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The Architecture Biennale in Venice, is a time for being inspired, networking and soaking up the last of the summer sun – although visitors this year got an unexpected soaking when the rain clouds rolled in. The focus of the Biennale (as with the Art Biennale) is on two main shows – the Arsenale, a vast shipyard filled with installations, and the Giardini, Venice’s municipal gardens, where 30 national pavilions are transformed with exhibitions. Thankfully all the parties and talks offer plenty of excuses to get lost in the city too. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, curated this year’s festival with the theme “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building”. Overall it was a riotous affair, although many designs were more art than architecture and left us wanting something more serious and a bit less gimmicky.

Wednesday, 10 September
I arrive to a blazing Venice and catch a water taxi straight to the Arsenale. It’s eerily empty (most of the press haven’t arrived), and there’s chance for a quiet catch up with Aaron Betsky. He’s full of anticipation. “It’s a biennale that I hope will amaze people, maybe disquiet them, maybe disturb them.” Later, a party at Hotel Danieli celebrates David Rockwell’s Hall of Fragments installation. A grown-up crowd works the room; Estonia’s gas pipe and Belgium’s empty pavilion are hot topics.

Thursday, 11 September
Installations at the Arsenale range from films to digital displays and abstract models. Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Massimiliano Fuksas are among the big names. It’s weird and wonderful, but hard to spot any actual architecture. At the Giardini, there’s a street-party vibe, and exhibitions offer intriguing lessons in nation branding. Australia is loud and proud in bright yellow; Germany is experimental. But stealing the show is Japan’s understated pavilion by Junya Ishigami, featuring a garden with glass boxes and walls covered with delicately drawn images.

Friday, 12 September
At the Giardini I stop for a debate on sustainable cities organised by the Danish pavilion. Richard Burdett, who curated the last biennale (and writes for Monocle), is on the panel. As the rain sets in, I find a dry spot (well, we just place flyers on a damp bench) to catch up with Dutch architect Wiel Arets. He says, “It’s the most important exhibition in the world for architecture. It’s a very inspiring environment.” Across town, at a crammed Harry’s Bar, Kim Herforth Nielsen of Danish practice 3XN gives his verdict: “It’s interesting but I think it is a little bit like an art biennale.” After a cocktail party at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum there’s a dinner party at a crumbling palazzo hosted by the Albion gallery, to celebrate sculptor’s Ai Weiwei’s collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron.

Saturday, 13 September
Today are the debates and one of the more interesting talks is by urban planner and architect, Denise Scott Brown, in the British pavilion. In the afternoon, it’s a scrum to get into the Golden Lion Awards. Poland takes the gong for best pavilion (featuring lots of photography and exploring the fate of buildings), and American architect Greg Lynn wins best installation for his furniture made from recycled toys. It’s a surprising result for a surprising biennale. Next time though, let’s bring the focus back to architecture please.
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Monocle picks

Giardini top three
01 GeneroCity – contemporary French architecture.
02 Into The Open – Positioning Practice, a thoughtful take on US architecture.
03 Extreme Nature: Landscape of Ambiguous Spaces – a quiet Japanese debut.

Arsenale top three
01 Living in Here – a proposal for affordable housing in Mexico City.
02 Towards Paradise – landscape sculpture and design set in a Benedictine nunnery.
03 Ordinary Architecture – a look at Chinese design that steers clear of iconic starchitecture.







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