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Interview, Venice Architecture Biennale, Yvonne Farrell, Shelley McNamara, Grafton Architects

We should not forget the simple things

Your focus for 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia 2018 is on “freespace”. What does this mean? 

Shelley McNamara: We both use the term “freespace” a lot when working on our projects. We ask ourselves for the architectural component of each project: How do we deal with the needs, and what has the potential to offer something extra that makes it not only a building project but a piece of architecture? We call this component “freespace”. When it comes to the Biennale, the term is also meant to show that architecture really matters. We often compare this to the Slow Food movement. You know that good ingredients make a good meal; we think that good architecture enriches life. But Architecture needs more support and nourishment from society, from clients. It needs protecting, otherwise the flame gets very dull and diminishes. If we are not careful as a society, the power of other professions, such as the project manager and the real estate developer, which are more “rational” in a way, tips the balance of the social and cultural ingredient that architecture has to take care of. In the end, architecture has a huge social dimension. That also means that sustainability is much more than clipping-on a few solar panels. The issues of culture, context and sustainability are much more embedded in society. 


How do you approach your idea of “freespace” in the exhibition? 

Shelley McNamara: We are not professional curators, we have to recognize this. And also, when you are invited to curate the Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia Venice you have to hit the ground running, as there is not much time. But this challenge comes at a good moment in our lives because we had done a number of exhibitions in the last years. We have had the experience of thinking very directly about exhibition spaces and about the subject. I suppose because we teach and organize exhibitions with student projects every year, that experience has built up and we just had to use it. So it is very much instinct. And we were delighted that our first analysis of the two exhibition buildings in Venice – the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini – started to feed into the way we thought about inhabiting them. This is actually really simple on one hand, and on the other it will have a big effect on the overall exhibition. We want to make more present the particular qualities that those two different buildings have. We want to make these places feel even stronger than anybody remembers them. These thoughts affected the way we thought about the content of the exhibition. There was this moment of liberation when we decided to just work with the place and see what that gives us.


You also use the term “freespace” as a metaphor. Does that mean you are focussing on the political dimension of architecture? 

Shelley McNamara: Well, we feel that architecture needs to be valued. It is central to people’s lives. It has the capacity to improve lives, it has the capacity to uplift the human spirit. It has the capacity to make people feel secure and safe. We talk about what we call the “free gifts of nature” because we think it’s important to go back to the basics of architecture. Thinking about material for example, one should not think first about a material like concrete for example, but about wind, light and the sky. How do we use those elements as materials, as resources? It can be very refreshing to go back to the beginning. We should not forget the simple things that makes architecture.

Yvonne Farrell: There are pleasures even in the smallest things. We have to heighten our awareness of how wonderful the world can be – and become more aware of the free gifts of nature. If we ignore those natural gifts, it’s hard to hold onto them when you are designing an actual building. An oak tree in the autumn is a wonderful experience, and meeting a friend on a park bench in the sunlight is a wonderful architectural experience. Architecture is the span between the most simple things and the most complex, for instance making new cities for 10 million people. It’s an incredible discipline, and the older we get, the more we realize that it’s a wonderful profession, a highly complex but vulnerable profession. The arrows are coming from everywhere to puncture the balloon of happiness that architecture can contribute to society. 


But ultimately, you are optimistic about the future…

Shelley McNamara: Yes, a lot of people asked us how we can be so optimistic.Yvonne Farrell: There is a South African bishop when asked how he could be so continuously optimistic. His answer was, “I am a prisoner of hope.”

Shelley McNamara: You know architecture makes you become optimistic at a lot of different levels. It’s a very stressful profession, but very creative so you have to have hope. We’ve never really articulated that before, but with the years we’ve discovered hope.


The interview has been carried out by Sandra Hofmeister.
For further information on the Biennale 2018 please click here.

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