Venice Biennale + Essen Germany

I had a few opportunities to travel while I was working in JTC, all leaving deep impressions and with fond memories. However, one trip really stood out and put a smile on my face while I was looking through the photos.

Almost 8 years back, I made a trip to the Venice Biennale of Architecture and Entry 2006 exhibition in Essen, Germany. Together with three wonderful colleagues, we were given the opportunity to visit these respectable international events of art and design, and hopefully to bring back something that could contribute to our work. Our then wise and encouraging Assistant CEO, who suggested and advocated for this trip, was a strong believer of exposing his staff to learning opportunities like this - to travel, experience and learn beyond our 12-inch screens and 4 square metre cubicles. This is something I still believe strongly in until today.

With all approvals obtained and bookings done, the good quartet of one architect, two planners and a designer packed our bags and headed straight to the floating city of Venezia.

Three blind mice (and one not helping, except just taking photos). We just arrived and expectedly, were very lost trying to find our apartment.

View of this gorgeous city from our apartment's roof terrace in the chilly morning.

Laundry pegs on the roof terrace, all in a harmonious colour scheme over time with the help of the Venetian sun.

Real stuff.

"Clipping" - highlights and shadows.

The marvellous penthouse apartment we were staying in. Comprises a huge living, reading area, three bedrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen (for our master chef cum planner), dining, and of course, a roof terrace. This was more economical for us compared to a hotel.

Where our apartment was housed in, a 167 year old building.

The beautiful lobby of the apartment block.

Getting out on the streets (and canals) the next morning, in search of our breakfast.

Door bells.

A boy wearing a Venetian gondolier hat looking at a window display.

My dear colleagues, getting breakfast and warming up for the day.

Perfect way to start our day.

My big breakfast - Tonnato sandwich with focaccia. An Italian classic recipe, traditionally made with roasted and thinly sliced veal, served with tuna mayonnaise, juicy pomodoro and mozzarella.

The way to start our day, everyday.

Beautiful morning light, beautiful city.

In Singapore, I often see laundry landing at void decks of apartment blocks, which is usually retrievable if you have realised. But in Venice, good luck.

The laundry lines work on a pulley system tied to the opposite block. Better maintain a good relationship with your opposite neighbour too.

The Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia) is held once every two years, with the Biennale for Architecture (Mostra di Architettura di Venezia) held separately on even years. The exhibition in 2006 was titled Cities, Architecture and Society. The event showcased exhibits on the academic side of architecture, plus big-name architects and designers showcasing new projects, ideas and proposals. The entire event was arranged and housed at a variety of locations within Venice and in different pavilions, each with different themes. Hence, you would need to take the water taxis and walk quite a bit in order to get from one exhibition site to another.

The main site of the Biennale for Architecture was in the Arsenale, a huge military naval complex that takes up much of Castello, largest of the six sestieri of Venice. The Arsenale was the site of Venice’s ship building and naval operations since the 12th century. The other site was Giardini, where various national pavilions were located near the Gardens.

Singapore had a little exhibition as well, titled Built and Unbuilt. It showcased 32 building projects in Singapore, some to be realised and some that won't (hence the theme), all in the spirit of celebrating the design ideas that help shape the country. Key projects exhibited include Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Museum MRT Station, and several developments in one-north, a master plan by Zaha Hadid.

We have a vision for tomorrow...

Man with best friend.

Man with camera (our chief planner cum chef taking charge of a group photo).

Engaging an exhibit at the Hong Kong Pavilion - installation by CL3 Architects entitled Ladders.

An exhibition of urban planning proposals by two world renowned masters.

A circular projection space created within one end of the Corderie at Arsenale.

The exhibition section on "Density" along the 300m long Corderie at Arsenale.  

Simple yet elegant. Despite its substantial bulk and unglamorous purpose, I greatly appreciate its good proportions, subtlety, and a sense of respect and humility towards its surroundings. Simply beautiful to me.

Ship docks at Arsenale, believed to be built in the early 12th century.

Shadows on a boundary wall.

Beautiful light fixture and its lighting effects at our apartment's staircase.

Having lunch and continuing our shoot.

Waterfront dining always, inevitably.

Singapore's contribution to the Biennale.

Singapore's contribution to the Biennale.

The Venetian way of life.

The main promenade facing Canale di S.Marco in the evening.

A busker in the constantly moving crowd at St Mark's Square.

The magnificent St Mark's Square at night.

Certainly, it was not all work. The architecture overdose and information overload could easily result in four dead bodies floating in the Venetian canals. In our three and a half days there, we managed to put on our tourist hat (literally) and visited numerous sights, which were also highly significant in their architecture merits.

From Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square) to the Rialto Bridge, we managed to visit a few important sights along the way as we sashayed through the complex maze of alleyways and voyage down the Grand Canal. Not forgetting to indulge in some Veneto cuisine, paired with fine pinot grigio or chianti, all by the canals where gondoliers singing O Sole Mio oared past us gracefully with a smile.

Artist by the canal.

Guess what was the buzz all about...

The Bridge of Sighs - a white limestone enclosed bridge connecting the interrogation rooms and the prison. Prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells, hence its name.

Closer view of the Bridge of Sighs, and lots of tourists, sigh.

Bird's eye view redefined.

A Vintage 1959 Dom Pérignon in a café (left), both unopened.

Selfie, pre-smartphone era.

Along an alleyway in the morning.

View from atop the Rialto Bridge. Waterfront living everywhere.

Gondola and gondolier, a ubiquitous sight.

Simply charming waterfront.

Spotted a Jeff Koon's Balloon Dog. Balloon sculpting at its maximum. 

Trying video conferencing.

Close-up of the concrete roof of the Nordic Pavilion, designed by the Pritzker Prize laureate Sverre Fehn.

Example of a badly organised and taken group photo.

Gondolas dancing to the water.

Risk: Lung cancer.

Risk: Brain cell damage.

Risk: Falling into the canal.

Posing by a canal. Which Marvel hero is that on the bridge?

Pixar's WALL-E's Italian cousin. Don't know its name, but definitely quite with and in the WALL.

Inside a venetian mask shop.

Inside a venetian mask shop.

A courtyard behind St Mark's Square.

You may bring home a gondolier.

Due to the narrow alleyways and the complex network of turns and corners, there are many interesting signage to provide direction or to catch your attention.


Boarding and alighting from their taxi.

Taxi uncle.

Venice at sunset, with the landmark Campanile (bell tower) on the right.

A busy barista at the café, preparing four cups of cappuccino. You should know who ordered them by now.

Aromatic. Perfetto!

Façade of the Procuratie Vecchie, the oldest of the three connected buildings defining St Mark's Square.

Procuratie in reflection, St Mark's Square.

I wonder who was happier. Human or birds?

Hungry pigeons at my feet.

Departing Venice on a river taxi.

We left Venice for Frankfurt, and took the ICE (Intercity Express train) to Essen, a city in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany. The main reason for travelling to Essen was to visit the Entry 2006 exhibition housed within the city's most famous landmark - the Zollverein Industrial Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of European industrial heritage significance that had its conservation work entrusted to renowned architecture firm, OMA (Rem Koolhaas). The exhibition featured innovative international design, architecture and spatial interventions in a trans-disciplinary exhibition platform.

We also visited the Red Dot Design Museum standing within the Complex. Housed in the former boiler house of Shaft 12 in the typical Bauhaus style with red steel trusses, the Red Dot Design Museum showcases winning products and graphics of the prestigious Red Dot Design Award. Designed and converted by Foster and Partners, the exhibition hall fascinates visitors with suspended bridges that transcend in the massive boiler house space, allowing visitors to experience the exhibits up close and personal.

Similar to our Venice sojourn, we certainly wouldn't want to leave behind four dead bodies on the disused coal mine rail track due to a lethal overdose of design and architecture radiation. We rewarded ourselves with an excellent lunch at Casino Zollverein, a highly reputable restaurant (not a casino) housed within a historical compressor room with 6 metre high concrete beams and massive old boiler equipment still in their original positions.

For one of our dinners, we visited Frankenheim Brauhaus, a small and very traditional German brewery pub where everyone simply felt at home, well, except for us. Everything was in German - the menu, the conversation, the ordering. English was Martian. But it was great fun and a memorable experience for the four extra-terrestrial beings. The pork knuckles and many other food we ordered were marvellous, made even better by a table full of König Pilsener and Frankenheim Alt. Ausgezeichnet!

The Zollverein Industrial Complex.

The Zollverein Industrial Complex.

Conservation at its best. Please don't replace everything and turn out like Singapore's Chinatown.

Stairs and shadows.

The famous escalator by Rem Koolhaas, the two tallest freestanding escalators in Germany, transporting visitors to the elevated entrance 23 metres above the ground.

Casino Zollverein restaurant.

Casino Zollverein restaurant.

Casino Zollverein restaurant - housed within a historical compressor room.

Casino Zollverein restaurant.

Walking on the suspended corridor inside the Red Dot Design Museum. Elegant spatial elements in good proportions, corresponding respectfully in harmony with the old Bauhaus industrial architecture. It is always harder to be subtle yet beautiful, and easier to be loud and ugly.

Exhibition inside the Red Dot Design Museum.

A bleary glimpse out of a frosted window in the Bauhaus style building. Seemingly, one could still feel the energy and hear the vibrant era of industrialisation some 60 years ago.

The Red Dot Design Museum housed in this beautiful Bauhaus style architecture.


The winding tower of Shaft 12 with inscription Zollverein. It is considered an architectural and technical masterpiece, earning it a reputation as the “most beautiful coal mine in the world”.

Koolhaas's escalator in bright orange and matte black, symbolising fire and coal.

Experience a 90-second journey of a burning coal being transported on a conveyor belt.

Arriving at the Frankenheim Brauhaus for dinner.

Inside Frankenheim Brauhaus.

Tasty German sausage by the road in Essen city centre.

Everything was in a blur.... Speeding on the ICE from Essen to Frankfurt.

Arriving in Frankfurt at the Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof. Spent half a day in this key financial centre of Europe before heading back home.

Parallel parking, the Smart way. The length of a Smart Fortwo is just slightly more than a foot longer than the width of a BMW X6 anyway.

A financial centre of old and new architecture.

In beautiful German style.

So cute!

A Kombi in a Kombi.

Facts and figures:
  • Date of Trip: October 2006
  • Equipment: Fujifilm Finepix S3 Pro, Sigma 12-24mm f4.5-5.6, Nikon AFS 18-200mm f3.5-5.6, Nikon 10.5mm f2.8 Fisheye.
  • The 14th Biennale of Architecture will be held this year starting 7 June and ending 23 November 2014. Director for this year's event is renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. Website:

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