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EXHIBITIONS

REVIEW

Third International Rotterdam Architecture Biennale At various Rotterdam venues until 2 September

Rotterdam saw a growing transformation during the 1990s. In tune with its desire to redefine its identity and create a clear cultural agenda, the city is now staging its third architecture biennale, under the title 'Power: Producing the Contemporary City'.

The appointment of the Berlage Institute as the event's curator underpins its academic base. On the premise that the biennale is not about promoting star architecture, the Berlage invited 15 young international architecture practices to carry out six months' research on themes of fear, migration, representation, tourism, commerce and migration; their findings constitute the main exhibition, 'Visionary Power', held in OMA's Kunsthal.

At the biennale's opening ceremony, Herman Hertzberger responded to the question 'what role does the architect have in designing the contemporary city?' After expressing his disdain for Dutch urban planning - myopic at present - Hertzberger spoke of the need to provide a democratic structured planning system, a framework which people could 'fill in later as they saw fit'.

Edi Rama, mayor of Tirana in Albania, talked of the total breakdown of community and collectivism there after 50 years of Communist rule. A striking figure, with a background in the arts rather than politics, Rama gave a hard-hitting speech about how he managed to restore a sense of civic pride by having Tirana's motley facades painted with bright compositions of colour - an instant talking-point in the city's cafes and bars.

Rama's modest intervention seemed to resonate with the scale of the architects' propositions in 'Visionary Power'. Their work, which attempts to provide counterstrategies to the dominant global forces that impact on urbanism, explores cities such as Astana, Johannesburg, Beirut, Caracas, Ceuta and Rome, dealing mainly with the disenfranchised. But dominated by diagrams, photos and drawings, with little explanatory text, the show leaves viewers wondering what is real and what proposed.

'The New Dutch City', installed alongside 'Visionary Power', provides a local focus.

It presents projects by Dutch practices that try to stem the overspill into the green heart of the Netherlands' Randstad, which is ringed by major cities.

But the real visual excitement at this biennale is across the park from the Kunsthal at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI), whose exhibition 'Le Corbusier, The Art of Architecture' is likely to be seen as a benchmark display of his work. Realised in collaboration with the Vitra Museum, the Fondation Le Corbusier, and the RIBA (it comes to the UK next year), it's timely too; the last major retrospective was at London's Hayward Gallery in 1987.

The show mixes models, furniture, sketches and film to fascinating effect. Invited by Philips to design its pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958, Le Corbusier created an audiovisual spectacle which merged sci-fi images with existential angst: a 1:6 scale model of the tensile structure with concrete panels is displayed at the NAI along with original film footage. There's also a prototype kitchen for the Unité d'Habitation at Marseilles.

Other gems include a photo of Le Corbusier smiling as he stands next to Josephine Baker on board a cruise liner on his first trip to Brazil, and film of a party in full swing at the Champs Élysées apartment he designed for Charles Beistegui, with Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala sliding down the banisters. Urban planning themes are documented but don't dominate the exhibition; they're explored more fully in the extensive catalogue, with essays by academics such as Beatriz Colomina.

Extending the biennale's theme under the title 'A Better World - Another Power', the NAI also presents the work of four groups who aim to sidestep conventional methods of practice. The Spanish architect/ artist Santiago Cirugeda displays a witty installation to illustrate his 'guerrilla' housing techniques, while Dutch practice FAST provides an alternative urban design framework for the 'illegal' Palestinian village Ein Hud in the West Bank, returning autonomy to the residents.

Overall, the Berlage Institute has set its sights well.

Eschewing the dazzling and daunting data of last year's Venice Architecture Biennale, it has chosen to identify with emerging practices, beginning to unravel the breadth of their approaches in tackling the contemporary city.

Corinna Dean is programme director at Kent School of Architecture

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