In 2017, when Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin-based Grafton Architects were announced as Artistic Directors of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennale, they released a curatorial statement to detail the thinking behind their exhibition titled Freespace.
As Farrell and McNamara explain, ‘Freespace describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself, on architecture’s ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers. Freespace celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project, providing the opportunity to emphasise nature’s free gifts of light – sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials – natural and man-made resources’.1Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, ‘Freespace Volume 1’, Official Catalogue of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition Biennale Architettura, Venice, Italy, 2018.
This framing proposition asked the architects they invited to exhibit in the Biennale, and the curatorial teams behind each of the national pavilions in the exhibition, to reconsider the broader global contexts – social, cultural, political, technological and economic – in which architecture operates.
Farrell and McNamara looked across the world, far and wide, and invited participants to make and show things, celebrate intersections, tackle issues, explore new modes of activity – delving into the diverse arenas within which architecture now moves and has agency.
One of the few Australian practices invited to exhibit, Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects, eagerly responded to the theme with a concept for an intriguing timber and steel structure titled Somewhere Other.
In many ways, Somewhere Other decants years of practice by John Wardle Architects within a compact yet powerful work of architecture. The project embodies elements that are a hallmark of this practice: a passion for artists, storytelling, and an understanding of the power of space to elevate the senses and transport people emotionally.
From the outset, John Wardle Architects saw this project as an opportunity to collaborate, describing an ‘instinct to always draw upon the knowledge of others to expand and strengthen, but also to diverge and through conversation pursue branching thoughts’.2John Wardle, Somewhere Other, in Somewhere Other: John Wardle Architects, URO Publications, Melbourne, 2018.>/span> For this project the ebb and flow of discussions settled on the decision to create a work of architecture in miniature, described by the architects as ‘an instrument for viewing, or a viewing device’ comprising five portals, each designed in its own way to transport the viewer to ‘somewhere other’. John Wardle Architects describes an ambition to instigate an act of architectural generosity and to give audiences access to places that exist beyond Venice and beyond the Arsenale in which the work was exhibited.
Experiencing the project, audiences walk around, through and into a series of interconnected timber volumes, voids and apertures, each framing a ‘portal’, film work or intentional reflection that provides the viewer with a different experience in each instance.
Two portals impossibly extend the viewer’s perception of the physical space where the work was exhibited within the Arsenale (and now The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia). A taller portal extends the viewer’s perception of space through the presentation of several ambient film pieces, abstracted vignettes of architectural projects at 1:1 scale. A long pleated timber cantilever, reminiscent of a Venetian mask, invites the viewer to peer towards a projected film: an ambiguous tapestry of portals, thresholds and views towards landscape drawn from the John Wardle Architects’ work. Finally the last portal, described by the architects as ‘the Venetian portal’, uses materiality and reflection to link the project’s timber and steel artisanship by fabricators Jacaranda in Geelong to that of Venice; this portal offers an intriguing view through a small circular hole, towards a large hand-blown element in red Murano glass. A small adjustable mirror reflects the viewer’s gaze somewhere other within the exhibition space.
To realise this project John Wardle Architects collaborated New York—based, Australia artist, Natasha Johns-Messenger. Known for her spatial installations that use light, gravity, site and space to make us question what is real and what is not, Johns-Messenger describes her approach as ‘employing a complex system of optical physics, such as strategically placed periscopic mirrors, projections, architectural mimicry and cuts and site-determined photography, to set up disorienting pictorial planes in real space’.3John Wardle, Somewhere Other, in Somewhere Other: John Wardle Architects, URO Publications, Melbourne, 2018. For Somewhere Other, the artist devised systems for the seamless placement of mirrors, screens and portals – balancing concealment and perspective to achieve a high level of visual intrigue and ambiguity. Filming for the pieces was undertaken by filmmakers Coco and Maximilian.
Drawn to the curiosity and tactility of the object, complete with a hint of eucalyptus oil to stimulate the senses, audiences are invited to look in and through, and to consider the layered meaning within the architecture. The architect’s intention is for observers to be transported – from the here and now, to other times and places. Since 2018, thousands of people will have looked through these five portals, made possible by architecture, film, art and craft in dialogue and combination.
In the shadow of the structure itself, beyond the object, behind the architecture, John Wardle Architects and their collaborators have created a ‘freespace’ – where experiences are had and memories made.
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, ‘Freespace Volume 1’, Official Catalogue of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition Biennale Architettura, Venice, Italy, 2018,
John Wardle, Somewhere Other, in Somewhere Other: John Wardle Architects, URO Publications, Melbourne, 2018.