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The 10th Venice Architecture Biennale opens on 10 September with 'Cities, Architecture and Society' as its theme. It will be split between two main sites, with an exhibition curated by Ricky Burdett at the Arsenale and shows in the many national pavilions at the Festival Gardens.

In the Arsenale's huge old ropeworks, the Corderie, are multi-media evocations of 'the urban experience' of 16 major cities - from Shanghai and Tokyo to Bogotá and Caracas, by way of Mumbai, Barcelona, London and New York. Films and photographs figure strongly but their impressionistic accounts of city life will, says Burdett, be complemented by statistics and 'an attempt to make something beautiful out of data'. New projects in these chosen cities are also on display.

Providing further analytical back-up to the Arsenale exhibits, the Italian Pavilion in the Festival Gardens will showcase the work of 12 bodies engaged in urban research, including the Berlage Institute, OMA, and the ETH Basel Contemporary City Studio. The other national pavilions each offer their own take on the biennale's theme, with, for example, Germany focusing on 'the hitherto rather unattractive tasks of rebuilding and re-use', and the French exhibit 'Metacité' putting community architecture to the fore.

The British Pavilion, curated by Sheffield University's Jeremy Till, takes Sheffield as 'an exemplar of post-industrial cities everywhere' (debatably? ) and presents it at scales from 1:1 to 1:10million, along with new schemes by Sauerbruch Hutton, Hawkins\Brown and others.

Burdett hopes that the biennale will be 'not just a show but a major cultural statement, which has an impact on the real world'. With conferences, workshops and student projects scheduled until it closes on 19 November, he wants 'the whole event to be more dynamic than in the past'. Golden Lions for best pavilion, etc, will be awarded towards the end (8 November), not at the beginning, and the biennale will culminate with a manifesto - 'An Agenda for Cities of the 21st Century' - which Burdett will write.

Perhaps even more than at previous architecture biennales, the complexity of this year's theme, with a vast amount of material to absorb, presents problems for visitors.

How to come away with something coherent from all the facts and images, all the disparate presentations?

'You won't be looking just at pieces of architecture as objects, ' says Burdett. 'All the time you'll be thinking about how architecture and urban design relate to a wider context - social, cultural, political - and how they can make cities more beautiful and equitable. That is the interpretative key.'

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