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GOING FOR GOLD IN VENICE

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This year's Venice Architecture Biennale, 'Metamorph', opened last Sunday, writes Andrew Mead, with the Golden Lion for 'the most remarkable work in the exhibition' going to SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) for museum projects in Japan and Spain.

Other Golden Lions went to Belgium for the best installation presented by a country - an eye-opening show on post-colonial Kinshasa - and to Peter Eisenman for lifetime achievement.

Director Kurt Forster has structured the exhibition by theme, with 'the most accomplished work' in each category receiving a special award.

Foreign Office Architects (FOA) was the winner in the 'Topography' section, with its Novartis Car Park in Basel. 'Rather than simply placing a picturesque park on top of a conventional car park, our ambition is to produce a new composite, ' says FOA.

Despite some off-putting hype from Forster, the self-indulgence of a few participants (notably Eisenman), a sporadic lack of focus and a lot of wannabe icons, the main exhibition is frequently rewarding, with some rich and exciting projects on display. There is a welcome emphasis on landscape, not just on buildings as narcissistic objects.

The national pavilions, however, are a very mixed bunch, and Japan and Switzerland are particularly disappointing. Belgium is a worthy winner, but there is a strong showing too from Germany, France and Spain (among others), and a memorable contribution from Ireland, in the form of O'Donnell + Tuomey's installation on the Letterfrack Furniture College.

The British Pavilion, funded by the British Council and curated by Peter Cook, features Ron Arad, Caruso St John, Kathryn Findlay, Future Systems, C J Lim, Richard Murphy, John Pawson, Ian Ritchie and Cook himself with Gavin Rowbotham. While it suggests the diversity of the British scene, there's little room for each practice to breathe. Some, like Murphy, pack as much as possible into their allotted modicum of space. Others - Pawson, unsurprisingly - keep it spare.

There are voice-overs from the participants and sharp introductory texts from Cook: 'A good Murphy building is full of ideas and devices and he delights in calling your attention to them.' Whether the result is the 'conversation' that Cook wanted to create, or a series of monologues, is moot. But to move from Findlay's room, centred on her Villa Doha, Qatar, to the adjacent display by Caruso St John certainly supplies the 'heightened and rhetorical contrast' that Cook sought.

With two models, a three-part drawing and photographs of its square at Kalmar in Sweden (shown against a backdrop of William Morris wallpaper), Caruso St John creates a quietly charged space in the melÚe of the biennale. 'If the Smithsons' legacy has to be hijacked by the Minimalists, then it is better to be followed up by architects who understand substance and light - as they seem to do, ' says Cook.

Cook and Rowbotham's contribution, 'The Greening of East London', is engaging: a large drawing of the Lea Valley between Hackney and Stratford, with over 90 insertions - 'jetty housing', 'pleasure island', 'metromarsh' - that might transform incrementally this abused landscape.

For a full report see the review pages in next week's AJ.

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