Expecting to Get Lucky – The Art of Happenstance


Expecting to Get Lucky - The Art of Happenstance

By Graham Ross, Austin-Smith:Lord

Something quite remarkable is happening in Venice. An energetic and passionate troupe of artists and architects affiliated with Scotland are testing and translating ideas into action. Through playful participatory place-planning the prospect of enabling lasting change in communities in Scotland, and perhaps even in Venice, is tantalisingly real.

Away from picture postcard Venice, in one of the few districts still harbouring a local community not yet displaced by the forces of global tourism, an uplifting community garden where folk are invited to take a chance, and make a stance has emerged. A truly feel Freespace. It’s an inspiration.

Much of the rest of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 passively presents many thoughtful and exquisitely crafted (and several mediocre) meditations on the curator’s theme of Freespace. Meanwhile Scotland’s contribution, entitled The Happenstance, under the stewardship of Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle, gets stuck in. It is unashamedly proactive; joyfully agitating for authentic Freespace in Scotland, as well as Venice. Its ambitions are high whilst its means are humble.


The call for ideas this year’s Biennale was issued in autumn 2017 by the Scottish Government and Architecture + Design Scotland. The Scotland + Venice brief overlayed the 2018 Year of Young People with the Biennale curators’, Grafton Architects, theme of Freespace.

In the wake of over 20 design charrettes across Scotland, all foregrounding the participation of young people, WAVEparticle were selected and have pulled together a wider team of artists and architects, practicing in Scotland and allied by the local insights and guidance of Venice based designer, Alberto Lago and Glasgow based Venetian artist, Daniele Sambo.

At this stage I must declare an interest, or two. Firstly, as a regular collaborator with Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle on numerous charrette and regeneration projects with Austin-Smith:Lord, I accepted an invitation to contribute to The Happenstance project last year. So I’ve been privileged to be engaged from the outset. Secondly, I’m a Board member at A+DS.

As a small part of The Happenstance team, and having just returned from Venice, I’ve an insight and acute awareness of the project’s ambition, and the inevitable challenges in delivering on its promise and potential.


The Happenstance project, which opened at the Venice Biennale in late May 2018, is sharing a vast array of creative tools and techniques for community-led place making and mending, trialled in ongoing projects in Scotland. Since opening it has been inspiring local Venetians, and Biennale visitors to think about how to adapt and translate to their context.

Amid the faded splendour of the Palazzo Zenobio in the Dorsoduro district on the western end of the Venetian archipelago a half forgotten but fondly remembered garden has been transformed by Scotland + Venice into a community gathering space, outdoor cinema, architectural playground, living library, conference venue, and makerspace /workshop. It may be a little rough and ready, but that’s part of its allure and charm. It’s not precious, but alive and accessible. You’ll not wear out your welcome at Zenobio!

Seven projects, bringing together creative collaborations between Scots architects, artists, dancers and filmmakers are showcased and provide an inspiring and optimistic backdrop to The Happenstance project. Whilst Venice Biennale may provide a prism through which to focus and supercharge action on these Scottish projects, it is evident The Happenstance has inspired the locals in Venice to pursue long-standing community activism with renewed vigour.

In response to the Year of Young People there is an emphasis on actively engaging and empowering young folk to help shape their place through each of the featured Scottish projects. Furthermore The Happenstance features the inaugural programme of Scotland + Venice Fellowships, with one student from each Scottish school of architecture participating and undertaking research whilst in Venice for more than a month.

The Happenstance garden in Venice reinforces the focus on young people, with the Armature, designed by Baxendale, creating a playful framework for exploration of Freespace. In the garden and associated interior workshop / library spaces the forces of goodwill and generosity, human spirit and happenstance are combining in a joyful living laboratory of ideas and interaction exploring how to make things better; in every sense. It is simultaneously sharing reflective and active practice; a summation of Scottish charrette and participatory planning experience transposed to purposeful, focused action and live projects and emerging opportunities in Venice.


Despite its status as an official but ‘collateral project’, with a comparatively modest budget, Scotland + Venice has received critical acclaim, with Architectural Review listing it in their Biennale top 5. Whilst a very welcome endorsement the real measure of success has been the overwhelming and positive reaction from locals and visitors alike.

In The Happenstance garden over a three day visit last week I’ve witnessed two stunning free community film screenings, restoring the lost Venetian tradition of outdoor cinema with films from Scotland and Venice. I’ve seen intense community meetings convene under the last of daylight, to agree action. I’ve heard plans hatched for the local community to gather for a shared meal under the stars next week. Venetians, reflecting on the lack of publicly accessible green space in the district, have warmly welcomed and adopted this small piece of nature as theirs, and ours.

I’ve joined in debates and discussions about the politics of place planning with international visitors. And shared the A Town Hall for All in Penicuik (one of the featured projects) with Sister Lorenezza and her class of 11 year olds from the nearby Cinnasio Luceo Marco Polo School, who reciprocated with their ideas for Un Municipio per Tutti. I’ve met old friends and made new ones. Fresh creative networks of Scottish based practitioners are being forged abroad.

I’ve watched young Scottish architecture students adapt the timber framework of the Armature to attend to requests from local kids who’ve creatively invented it as an endlessly evolving play space. The shrieks of joy as young Venetians came back day after day after school speaks of the intense excitement, fun and freedom this small intervention has made for many, young and old, within a week of opening.

The garden has become a place of song (I sang some Burns, others songs from their place), laughter and debate. It’s becoming an ever more magical place, day by day.


This hidden gem of a space became possible thanks to an unlikely and spectacular sequence of serendipity.  Peter McCaughey always claims to expect to get lucky, that the next person he meets will be the most important person to realising a project. The aptly named The Happenstance project encapsulates this. But that’s a long story for another time.

Suffice to say the generosity and trust shown by those responsible for Palazzo Zenobio is being repaid with interest through the tireless efforts of WAVEparticle and The Happenstance team.

In the few months of preparation for the Biennale Peter McCaughey has developed an affinity with groups of community and civic leaders active in this part of Venice who recognise the shared ethos and synergies evident in the Scotland + Venice project.


Palazzo Zenobio is a fascinating place. Its history at the heart of the Armenian community in Venice is complex and multi-layered.  Its existence has been under threat in recent decades and huge efforts were successful in restoring and keeping it active. Nevertheless, with a lack of funding and wherewithal, the western portion of the grounds given over temporarily for The Happenstance, have no clear future as a community asset after Scotland + Venice concludes in late June.

However the evident success of The Happenstance intervention points to a possible solution; an egalitarian prototype of a community green space able to meet local needs, establish a playful environment and restore community outdoor cinema. Its early days but perhaps a way can be found to extend The Happenstance beyond the end of June? Time will tell, but there’s undoubtedly desire and willingness to try to make it happen. Perhaps The Happenstance can be transferred to locals to make of it what they will.


Word has spread of the life affirming energy of The Happenstance. Locals have become repeat visitors, bringing more friends and family each time, animating their garden. Mumsnet Venice have flagged it up as a great place for kids and families. Through word of mouth, and online endorsement, the space is constantly enlivened by play, each day. Peter McCaughey is ‘deadly serious about play’ as an agent of creativity and community. The Happenstance garden is manifestly playful, creative and communal.

Beyond the playful it’s evident The Happenstance garden is also nurturing community activism. On a gift shopping interlude I popped in to a jewellery studio half a mile away to find the artist / proprietor speaking passionately about the positive impact and energy The Happenstance project is having amid local artisans and the creative community who are intrinsic to the district. She hopes the action at Zenobio can enthuse and enable this community to gain shared purpose and a voice as they seek to maintain an active presence in Dorsoduro.

The Happenstance Scotland and Venice
‘deadly serious about play’ – The Happenstance garden has become a local community play space


At the southern end of the lagoon there’s the small island of Poveglia. Abandoned fifty years ago it has been the focus of contested and controversial land sales. Meantime the island, previously in public ownership, has become a cherished natural escape away from the overwhelming pressures of Venice.

Attempts to establish community ownership have proven unsuccessful, though the campaign continues. Local architect, Lorenzo Pesola and Poveglia Per Tutti (the Poveglia for All Action Group) have used The Happenstance garden for meetings and enabled The Happenstance team members to visit.

The resonance with Scotland’s community empowerment legislation is obvious and the debate about land ownership and access rights in a city with very little ‘freespace’ is clearly pertinent.


In parallel with these emerging opportunities for Scotland + Venice to inspire community-led regeneration in Venice, many of the showcased projects back in Scotland have been supercharged by the endeavour of The Happenstance. The A Town Hall for All project in Penicuik I’ve been involved in has developed momentum towards being showcased in Penicuik and Venice simultaneously.

The Penicuik community responded very positively to the A Town Hall for All project when it was presented at the town’s Hunter and Lass gala day which coincided with the launch of The Happenstance in Venice on 26 May. All 1,329 primary school pupils in Penicuik have been invited to share their ideas for the future of Penicuik Town Hall, where their ideas (and those of their Venetian counterparts) will be displayed on 13 June. Hopefully this can help kick start a whole-town debate about how to refresh and reenergise Penicuik Town Hall.

The Happenstance Scotland and Venice
Venetian school children contributed to the A Town Hall for All project


It will be interesting to see what emerges, what action can be taken to harness the energy and goodwill surrounding The Happenstance. The projects featured in The Happenstance offer the prospect of making positive change in communities across Scotland, whilst its very presence in Dorsuduro is acting as the catalyst for action in Venice.

Hopefully there can be a positive living legacy from The Happenstance. The outcomes will allow us to see just how much we actually value Freespace? In Scotland and Venice.

Watch this (free?) space!

To find out more about The Happenstance visit https://www.ads.org.uk/scotlandvenice2018/

To find out more about the ‘A Town Hall for All’ project visit https://www.austinsmithlord.com/a-town-hall-for-all-penicuik/