Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale: The Happenstance

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Whatever one might say about Venice – tourist mecca, living museum, the most magical city on Earth – it doesn’t have a lot of “free space”. Every inch of the city is built on, most gardens are walled in, and – from finding a hotel room to renting an exhibition space for the Biennale – even the smallest of spaces comes with a high price tag.

That makes the choice of “Freespace” as the theme for this year’s Architecture Biennale quite remarkable. And, more remarkable still, Scotland’s project, The Happenstance, will open up a genuinely free space for discussion and debate in the heart of the city, using the energy and ideas of Scottish young people to kick-start wider conversations.

From now until November, the 16th International Architecture Biennale – which takes place on alternate years to the celebrated Art Biennale – will fill the city with exhibitions and events. Outside the official programme, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara (Grafton Architects) in the permanent venues of the Arsenale and Giardini, “collateral” venues, like the Scottish project, will spring up all over the city.

The Scotland + Venice partnership, including the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland and Architecture & Design Scotland, which co-ordinated this year’s project, had a dual focus in mind: engaging with the Biennale theme of Freespace while celebrating Scotland’s Year of Young People. They selected Peter McCaughey, of Glasgow-based “placemaking” organisation WAVEparticle, as lead artist and curator for the programme. Six projects, in which young people collaborated with artists and architects, fuelled the project, and two further phases will continue in Scotland once the team returns from Venice.

“When we were interviewed for this project, I told the panel that I felt I’d been thinking about this for about 20 years,” McCaughey says. “It’s a very familiar subject to me.” WAVEparticle is one of a new generation of hybrid cultural organisations working in the spaces between disciplines such as art, architecture and town planning, with a linchpin of grassroots engagement. Involved in a variety of projects across Scotland, they are perhaps best known for managing a set of vacant spaces in Glasgow for the last four years, including Caledonia Road Church and Laurieston Arches, as “free spaces” for exhibitions, events and workshops.

When I meet McCaughey at WAVEparticle’s office at the Briggait, crates are waiting to be shipped to Venice, ultimately making their way through the networks of canals and streets to Palazzo Zenobio in Dorsdoduro. They contain, among other things, 66 bespoke deckchairs, each printed with a different word: seating for the events and film screenings he is planning to host in the open-air space, and for impromptu discussions. “Those words will be used to stimulate conversation, debate and play. If you imagine picking up six of those deckchairs and putting them in a little circle, the words themselves convene a conversation.”

In the garden at Palazzo Zenobio, documentation of the Scottish project will help stimulate a discussion which every visitor will be invited to add to, with contributions fixed to a “bookshelf, armature, collective nest” designed by Lee Ivett of architectural practice Baxendale. McCaughey describes the space as “a living library of ideas, a place to take a stance, to present a position, like Speaker’s Corner”. “It’s the opposite of the kind of spectacular, object-focused things that biennales often seek to generate. The real focus is on creating a set of tools that can be picked up and used by everybody that comes into the space.”

The theme of “freespace”, he says, enables conversations of all kinds. “We would like to free people to think about that lovely word ‘freespace’ and what it might invite them to think about: education, economy, urban realm, movement and migration, creativity, architecture. There’s an opportunity to think about our world going forward: how do we stimulate really rich conversations that think about architecture holistically, and the contribution of art to all this, and the role of education.

“Our role is to mediate and mentor and draw together and record and cross-fertilise and strengthen the connections between these things. Looking at the two themes of freespace and young people, I think the word ‘play’ is really central. I am deadly serious about play.”

Although The Happenstance opens its doors on Saturday in Venice, the fundamental work of the project began much earlier, when 10 artists and six architects engaged with groups of young people across Scotland to explore how they might reclaim and use free spaces in their areas. The spaces ranged from the Vennels of Perth to the Town Hall in Penicuik, to a disused football pitch in Easterhouse where artists Ruby Pester and Nadia Rossi, along with the team from Baxendale architects, encouraged young people to design their own games for a summer sports day.

These grassroots projects will bring an element of groundedness to one of the glitziest cultural festivals in the world. “Scotland is full of great ideas,” says McCaughey. “There’s a bit of a zeitgeist around grassroots initiatives at the moment, and I’m really proud to be flying the flag for Scotland in Venice.

“It’s interesting to be at the epicentre of big culture, because I’m not really one for big culture. In my own practice I have stepped away from working with galleries and museums. You would more often find me and our organisation in some of the poorer parts of the Scotland, having conversations, making work and building processes and ideas.”

The Happenstance, he says, flies in the face of the art world’s meritocracy by valuing the contribution of every visitor who comes to the space.

And, in a piece of supreme serendipity, he happened to find just the right space, an underused outdoor venue in this densely packed city which encapsulates the idea of “free space”. “We were taken round by people who show you things the size of a shoebox they want to charge you €20,000 for, just because it’s within a stone’s throw of the Arsenale. But then we got lucky.

“We were being shown a space which is a little bunker in the grounds of Palazzo Zenobio, but to get there we were walked over an 11-aside football field which is part of the garden. It was clear that no one had a price on the field, so I just said: ‘We’ll take the bunker, as long as we get the field’. We have completely fallen in love with Palazzo Zenobio – it is the most wonderful venue for a discussion of freespace.”

It was a piece of good luck, but McCaughey’s believes in serendipity: the power of the encounter, the live situation which will invite the right conversation at the right time. He says: “I don’t know what we’re going to achieve by the end of our time in Venice because the really great stuff is what is going to happen in that garden in the time that we’re there. It’s very close to my heart, the idea that whoever you encounter is good enough, and if you trust that resource, you’ll do well. It’s the idea of expecting to be lucky, a celebration of serendipity, the opposite of curation, of seeking out the very best. We just seek out the very best in everybody we meet and trust that that is good enough. That’s Happenstance.”

The 16th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia is on from Saturday until 25 November with The Happenstance at Palazzo Zenobio for the same time period. For more information see www.labiennale.org and www.ads.org.uk/scotlandvenice2018 #happenstance18