decades numerous local groups and even the municipality itself have tried to open the space of the Giardini throughout these six months but without any success.

AKT We frequently discussed this with local initiatives and architecture groups like Biennale Urbana, a Venice based collective who engages in local research. The question of “what the Biennale could be for the city” always comes up. We believe that to address this, it is not even necessary to look into the future but it is already enlightening to revisit the Biennale’s past and the first architecture exhibitions in the 1970s. Vittorio Gregotti, who recognised the huge visibility of the Art Biennale, decided to bring in international architects to address the city’s problems and engage with the social and spatial realities of Venice. The 1975 edition of La Biennale was called Un Laboratorio internazionale which aimed to motivate architects to deal with the important industrial heritage of the Molino Stucky.

The question of “what the Biennale could be for the city” always comes up.

KOOZ It’s fundamental to embrace this kind of approach and it’s promising that in this Biennale two pavilions—namely the Austrian and the German—address this local dimension. In terms of +process, what led to the failure of your project? Could you tell us how the project unfolded in the past year?

HC The Biennale’s first reaction was that, whilst they wouldn’t support the project, they wouldn't be opposed to it if we managed to get all the necessary permits. At the same time, the Soprintendenza (local heritage commission) said they would need to consult with the Biennale before issuing a permit. The most absurd arguments were brought up throughout the process, to the point that it was claimed that we were trying to privatise the interstitial space between the wall of the Austrian pavilion and that of the Biennale when in reality our concept was seeking to achieve the exact opposite: opening up of this space to the local population.

Our concept was seeking to achieve the exact opposite: opening up of this space to the local population.

AKT Which is almost funny if you consider that the Giardini lie on public grounds that are annually given to the private foundation of the Biennale.

HC Moreover, if one looks at the Biennale wall more closely, one can see that certain parts had openings which were subsequently walled up. After the proposal fell through because of the privatisation-argument, we proposed a bridge over the wall. This time the counter-argument was that all buildings within the walls of the Giardini are protected as exhibition buildings and must solely be used for exhibition purposes and not participatory practices. A ridiculous argument, as many monuments are safe because of their alternative use.

Many monuments are safe because of their alternative use.


KOOZ The agency of the architect can be used to fight the system (to a certain extent), but there is also the way in which one can work within the system. At that point it’s all about standards and architecture. Sometimes, to actually make a difference, you kind of need to work within the bureau that’s defining the standards, otherwise you risk continuously banging your head against a wall.

AKT Beyond the bureau, this is an institution which is not willing to engage in such projects.

KOOZ The questions you raise are even bigger. What is an institution today? What is the value of this if the participatory element is denied and culture is merely reduced to an exhibition space?

AKT At the moment, only half of the bridge, namely the stair tower in the courtyard, has been built. When one stands atop, it is possible to see how the Biennale of the 21st century spatially communicates with the city. Whilst the Biennale says it fears precedents, we believe it is urgent to establish this kind of precedents to change the institution’s politics and relations to the surrounding city. The Biennale could become an antithesis to what happens to the rest of the city, namely being exploited economically in every possible way. This institution could offer a very powerful alternative, if it wouldn’t detach itself that much from the city.

The Biennale could become an antithesis to what happens to the rest of the city,

KOOZ The possibility of creating more synergies between the Biennale and Venice could yield infinite opportunities for Venice. Beyond it being a cultural and touristic attraction, the Biennale can really help building the infrastructure. I think this is what an institution should do in the 21st century.

AKT Think of the money that is invested into all those exhibitions, into dozens of national pavilions.


KOOZ How does the future of the Biennale, and of the discipline, look from the perspective of the Austrian Pavilion at the Giardini?

AKT That should have been discussed during the following six months. We collaborated with scientists that have engaged with the Biennale much longer than we could. For example Clarissa Ricci, who’s an expert on the history of the Biennale, other academics from local universities, urban right-to-the-city groups like OCIO, Forum Futuro Arsenale or Biennale Urbana. We are not offering easy answers but the space and the necessary visibility for the discussion.

Besides, there used to be a day of free entrance for the citizens of Venice. In other countries—like the UK, for example—you have free entrance for citizens to various cultural institutions. With the Biennale, you have the most important architecture exhibition and you have only one day of free access. We don’t even know if that will happen this year. We were planning to open the city-half of the pavilion at least for this one day, but even that might not be possible now. Originally we wanted a continuous public programme in a freely accessible space and the Biennale recommended that we should buy tickets forthe residents instead.

Ideally we wanted to establish a dialogue between the Biennale and the initiatives we contacted. And in that sense we hope that today was actually the first step towards establishing that dialogue, because Paolo Baratta came to visit the pavilion with the Biennale´s technical director and we talked for almost one hour. Also Roberto Cicutto and Andrea Del Mercato, current president and vice president, came to visit us twice in the last three days.

From the beginning we pursued our project and knew that if the Biennale were not to allow it, we would not change the concept because the topic was too important.

KOOZ The idea of opening the Biennale is not new: in 2013 there were conversations on trying to open one of the pavilions to the public. That idea was also rejected. Hopefully, the more times this intention comes up, the more solutions are imagined and maybe, at a certain point, someone will listen and start working from the inside.

AKT We just wanted to reinforce awareness of this option. Usually a curator applies with a concept, if the Biennale says no, the curator changes the concept and nobody finds out what was initially proposed. From the beginning we pursued our project and knew that if the Biennale were not to allow it, we would not change the concept because the topic was too important. We made and built everything that was possible. The results are for the public to judge.


AKT is an architecture collective based in Vienna. Together, its members explore the relationship between people and objects that together create space. Architecture as action and vivid communication that becomes tangible through realisation.

Hermann Czech was born in Vienna. He studied under Konrad Wachsmann and Ernst A. Plischke, among others. His architectural and planning work is heterogeneous and has appeared in numerous critical and theoretical publications on architecture. He holds visiting professorships at Harvard GSD, ETH Zurich and in Vienna. His solo exhibitions include Architekturmuseum Basel and participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980, 1991, 2000 and 2012.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

25 May 2023
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