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Dearth in Venice

La Biennale di Venezia: Seventh International Architecture ExhibitionAt the Giardini di Castello and the Arsenale, Venice, until 29 October

In Venice, gondoliers have mobile phones and, concealed within medieval fabric, Internet cafes are multiplying. Camouflaging its incorporation of the new so dextrously, Venice is hardly typical of contemporary cities, whose destiny is the theme of this year’s architecture biennale.

Under the direction of Massimiliano Fuksas, its title is ‘City: Less Aesthetics, More Ethics’. As at last year’s art biennale, not just the Castello gardens with their national pavilions but several huge buildings at the Arsenale naval complex (until recently, off-limits to the public) are brought into play. It is, by a considerable degree, the biggest Venice Architecture Biennale so far - but much of it is disappointing. The organisers want to attract ‘a wider audience beyond the field of architects and artists’, to set up ‘a dialogue with the public’. It is hard to see how that will happen.

Many of the national pavilions are uninspired; Spain’s, presenting recent work by three dozen or more practitioners aged in their 30s or 40s, was officially judged the best. It is designed w ith some panache: you enter a red antechamber and pull aside red curtains to find a large black room with display panels at eye level suspended from the ceiling. These are all constellated around a large black cube hanging in the centre of the room, whose red interior encloses a diminutive white model. But the panels only have information (images or texts) on one side, and what they convey of Spanish architecture now is no more than sketchy. The judges’ prize was presumably a tribute to what they knew had been built, not what they learned about it here.

There are few rewards at the German, French or Netherlands pavilions. The German topic, the changes which Berlin has undergone in the past 60 years, is full of potential, but it has been treated very ponderously. Perhaps to avoid charges of ‘aestheticism’, the photographic evidence is greatly underplayed in favour of largescale city plans and framed texts propped against the wall; the latter, with their long lists of protagonists, look like memorials.

The French pavilion is almost entirely given over to polemical texts - handwritten, sometimes stretching the width of a wall, and barely possible to read.’Ethics masks the void of politics … As the French pavilion is the symbol of institutional power, it can only be the subject of symbolic inversion, ’ say its commissioners (who include Jean Nouvel). But, in so uningratiating an environment, how many people will persevere to find its point?

No such demands on visitors are made in the Netherlands pavilion - or ‘NL Lounge’, as it is styled.With several options for sitting or reclining (bean bags are cool again), a voice intoning ‘take off your shoes’, and access to television and the Internet, this laid-back setting is supposed to represent the blurring of public and private in contemporary life. ‘Think about exclusion and inclusion, ’ says the exhibition guide. Mention of the Netherlands would usually suggest adventurous contemporary architecture, an acute engagement with density or sprawl; that’s hardly in evidence here.

In this lacklustre context, the British pavilion - ‘City Visionaries’ - is more effective than it might otherwise have been.An intriguing large colourful model of Alsop & Stormer’s C/Plex community arts building in West Bromwich is the centrepiece of the first room, but the walls are entirely covered by a vague abstract ‘painting’, when they could have conveyed more information about the C/Plex project, or put it in the context of the practice’s other work.

Branson Coates’ ‘Ecstacity’ installation is quite effective visually, despite its kitschy, trinket-like little models and its collaging of different cities in the manner of late 1960s Situationism.’Feel free enough to get lost and build up your own experiences out of the chaos of the place, from the complex spaces of streets and alleys to the cacophony of media options, ’ says an accompanying text, which scarcely counters the sense of superficiality.

Zaha Hadid’s display depends on the seductive appeal of her bridge and Mind Zone models; anyone immune to that will find little else to detain them. Of the four British participants, it is David Chipperfield who makes the strongest showing, with an impeccable presentation of his Palace of Justice in Salerno and Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa. Some finely-crafted models large and small (a relative rarity at this biennale) are backed up by enough information for visitors to understand the nature of the two projects - both of which reflect the biennale’s theme in their urban awareness.

Hadid and Alsop & Stormer also feature in Fuksas’ international selection at the Italian pavilion. Alsop has written ‘Masterplanning is Big Architecture’ on one wall and, on another: ‘Our objective is to look at large areas in the same way that you think about a single building.’ There is, however, no explanation of what that entails.

The rest of the walls have been ‘decorated’ in a time-honoured way by throwing paint on them at intervals and letting it drip randomly to the ground. There are two projections: one showing a sample of Alsop & Stormer’s architecture, the other, rather curiously, a series of flowers. Visitors might feel short-changed.

Two pavilions in particular fuse content and presentation persuasively - the American and the Danish.

The American pavilion is at present ‘work in progress’, with students from Columbia Un ivers ity and UCLA, under the direction of Hani Rashid and Greg Lynn, engaged in a four-week workshop whose output will then be on display for the rest of the biennale.

Banks of computer screens are much in evidence, along with various three-dimensional prototypes and components; one aim is to provide ‘an understanding of spatial configurations and building complexes that goes way beyond conventional geometric definitions’.

Lynn’s students are involved with an ‘Embryological Housing’project: exploring the potential for mass-produced customised houses and aiming for a ‘more vital, evolving, biological’ model of design and construction than the ‘Modernist kit-of-parts’. How far these computer visualisations translate into satisfying built reality is something else; after all, Lynn’s recent Korean Presbyterian Church of New York in Queens is one of the least numinous religious spaces you can find. But the seriousness of purpose that informs this pavilion, and the industrial-finish beauty of some of its products, must be admired.

The Danish exhibition, ‘Transitions - Space in the Dispersed City’, focuses on nine specific sites in Copenhagen, all marginal in character, which could supply a new coherence to the city or the landscape. This is, of course, an undertaking that has not just a local significance, and what makes it satisfying is the imaginative range of responses, in two and three dimensions, that are on show. They convey a feeling for materials and a poetic appreciation of site that are in short supply elsewhere at the biennale.

There are other notable Scandinavian contributions. The small Finnish pavilion presents ‘Concrete Spaces’ - a mostly photographic survey of the work of Aarno Ruusuvuori (1925-92), with an impressive large tactile model of his Huutoniemi Church, Vaasa, at the centre, boardmarked in miniature. In the Nordic pavilion Juha Ilonen shows ‘The Other Helsinki: The Reverse Face of the Architecture in the City’- a splendid series of photographs of hidden courtyards in Helsinki, to illustrate Ilonen’s premise that ‘the unwitting architecture of the back yards is at best far more vibrant and forceful than what the streetfronts have to offer.’ This unsuspected portrait of a city is executed with great technical finesse.

But the prize for best architectural photography at the biennale went to an exhibitor at the Russian pavilion, Ilya Utkin, whose images of ruined buildings in his homeland have a cumulative power (despite being poorly hung). They complement the meticulous architectural fantasies drawn by the other Russian exhibitor, architect-artist Mikhail Filippov, whose subject is the failure of all utopias - whether dreamt up by Constructivists, Stalin or Le Corbusier.

Much is made in the biennale’s promotional literature of Fuksas’ and Doriana Mandrelli’s 280m long video wall, which occupies almost the whole length of the Corderie, the Arsenale’s former ropemaking sheds.

It shows scenes of different cities, in overviews and details, but not as an unfolding narrative that holds the attention - it’s wallpaper, which people only glance at as they drift through the building.

Unfortunately it subjugates many of the other exhibits in the Corderie, casting them into a twilight where captions and texts are barely decipherable.Reiser + Umemoto (new infrastructure in Manhattan) and Itsuko Hasegawa are among those whose work is worth studying here.

Beyond the Corderie, in the sixteenth-century Artigliere, Richard Rogers Partnership makes the best possible case for its Welsh Assembly building, with a handsome model and an emphasis on sustainability. Then comes a dramatic change of mood in an installation by China’s Gary Chang: a four-storey assemblage of cages and green fluorescent lights, like a malign collaboration between Bruce Nauman and Dan Flavin; the cages are the size of a prone person and some have pillows in them. Thereafter, as the exhibits become more dispersed, and as the Arsenale’s architecture is itself insistent (Sansovino’s Gaggiandre), any focus to the biennale is finally dissipated.

Putting ‘City: Less Aesthetics, More Ethics’ in perspective, at least until 23 July, is a superb exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi called ‘Cosmos’. With more than 400 paintings and drawings from the past two centuries or so, its subtitle is ‘Art in Pursuit of the Infinite’, but there are a number of architectural inclusions: Boullee’s drawings for his ConeShaped Cenotaph and Temple of Nature and Reason, Nikolai Suetin’s Constructivist City, Le Corbusier’s Musee Mundaneum. Alongside artists’ visions, from Caspar David Friedrich’s mysterious Moonlight Seascape to a blue Planetary Relief by Yves Klein, are documentary images from actual explorations - to the Poles, the American West, the Moon. These last have a certain pathos: they are all scenes of man on the move, before either the ethics or aesthetics of settlement arise.

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