Venice by design: As the Biennale shows, this Italian cityoffers more than gondolas

A classic scene on the Grand Canal near Dorsoduro in Venice.
Anthony Flint for The Boston Globe
A classic scene on the Grand Canal near Dorsoduro in Venice.

VENICE — Absolutely unheard of, visiting here and not taking the 80 euro gondola ride. Yet also a point of pride.

Having touched down at Piazza San Marco as backpackers decades earlier, we had the luxury of a different approach to the queen of the Adriatic. We weren’t just going to Venice. We were going to Venice for the Biennale.

La Biennale de Venezia, the architecture festival that runs from roughly May to November, is a chance to show off design innovations in a country that is all about style. It’s like Burning Man for the black-turtleneck crowd.


In recent years, organizers have been encouraging participants to show how design can help confront the world’s biggest problems, such as slums, a lack of affordable housing, or lagging transportation systems. Deep-thinking panels were sprinkled throughout the exhibits and multi-media installations. Thus my own participation, talking about the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a satellite imagery project that shows how cities have been growing over decades.

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Without question, it was the first conference I’ve ever arrived at via water taxi — those wood-paneled motorboats straight out of a James Bond movie. From our morning-arrival flight at Marco Polo airport, we were whisked through the Venice Lagoon to a dock at the Arsenale, the complex of former shipyards and manufacturing buildings that the Biennale takes over. A classier path to a registration table is hard to imagine.

The Arsenale exhibits in “Reporting from the Front” were set up in the Byzantine complex that was once the site of a massive production of rope, trusses, armaments, and other components of the mighty Venetian Navy. The buildings are all connected, so visitors can meander from one intellectually titillating installation to the next: a demonstration of drone delivery of emergency aid, new ideas for sheltering refugees, and a simulated landfill titled, elegantly, the history of garbage.

A typical exhibit was “Ephemeral Urbanism,” curated by Harvard Design School professor Rahul Mehotra, showing how 5 million people descend on the banks of the Ganges every year in the Hindu settlement Kumbh Mela — and then pack up and leave just as quickly. Tents, water pipelines, roads, all built and then dismantled, like the entire city of Los Angeles was conjured and then erased from the landscape.

By the end of an afternoon at Arsenale, we were feeling a bit brain-drained, so it was time for some mindlessness — though still in the embrace of high design and style. Our escape was via the public transit waterbus, the ACTV vaporetto, the best way to get around. Up the Grand Canal we went, making a beeline for bellinis at Harry’s Bar.


The bow-tied bartenders at this Art Deco landmark didn’t disappoint, managing sleek midcentury glassware amid the polished maritime wood of the interior. The white-rimmed wood-faced clock behind the bar announced that dinnertime was near, though drinks and snacks beckoned at the contemporary wing of the Hotel Bauer, with its ’50s vibe.

The next day we tackled the main campus of the Biennale,which occupies Giardini, the glorious park and public garden, crafted by Napoleon, at the southeast tip of the main island of Venice. The entrance was grander than at Arsenale, like we were entering an architectural World’s Fair — and of course that’s pretty much the idea, dating from the event’s origins in 1895.

With map in hand, we set about exploring. More than 60 nations each strut their stuff in pavilions sprinkled throughout the park; it’s a little bit of a competition to see who can come up with most thought-provoking curations. The US pavilion was all about regeneration in places like Detroit; the British pavilion addressed the changing character of home and domestic life. Russia re-created a 1939 Soviet exhibition, while Korea looked at density and land value, and Belgium examined craftsmanship in times of economic scarcity. Spain won the event’s top award, called the Golden Lion, for a fascinating survey of incomplete construction projects.

Canada decided to go with a kind of anti-pavilion: a multimedia presentation on resource extraction seen through a lens in the ground. Visitors had to lie down flat to peer through to see it, a kind of documentary peepshow.

Compared to Arsenale, Giardini is much more of an outdoor affair, with terrific lunch options, from sit-down restaurants to cafes, espresso stations, and gelato bars. Nourishment is key, as there is a lot of walking; to really soak it all up, plan on spending a full day. On our way out we hit the Paradiso, for waterside Aperol spritzers. We were feeling pretty cosmopolitan as we jumped on the boat for the trip up the Grand Canal to our lodgings, the intimate Pensione Accademia.


Still determined to resist the lure of the gondola, we had more design immersion to do. Venice celebrates 20th century modernism right alongside the better-known Renaissance art. One of the best destinations is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, well worth a morning or afternoon. From the courtyard to the Picassos to the gift shop, the American heiress’s home of thirty years is serene; don’t forget to take home one of the classy refrigerator magnets.

Virtually right across the Grand Canal from the Peggy Guggenheim is the Palazzo Franchetti, which hosted a mesmerizing exhibition on the work of Zaha Hadid, the late Iraqi-born Pritzker Prize-winning architect.The undulating, computer-assisted schemes came alive in the gothic rooms of the 16th century palace — a continuum of design.

Another exceedingly pleasant ride on the ACTV is to San Giorgio Maggiore island, site of the ancient Longhena library — some pretty stunning interior design unto itself — glass museum, hedge maze at the Borges garden at Fondazione Giorgio Cini, and hidden-away galleries featuring contemporary art. It was a particularly festive atmosphere during our visit, as people positioned themselves on yachts and the embankments for the Festival of the Redeemer fireworks that evening.

Throughout, our ACTV and water-taxi rides, and of course the walks through the cluttered lanes, gave us plenty of opportunities to snap pictures and take videos, until our phone batteries were drained. One more James Bond boat back to the airport afforded a final journey through the canals.

One could argue that the very act of visiting Venice is an appreciation of beauty and design. But there was something special about having an agenda beyond the casino or San Marco. There’s been a lot of chatter of late about cruise ships overwhelming the place, and the high-end hospitality industry grabbing every last scrap of property, in a kind of tourism gentrification. Some call for more regulation, similar to how Ecuador manages visitors to the Galapagos.

All the more reason to build an itinerary around the Biennale. Think of it as special credentials, as if to announce, no trinkets for us: we’re just here for the design.

Anthony Flint can be reached at