Juxtaposition in design: New ideas in ancient spaces

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Think of a pop-up, and you might imagine design at its most concentrated. An explosion of colours, textures, sounds and materials that create a powerful, yet fleeting, experience. But what happens when these new environments must be conjured up in and around some of the oldest and most storied spaces in the world? How does the Visual merchandising agency balance the meaning and aesthetics of an often centuries-old space, with the novelty and innovation invoked in a pop up experience? These temporary exhibitions need to be more than sympathetic to their surroundings – they have to create a dialogue between the old and the new; the attraction and the backdrop.

When Max Gordon designed the Saatchi Gallery in the 1980s, he was intent on creating a space that allowed “pictures to breathe and be enjoyed without distraction.” Cue white-washed walls and airy rooms stripped of period details. But not all pop-up designers have the freedom of a blank canvas. For many, old spaces are part of the challenge – and of the story.

The Venice Biennale: A special challenge

Enter the Venice Biennale. Since its inception in 1895, this cultural institution has attracted the world’s best artists, architects and designers, all vying to create the most engaging national pavilion. In a city like Venice, the challenge of joining old and new is always relevant. After all, while this celebration of contemporary art and architecture has been drawing crowds to Venice for more than a century, the city has been attracting eyes for far longer. The result is a location steeped not just in history, but in meaning, art and tradition (not to mention plenty of heavy brick, marble and stone).

For this year’s Biennale of Architecture, the juxtaposition of the ancient and novel presents a special challenge. Against the iconic backdrop of Venice, participating countries have been asked to create an exhibition on the theme of “Freespace”. This means emphasising “nature’s free gifts of light – sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials – natural and man-made resources”. All within the palazzos, gardens and warehouses of one of the most iconic locations in the world. Not an easy feat.

Creating a symbiosis between exhibit and space

The challenge faced by the exhibitors is the same as any creative designer or visual merchandising agency. How do you create a symbiosis between an installation, and a living breathing space?

Swiss designers Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara, tackle this head on in their installation, Svizzera 240: House Tour. Set in the grounds of Venice’s largest park, the Giardini, the pavillion uses the uniform design of the modern apartment to distort our understanding of space and scale. Walking through this Alice in Wonderland style exhibit, visitors find that some seemingly innocuous doors are too tall to reach, while others require them to crouch. The designers explain that their aim was to create a conversation between the visitor and the installation. A conversation that Venice, with its similar sense of distortion, serves to shape.

With exhibitions scattered throughout the city’s winding streets, ornate palaces and lush gardens, this is just one of many examples of how designers have been forced to consider the way the experience of space affects the experience of a temporary installation.

For creative designers, the Venice Biennale reminds us of the importance of conversation in design. Of creating a symbiosis between the setting and the exhibit, and the new and the old.

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