11 August 2003

Cox on Venice: Tear down my shack!

It's time for the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale to go, says the architect who designed it. Michael Hutak reports.
Prominent architect Philip Cox, fed up with snipes from the artworld, has declared he would support tearing down his "temporary" Australian pavilion in the elite Giardini della Biennale in Venice, the official venue for Australia's participation in the world's most prestigious artfair since 1988.
"I would be very pleased if the Australia Council or the Australian Government replaced that building because it is a temporary structure," Cox told The Age. "I am completely behind putting a permanent building there."
Currently occupied by Patricia Piccinini's critically-acclaimed suite of mutant sculptures, Cox's construction clings to a bank that falls away steeply to a canal, squeezed into a backlot behind the leafy, spacious environs enjoyed by the other 25 national pavilions. Australia was the last country to be granted a permanent pavilion.
Cox said the critics who "always moan about why we don't have something of the order of the French or the German or the English pavilions forget that it's a very cheap building put together in 10 minutes".
"They forget the whole project was virtually gifted to the Australia Council. We donated our services and we got BHP to provide the steel and Transfield to also provide materials. And on the record and to be perfectly frank, it gives me the f---ing shits considering we all worked so hard for nothing to put it there."
The 1988 Bicentennial project bears Cox's trademark prefabricated steel tubing, and might have made a luxurious split-level beach shack for a 1980s high flyer. But as a showcase venue for contemporary art, it routinely comes in for a biennial bashing as an almost unworkable space, one that dictates to the artist, not vice-versa. Wall space is cramped and large paintings are almost impossible to hang favourably. This year, Piccinini was praised for making best use of the difficult space by choosing to display three-dimensional work.
Cox concedes these criticisms, but says the artworld has short memories when it comes to the building's genesis. "The brief was - well, there wasn't a brief," he said. "The Venetians made it a case of either you fill the space quickly now or you'll miss out."
Cox then had a seat on the Australia Council's design board and realised that to be completed in time, the construction had to be prefab. The building permit was issued on May 25, 1988, and Arthur Boyd's show curated by Grazia Gunn opened less than a month later, on June 24. It then promptly closed for two weeks to allow builders to finish the roof, fit missing windows and repair the floor that had been covered by tarpaulin.
Several sources in Venice this year close to the Australia Council said official moves were underway to finally do something about the pavilion, however Australia Council chief executive Jenny Bott confirmed that the venue would remain unaltered for the 2005 Biennale at least.
"We need to develop a 10- year strategy for Venice," Bott said. The council spent around $900,000 on this year's Venice adventure, but Bott said "any capital expense would never come out of our budget".
However the Australia Council's temporary lease over the treasured block this year moved to permanent status, clearing the way for a complete rethink of the building.
In alternating years Venice's Architecture Biennale consumes the Giardini. However the Australian pavilion remains mothballed because, says the Australia Council, "architecture does not fall within (our) brief".
Under moral rights amendments in 2000 to the Copyright Act, any substantial changes to the pavilion would have to meet with the architect's approval.
Cox says he hasn't been approached by the Australia Council but would nevertheless give his imprimatur to a new, more suitable structure.
"I would love the opportunity to design it," he enthused, "but you'd need $10 million to do something decent and where would you find that sort of money for a single arts project in Australia today?"
First published in The Age

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