The Venice Architecture Biennale and my metal cart

McGill students have a range of global learning opportunities. Many spend a semester on exchange at one of over 160 partner universities abroad. Others broaden their horizons through international internships or overseas field-study courses. In this Q&A, Juan Fernández González shares his experience as an architecture student in Venice.

Where did you go on exchange and why did you choose that place?

I went on exchange in 2018, to study architecture in Venice at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (Iuav). I have been amazed by Venice since I was a kid! I wanted to get lost in a maze of canals, where bridges are meeting places, and where streets are narrower than two umbrellas side by side. I wanted to fall in love with a city and the people in it, so I booked a flight to arrive in Venice on Valentine’s Day.

What was the highlight of your exchange trip?

I have so many beautiful memories from my exchange trip, with the people I met, the places I discovered, and the things I learnt. However, the thing that probably marked me the most was the Venice Architecture Biennale, the most distinguished (and beautiful) architecture exhibition in the world!

Why were you so fascinated by the Venice Architecture Biennale?

Before going abroad, I could not wait to see the Biennale. I wanted to absorb everything like a sponge, and I wanted to get involved in it however I could. While I was in Venice, the Biennale seemed to be everywhere! By the water, I saw the Biennale signs on the vaporetti (waterbuses). At my host university, the Professors talked highly about the Biennale. At the student residences, the entrance desk was full of Biennale pamphlets. The city felt more and more alive, anticipating the big opening.

Did you find a way to get involved at the Biennale?

Yes, I was fortunate enough to help at the Biennale! For some weeks, I sent emails, went to the Biennale offices and talked to many people about it. I wanted to offer my help but no one seemed to need it... Tired but still hopeful, I went on the Canadian pavilion’s website once again (, and read one of the participants’ names: Patrick Stewart. I knew him! He had been a guest lecturer at McGill. Suddenly, I saw a new possibility. I emailed Prof. Peter Sealy, who had invited Patrick Stewart to McGill, explaining the situation. With his kind help and many more of my emails, things magically started to work out! After meeting Tamara Andruszkiewicz, the Canadian Pavilion Manager, at a café, I was named her Volunteer Assistant. I was so happy!

How did you help the Canadian team?

I did all sorts of things, from making deliveries to Canadian guests, to guarding the entrance of the Canadian pavilion, to assisting the Elders of the First Nations during the opening of the event. I have great memories of running around Venice with my metal cart!

What do you mean by “running around Venice with my metal cart”?

One day, I had to pick up the exhibition booklets for the Canadian pavilion. It sounds like an easy task… but it’s a whole adventure in itself! I dashed through streets between tourists. I dodged slippery pavements and Venetians drinking Spritz by the canal. I struggled to carry the cart up countless bridges between tiny islands. Eventually, I arrived to the printing shop and picked up the booklets. On the way back to the pavilion, I took a vaporetto (boat). It was very calm and I arrived on time. Maybe I could have taken the vaporetto instead of running through the streets...

Being so far from home, did you feel a connection to McGill and Canada?

I certainly did. Whenever I was allowed to, I proudly wore my McGill Architecture shirt. I felt like a McGill ambassador! I also had a special moment when I felt a strong connection to Canada. As I welcomed people to the Canadian pavilion, with the warm Venetian Sun on my face and the calm water of a canal within sight, many things went through my head. Being on exchange had made me question my identity. In Venice, my Italian friends referred to me as “the Mexican”, my French friends as “the Québécois”, and my Latin-American friends as “the Canadian”. I felt like “all of the above” and found it funny. At that particular moment, welcoming people with a “buongiorno - bonjour - hello” at this international event, I felt like a Canadian ambassador.

What was the most inspiring thing about the Biennale?

There were so many inspiring things... Simply walking around the exhibition and seeing fascinating ideas, buildings, people and places was an enormous dose of inspiration. A couple of times, looking at some projects, I felt pretty emotional and felt some butterflies in my stomach.

I also had the opportunity to meet incredible people, including some of my architecture heroes. One of them was Douglas Cardinal, who led the Canadian venue UNCEDED: Voices of the Land. Running with my metal cart at another moment, I nearly ran into Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor -- without hurting him, fortunately! We took a picture with a beautiful wall on the background, chosen by him. I also briefly walked with Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel, and met award-winning architect Sir David Adjaye. I couldn’t believe that all of this was happening.

Would you say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or do you think you will get another chance to get involved in the Biennale?

It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but one that will somehow repeat in the future! The experience of the Biennale really marked me. My Biennale ID still hangs on my bedroom’s door, and I still use my Biennale bookmark.

In May 2020, I will help the Canadian team once again! I had told Tamara Andruszkiewicz that, if possible, I would like to attend all future Biennales. I guess that sometimes I will go back to help, other times I’ll go to learn and get inspired. Maybe, in the future, I will have the chance to show my work at the Biennale, when I’ll be an architect. That’s one of my dreams.

For your next trip to Venice, what are you most excited about?

I want to visit the places that mean the most to me, and the places that I didn’t get a chance to see. I want to spend time with some friends who still live there, speak Italian, sketch Scarpa’s architectural details and Palladio’s churches during sunrise, eat gelato and get lost in the empty streets at night.

Sketch by Juan, from the bell tower of Palladio's Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore
Sketch by Juan, from the bell tower of Palladio's Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore.

Regarding the Biennale, I am very excited to see what other countries and Architects will present, and how my host university, Iuav, will contribute to the event. I am particularly excited about the 2020 Canadian venue: Impostor Cities ( It will be presented by Thomas Balaban Architect (T B A) and curated by David Theodore, who is also a McGill professor. I will proudly wear my McGill Architecture shirt once again, with or without my metal cart.


For more information about global learning opportunities, visit McGill Abroad. (Facebook and Instagram: @mcgillabroad)

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