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Biennale fiasco limits scope of British message


Pavilions at international exhibitions are always problematic. They have to encapsulate the economic and cultural zeitgeist of a nation in a way which is jolly enough to delight tourists and the press, but serious enough to provide would-be investors the information they need. With the plans for this year's Venice Biennale, we seemed to have cracked it. The British pavilion was to be devoted to the Jubilee Line Extension (jle), a project glamorous enough to engage the public, sufficiently complex to showcase our technical expertise, and large enough to mean serious business.

The pavilion was to focus on the jle's impact on the regeneration of a great swathe of London - an ambitious subject, which could have degenerated into an unseemly mess. Will Alsop's design was based on little more than photographs of the stations, and models of projects in the surrounding area. With written information confined to an accompanying guide, the exhibition was to be both simple and enigmatic - too enigmatic, perhaps, for the British Council, which has dropped the design on the basis that it failed to attract commercial sponsorship. Venice, apparently, is seen as a cultural event as opposed to a business opportunity. It's disheartening that the two are seen as opposed, and the change in direction over the contents of the British pavilion is unlikely to shatter the myth that culture and commerce are distinct.

It looks likely that the pavilion will be devoted to the work of three British architects: Will Alsop, David Chipperfield and Nigel Coates. It will prove, once again, that Britain has its share of inspirational designers. But the jle project would have done that too, while making the additional point that we have a public sector which can be both competent and visionary. And by focusing on projects in the surrounding area, it would have highlighted the work of more commercial architects - that invisible mass ignored by the media, but of great interest to investors. There is little doubt that the combined work of Alsop, Chipperfield and Coates will secure our position in the international style wars. But it is unlikely to emphasise the crucial point that we have the ability to convert talent into large-scale economic growth.

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