The Biennale Experience

Davide Spina

The Venice Biennale – or just ‘Biennale’ – is the most awaited event in the strange world of architecture. As with most things in this industry, flexibility lies at its core. Biennales don’t take place at regular intervals, sometimes it’s every two years, sometimes three, depending on the curator and the financial health of the foundation. Its Presidenti come and go according to the political climate – the current one, Mr Baratta, returned after a 7 year long hiatus. Lastly, the only permanent feature of the event, its starting date, changed too and against the tradition this year’s edition kicked off in June instead of September.

The Biennale changes continuously but is still strong, a must for whoever has an interest in architecture. Its opening – or vernice, when the national pavilions are presented to the press – is the place and time to be, whether if you are an architect or if you are looking for one. In no other circumstance would you be able to meet so many world class professionals all at once and in such an informal fashion. Some say that the Biennale might take place everywhere, but Venice was not chosen by chance. The ‘Queen of the Adriatic’ provides the perfect setting for the event. Wherever else could you chat with like-minded people in the shade of sumptuous Mediterranean pine trees, lulled by a gentle breeze, with a glass of great, local prosecco in your hand?  Yes, the vernice is a two-day long networking feast fuelled by a generous supply of alcohol. But surviving it is easier than it seems.

A thorough analysis of the exhibition’s content is a daunting task in the whirlwind of the opening days. There are just too many people around (and too many champaigne corks popping). But to almost everyone at the vernice, talking about what is being exhibited is the icebreaker topic that makes the conversation take off. From there, in no time you find yourself exchanging opinions and shaking hands with your peers. Tens of events take place throughout the day, so a bit of planning is advised if you wish to make the most of it. However, ‘going with the flow’ – i.e. drifting freely from pavilion to pavilion – is also a popular and completely acceptable option. The place is so packed that you will find yourself bumping into familiar faces at every corner. And even those you don’t know will prove to be very keen to socialise, because at the vernice everyone is up for a chat.

The Biennale opening can be what you want it to be: a chance to get inspired by the latest developments in architectural theory, an occasion to meet old friends and make new ones, a headhunting game, or a mix of the three. Whatever your choice will be, please avoid the two Biennale no-no’s: a dead phone and a hotel far from the Giardini and Arsenale exhibition areas. You want to reach people at any time and everywhere during your stay, and when the day’s over (and you are exhausted) you don’t want it to take too long to get back to your hotel room. Just choose an accommodation somewhere in the Castello district (book early), and you will spare yourself the pain. This applies to the vernice as well as to later visits, when the event is open to the public. Given its early start, this year the Biennale is likely to be a summer experience, probably a weekend break destination, or one stop of your own Journey to Italy.

The exhibition closes at 6pm (8pm on Fridays and Saturdays), but after that there are loads of collateral events you can go to. On the opening days the party on the Peggy Guggenheim Museum’s terrace right on the Canal Grande is usually the most exclusive. Again, planning is advisable, yet not strictly necessary, as many events are announced on the spot. So when the sun sets, the Biennale people flow away from the Arsenale and Giardini to be engulfed again by the porous urban fabric of the old city. The action moves along the canals, to the narrow streets and cosy squares of La Serenissima, where the night goes on, spritz after spritz. Venice’s nocturnal embrace brings even more occasions to combine pleasure with business. That is the spirit of this fantastic city, a city that after centuries still thrives on a sacred alliance between art and commerce.