Historic First: Philippines participate in Venice Biennale of Architecture

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This spring saw the first-ever exhibit by the Philippines at the Architecture Biennale in Venice. The biennale  — touted as ‘the Olympics of the art world’ — was established in 1895 to advance contemporary culture and art. The architecture biennale was formally added in 1980 and its popularity in visitors each year now rivals that of the art biennale.

A significant amount of work and resources go into participating in the biennale, and for each country it’s a different process. Some countries, for example, have an established presence and are honoured to participate in each and every biennale with permanent pavilions built in often distinct, endemic architectural styles by their most influential architects: a simple, prefab-style structure with sublime natural diffused light by Alvar Aalto for Finland, a Delano & Aldrich-designed dome-capped Jeffersonian pavilion for the United States, and the German pavilion made headlines this year by taking a wrecking-ball to its Nazi-era structure in a symbolic break with history.

In the case of the Philippines, however, who had never before been involved, establishing a pavilion required not only shoring up political support at home, but also finding a suitable exhibition space in Venice.

Senator Loren Legarda led the campaign for the inclusion of the Philippines in both the art and architecture biennales after attending a previous year’s opening, where she was surprised to discover much smaller nations being represented. ‘So why not the Philippines of 100 million people of artists and culture bearers?’ asked Legarda.

It was a long and arduous process of slowly garnering support from fellow legislators to allocate modest funds and official endorsements. At the same time, Legarda and her devoted staff had to familiarise themselves with the rigorous open call process for new applicants.

But for Legarda, it’s a question of raising awareness of culture. ‘It’s importance to government and society and our country. This is unheard of in the history of the Philippines Senate, and why?’ she questions emphatically. ‘It’s our soul, it’s our being, it’s our life as a nation.’

With considerable budget restraints, the Philippines pavilion inspected several sites around Venice before settling on the Palazzo Mora, selected for its twin conditions of affordability and accessibility. While set apart from the vast majority of other biennale participants whose pavilions are located between Arsenale and Giardini in the far east of the island-city, the Palazzo Mora fit the bill perfectly. Here, the Philippines’ exhibition occupies three sequential exhibition rooms on the top floor of this 16th century-structure with a view out across terracotta tiled rooftops.

Our readers can look forward to Issue 11 of Design Anthology when we’ll be discussing more about the exhibition itself in conversation with the curatorial team, who took on the very topical issue of heritage preservation in their exhibit, Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City.

The historic involvement of the Philippines in this year’s architecture biennale is the result of a passion project — both on the part of  Sentaor Legarda with her dedicated team and the artists involved — that offers a preview into the extraordinary depth of cultural and artistic capital on offer in this small but spirited nation.

Visit the Philippines pavilion at  Palazzo Mora in Venice from now until November 27.