The Venice Biennale’s New Australian Pavilion

Photo by John Gollings. Courtesy of the Australia Council for the Arts

As the first structure of the 21st century to be built in the city’s historic Giardini, a celebration ushers in the future while honoring the past.

It's the art edition of the Biennale to be sure, but there's something in Venice for architecture buffs this year, too.

Australia’s brand-new pavilion, designed by Aussie architects Denton Corker Marshall, opened Tuesday afternoon as the first structure in our century to be built in historic Venice; but it was not without its hiccups.

Since most of area is World Heritage protected, including the verdant Giardini in which the pavilion is located, anyone who knows anything of Italian bureaucracy can imagine the process, initiated in 2009, to get approval to build the starkly modern, black structure that juts out over the Rio dei Giardini canal. In short, it involved 55 kilos of paperwork, as well as the blessings of the Fondazione la Biennale di Venezia, the Città di Venezia, and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici e Paesaggistici di Venezia e Laguna.

Ultimately, however, the new pavilion was allowed to replace Australia’s temporary structure, designed by its countryman Philip Cox in 1988, only because the architect was alive to give his permission. (Cox’s building has been preserved and will have a new home in Oz.)

The day before the Biennale opened to the press, a crowd of several hundred Aussies, many from the more than 80 well-heeled families who helped to fund the new building, turned out to witness the building’s inauguration, complete with an apropos mix of old and new, including musical stylings from a didgeridoo, an Aboriginal smoke ceremony, and a speech by actress and Australian arts advocate Cate Blanchett. The inaugural fanfare was immediately upstaged by the unveiling of the beautiful, challenging, and instantly seminal work of the artist Fiona Hall, whose globally and ecologically minded multi-media installation included to great effect video; cork; glass; painted clocks of many shapes and sizes; found wood shaped like animals; multiple currencies hand-painted with flora; birds nests made of U.S. dollars; charming animals made of textile strips torn from Australian and British military uniforms; as well as the artist’s signature sculptures crafted from sardine tins.