Whether an involuntary consequence of squeezed cultural-relations budgets, or a more tactical response to the aura of Sejima as director, this year many countries appeared to be keeping their contributions low key. Even so, in the Giardini and Arsenale, visitors were confronted with the usual daunting spectrum of curatorial propositions and possibilities.

For Chile, Mathias Klotz’s photographs calmly recorded the devastation of the 2010 Chilean earthquake. Though ‘only’ 500 people died, the quake was one of the strongest in recorded world history, with many coastal towns and historic districts wiped out by the ensuing tsunami. In the festive biennale milieu dedicated to reaffirming architectural omnipotence, it was a reminder of the fragility of built form and human life.

Switzerland presented a sober survey of the work of engineer Jürg Conzett, rendered in moody panoramas of Swiss landscapes heroically traversed by his structures. Brazil also opted for a monographic homage to the apparently immortal Niemeyer. Belgium investigated the physical effects of use and wear through a beautifully laconic array of ordinary objects and fittings, such as carpets and handrails. Neighbouring Netherlands (Giardini geography occasionally apes the real thing) focused on the reuse of vacant buildings expressed through a huge, celestial blue polystyrene model of a ‘city’ of empty buildings suspended in mid-air like a temporary sky.

For Japan, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow and SANAA’s Ryue Nishizawa showed a series of delightful house proposals in the context of Tokyo’s ‘metabolising’ city fabric. Unlike Europe, with its historic city cores and grand plans, Tokyo consists of a fluid aggregation of independent buildings or ‘grains’. France under Dominique Perrault also homed in on the city, this time as a wider urban terrain, with an installation of films and texts, though the vigorously flickering walls (doubtless unintentionally) induced minor queasiness in visitors. Russia’s contribution was a survey of redundant Soviet-era factories in the former textile town of Vyshny Volochyok, investigating how derelict land might be brought back into use. A familiar topic of post-industrial regeneration, perhaps, but it’s estimated that there are 300 Vyshny Volochyoks across Russia, housing 10-15 million people.

At the less careworn end of the curatorial spectrum, Hungary delivered a cheerful homage to the art of hand drawing, adorned with rippling pencil curtains. In a riposte to the proscriptions of health and safety, Poland encouraged visitors (at their own risk) to leap off a gabion tower on to an inflatable landing shrouded in dry ice. Canada went all weirdly sci-fi with Hylozoic Ground, an interactive forest made of thousands of lightweight, digitally fabricated components fitted with microprocessors and sensors to mimic organic life.

There were some misfires, notably the Scandinavians, who played it rather too Nordically straight (more Finnish schools?), and the USA, whose pavilion inexplicably gave house room to architect John Portman. Spain was an inelegant articulation of some vaguely right-on, green credentials, with its section of the Biennale catalogue left enigmatically blank. For hardcore nihilism, however, one couldn’t touch the Venezuelans, who didn’t turn up at all.

The virtues of austerity and authenticity were underlined by Bahrain’s award of Golden Lion for best pavilion. Making its debut in Venice, the tiny oil-rich kingdom confounded the stereotype of the Gulf as a latter day architectural Gomorrah, instead choosing to reflect on the ecological and social decline of Bahrain’s historic sea culture. This was achieved with admirable simplicity through three traditional fishermen’s shacks plucked from their original context and reassembled in the Arsenale (itself a relic of a lost maritime civilisation). The poignant dignity of the rough hewn structures had nothing to do with architects and everything to do with an instinctive response to site, climate and materials.

Several biennales ago in 1996, the British Pavilion was colonised by a huge scale model of Richard MacCormac’s Ruskin Library for the University of Lancaster. Ruskin and Venice are grimly locked together in art-historical perpetuity, but it’s well known that he came to deplore the consequences of his Venetian investigations and their careless rehashing in a tide of crass pseudo-Gothic imitations - ‘accursed Frankenstein monsters of, indirectly, my own making’, as he put it. However, he was also deeply concerned with memory and especially the part buildings play as both text and repository of cumulative history. ‘We cannot remember without architecture,’ he admonished in The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

For this biennale, the shade of Ruskin rose again, with the British Pavilion ironically rechristened Villa Frankenstein by curator Liza Fior of Muf Architecture. Ruskin’s meticulous and obsessive recording is at the heart of what Fior describes as ‘close looking’, a strategy and spirit that underpinned the British contribution.

On duck egg blue walls, Ruskin’s Venetian jottings and sketches were paired with images from a remarkable unseen archive by local photographers Alvio and Gabriella Gavagrin. The Gavagrins live in Castello, Venice’s easternmost sestiere. Here during the press vernissage, Castello’s streets and gardens are transformed into a supercharged summer fete. Yet through the Gavagrins’ prism of black and white camera vérité, the same locale is depicted as a place of decay and abandonment, a mouldering banquet served up for tourists.

Augmenting this subtle urban examination devised by Venice-based artist and philosopher Wolfgang Scheppe was an inhabitable scale model of part of the 2012 Olympic Stadium. Built by local carpenters and wedged into its space like a modern Teatro Olimpico, this will be used for drawing workshops during the Biennale (see page 88). There was also a suite devoted to the lagoon and its ecology, replete with aquaria and stuffed birds. Both these sections were freighted with earnest notions of pedagogy, outreach and legacy, which though estimable in their own right, seemed slightly at odds with the more dreamlike atmosphere of the Ruskin/Gavagrin rooms.

Bridging generations, methods of recording (hand drawing and the camera) and ways of seeing, this dialogue across history was an elegiac paean to memory and place; specifically, how buildings are embedded with layers of memory and meaning, and how a sense of place is physically and experientially transmuted over time.