By Justin Lewis, Fall 2018 Umbra Rep
The Venice Biennale is a world-famous exhibition of different forms of art. Starting in 1895, the original Biennale solely dealt with art in the form of painting and drawing. Since then, the event has showcased many amazing pieces of art and has grown immensely to include different forms, such as dance, music, theater, and architecture. The latter being the focus of my trip to Venice a few weekends ago. Although I barely knew anything about architecture, from the trip, I left with a newfound sense of its importance. However, with the trip being my first time visiting Venice, there was a lot of exploring and discovering to do for such a short period of time. Interestingly enough, I got to experience a semi-rare occurrence of acqua alta, a phenomenon in which up to around 70% of Venice floods due to a sustained high-tide mixed with prolonged rain. Without having any prior knowledge of the city, or its tendency to become submerged, I was completely unprepared. This made for almost as unique of an experience as the Biennale itself.
The Biennale’s theme this year was titled “Free Space,” a loose term left up to the interpretation of the architects involved. The manifesto, as given by the event’s curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, expressed the idea of both developing a sense of free public space in a concrete sense within communities, but also left the interpretation open to the more abstract. Perhaps the most abstract of all the exhibits, in my opinion, was Great Britain who left their space free… literally putting nothing within their display. While there were plenty of practical examples of the term in the Biennale, I found the concept of “Free Space” being used as a vehicle to explore architecture’s impact on us as people to be more interesting. After sitting through a TED Talk-style presentation on the idea itself in which the topic of using the event to highlight architecture’s importance, I began to think about architecture as more than just buildings for the first time. I came to the conclusion that we discuss the importance of our surroundings in development as people, but never the physical surroundings and their effects. I started to wonder how much of an impact on my life the physical structures I grew up in and around had. While seeming a little farfetched at first, consider the difference between the outlooks on life of someone who grew up in a mansion and someone who grew up homeless. Architecture, to me, then transformed from simply being a one-dimensional thing only representing buildings and how they are planned into a complex and interesting view on how we live our lives. As fascinating as the revelation was, leaving the Biennale to explore the city led me to an even greater shock.
After leaving the exhibits, I soon came to the realization that the sneakers and joggers I was wearing were not going to cut it if I wanted to wade through the almost knee-high water in some spots of the city. However, we were given several hours of free time and there was no way I was going to spend them confined to certain parts of the city because of a little water. After discovering that the shoe-covers that half the people were wearing cost 15 euro, I, much like the other half of the people, decided to go on without them and figure another option out. After doing my best to explore the city by working around the pathways that were flooded, which allowed me to see a lot of the city, I came upon a spot where there were no other options. With several inches of water between me and the famous bookstore ironically named “Acqua Alta,” I decided to take the plunge. While some people were walking through the water with their shoes on, that was not an option for me since I had on a pair of shoes that I had bought just before arriving in Italy. Carrying my shoes with me, exploring the bookstore and seeing how the books were floating in the store on top of gondolas and sitting on shelves just out of the water’s reach, was a truly interesting experience that almost made me forget about my worries of catching some sort of foot fungus, almost.
The trip, as a whole, made for an amazing experience in which I discovered a lot of different things. The way my perspective was changed on the ideas of architecture being a true form of expression that has an immense impact on our lives is something I do not think I will soon forget. Being forced to explore the city of Venice in a different way than normally provided for a unique experience and aside from not feeling dry until a few days later, I would say that the trip went swimmingly!
Photo credits: Justin Lewis