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Window on the future

review

Next: Venice Biennale - The 8th International Architecture Exhibition At the Giardini di Castello and the Arsenale, Venice, until 3 November (www. labiennale. org)

Previous directors of the Venice Architecture Biennale have gone for vague, portentous themes. 'Less Aesthetics, More Ethics' was Massimiliano Fuksas' choice for the last Biennale in 2000; 'The Architect as Seismograph' was Hans Hollein's, for the one before that in 1996. Both were little more than euphemisms for 'anything goes'.

So the decision by this year's director Deyan Sudjic to title the exhibition 'Next', and concentrate on projects that are actually being built, at once gives the event a more definite focus. Not that he can determine the way in which the international pavilions in the Castello Gardens interpret the theme, but at the Biennale's other main site, the Arsenale, his influence is decisive.

The buildings there, especially the lateRenaissance rope sheds, the Corderie, give great scope for displaying architecture or art;

but because of their extent, volume and dignity, it is easy for the work installed in them to seem dwarfed or lost. Sudjic has addressed this in two ways: by grouping the 140 projects by type in 11 self-contained sections, and by commissioning John Pawson to provide an overall design.

By using a consistent set of parts - suspended display panels; long tables for models at a sensible height; cream-white, solid-looking, freestanding walls - but deploying them differently in each section, Pawson maintains coherence without monotony. Whereas in 2000, Fuksas' long and largely superfluous 'video wall' subjugated most of the other exhibits, here everything can be seen and appreciated. Schemes are presented democratically; their qualities are allowed to emerge.

Pawson's design reinforces the axial route down the 316m-long Corderie, with just the occasional exception. Halfway through the section on museums, for instance, the path is interrupted diagonally by a large full-size sample of the contoured glass panels which Tadao Ando is using for his François Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris.

These direct encounters with materials recur throughout the exhibition - whether in Herzog & de Meuron's continuing explorations of surface (embossed panels of stainless steel) in its Forum 2004, Barcelona; or in the curved double skin of translucent blue acrylic and triangular metal facets of Peter Cook and Colin Fournier's Kunsthaus Graz (opening next year).

As reported in last week's AJ, Alvaro Siza won the Golden Lion for the best project in the show with his art museum, the Iberê Camargue Foundation - against strong opposition. Staying only with this building type, Peter Zumthor's Diocesan Museum, Cologne, presented in depth in a series of models, and clearly much-meditated, must have been a rival. It would be interesting to hear just why the jury thought that Siza's building in particular 'sets a pattern for the future'.

The Alessi-sponsored 'City of Towers', 100-storey skyscrapers by eight invited architects in 1:100 models, hyped in advance, is a disappointment. It not only subverts the premise of the Biennale (these are not being built), but the towers' designers have not really gone beyond questions of form - especially Future Systems. Perhaps its proposal is meant as a joke. Fallica, said a passing Italian, and there is nothing to add.

In one area of the Corderie, though, are less speculative skyscrapers. Hans Hollein's twin PORR Towers in Vienna, cantilevered and connected at the top, will certainly be the 'landmark' that its client wants, though whether for good or ill is debatable. Jean Nouvel's Agbar Tower, Barcelona, looks quite ethereal, almost vaporous: will it do so when built? 'It is influenced by the mysteries of the wind that blows in from Monserrat, ' says the caption - so perhaps it will.

High-rise projects can also be found outside this dedicated section - in an elegant tower of subsidised housing in Vienna by Delugan-Meissl, for example. This design is at the cooler end of the Biennale's spectrum, as are a house in Tokyo by Kazuyo Sejima, a theatre in Middelburg by Claus en Kaan, and two contrasting office blocks by Alberto Campo Baeza.

But there is no shortage of attention-seeking schemes that eschew simplicity: Zaha Hadid's Wolfsburg Science Centre (sleekly presented); Daniel Libeskind's Denver Museum extension and his shopping centre in Berne (views of their interiors are interchangeable); Peter Eisenman's huge City of Culture at Santiago de Compostela, 'a warped surface that is neither figure nor ground'. One trusts that the client for this knows the postcompletion history of the Wexner Center.

Some boundaries of traditional building types are tested, as in the redefined libraries of MDVDR and Adjaye Associates. Energy conservation is, of course, a theme (though not a fetish) of the Biennale, as in Werner Sobek's House R129 (with solar cells on its plastic skin) and Morphosis' Federal Building, San Francisco - apparently the first tower in the US for decades to forego air conditioning, opting instead for a glass wall buffered by a perforated sun-screen.

Toyo Ito, given a Golden Lion at this Biennale for lifetime achievement, shows a continuing willingness to experiment in his new projects here: among them, a house in Groningen with a facade of glass and aluminium 'bricks', and a concert hall in Matsumoto - subject of another of the fullscale material mock-ups - with walls of glass-fibre reinforced cement. But just as pervasive as Ito in the exhibition is the strongest of the British contingent, David Chipperfield Architects, with schemes ranging from the BBC Scotland HQ (a large model reveals the dramatic sequence of internal spaces), via the Neues Museum, Berlin (a sophisticated amalgam), to the City of Justice, Barcelona, with its seven buildings clad in coloured fritted glass.

Chipperfield also appears in the Italian Pavilion over at the Castello Gardens. There, in two dozen international pavilions, the theme of 'Next' is interpreted much more loosely than at the Arsenale.

'Architecture recently has often been presented as if it were a form of installation art, or dominated by cyberspace or video, ' said Sudjic before the Biennale - a tendency he wanted to reverse in favour of the physical and the tactile. The commissioners of the Spanish Pavilion have not listened. Inside, all the walls are black and the floor is covered by a giant reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, with flat video screens at intervals floating just above it. Admittedly, the rooms look stunning, but with Bosch's bizarre imagery in such close proximity, the schemes of the featured architects are almost overwhelmed.

At first glance the German Pavilion, too, looks like an art installation, with its serried ranks of models on identical plinths, but it has plenty of substance. The 90 or so 1:33 models, made by students from 11 universities, all derive from the dimensions of the pavilion's central room, but within these parameters explore space, form, programme and materials with real creativity.

Foreign Office Architects' British Pavilion succeeds as an installation but not at the expense of information about the Yokohama terminal on which it is based. Meticulous drawings on the floors and walls; footage of the construction process and the end result;

projected images (cells, clouds, leaves) that encourage allusive readings of the project;

and the whole building pervaded by the kind of blue light that is usually called 'unearthly'.

The only text, however, scrolling halfway up one wall, is out-of-focus and hard to absorb.

The Italian Pavilion proves that an entirely conventional presentation of architecture, done well, still has a lot to offer. The Japanese one, subdivided by slanting timber walls and centred on housing, stresses craft as much as technology. 'Subtopian' housing - tiny images of the fermette, 'a farmhouse-style cottage hybrid, encapsulating everything that is mediocre' - is the wallpaper backdrop to worthwhile public projects in the Belgian Pavilion. Given the current quality of architecture in their country, it seems perverse of the Swiss to show Décosterd & Rahm's Hormonorium - a proposal for 'a new public space', which simulates high-altitude conditions, and comes with medical warnings to all who venture inside.

Herman Hertzberger's design for the Golden Lion-winning Netherlands Pavilion displays projects by five young practices in large transparent tubes, aligned in a diagonal with a Mondrian reproduction, while some inflated, transparent spheres bob around near the walls. The award must be more of a tribute to the continuity of Dutch architecture over three generations than to the featured schemes or their presentation.

Definitely worth seeing is a selection of Carlo Scarpa drawings, all relating to his projects for the Biennale between 1948 and 1968.

One final pavilion at this Biennale that calls for comment is the American, devoted to 11 September. With Joel Meyerowitz's Ground Zero photographs in one wing and, in the other, the replacement schemes produced hurriedly for a show last January at the Max Protetch Gallery, it does not really advance the debate about reconstruction. But a twisted steel section from the WTC itself, lying in the pavilion forecourt like a spent missile, is bound to give pause for thought.

Elsewhere in Venice are several shows of interest to Biennale visitors, which merit more attention than space here allows. The Instituto Universitario di Architettura has another of its impeccable archive displays of drawings and models, this time on the work of Giuseppe Samonà. His Villa Baia from the late '30s tempers Rationalism with the organic, while a Corbusian 'open hand' projects from the roof of his monumental proposal for the Camera dei Deputati, Rome (1967), a tour-de-force of cantilevered, horizontal planes.

Photographs of works by Gordon MattaClark, who in the 1970s created a 20th-century Baroque by cutting through walls and floors of redundant buildings, are at the Fondazione Emily Harvey; as is an installation by artist John Roloff - a glazed, raised timber passage between two windows in adjacent walls of the gallery which, lined with moss which changes with the climate outside, functions also as a vitrine.

Designs from the 1920s and '30s by Sonia Delaunay - originally for textiles, but well able to stand alone - are on show at the Galleria Bevilacqua La Masa. Bold in colour, with motifs ranging from the floral to the geometric, they are immensely diverse and inventive. More photographs, this time by Helen Levitt (also 1930s), are at the Ikona Gallery in the Magazzini del Sale. Mostly of children playing on the streets of New York, and direct precursors of the shots that the Smithsons' collaborator Nigel Henderson took in Bethnal Green in the 1950s, they also let you glimpse the buttressed brick interiors of these 15th-century warehouses.

Close by is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, with 'Thinking Big: Concepts for 21st Century British Sculpture' - a show of maquettes mounted with Sculpture at Goodwood. Maquettes are often flattering: even William Pye, ubiquitous provider of bland corporate water features, becomes passable.

But Wilfred and Jeannette Cass, founders of Sculpture at Goodwood, seem to like something by everyone. That might be feasible in their Sussex woodland, where works are placed in relative isolation; seen en masse like this, their collection only looks confused.

The Guggenheim is among the institutions with plans to build in Venice (AJ 20.12.01), although its scheme for the Punta della Dogana has scarcely advanced since it was announced in 2000. A few other projects for Venice can be found at the Biennale, while 'Vivere Venezia' at the Museo Correr features student workshop studies of specific sites, but the presence of the exhibition's host city is surprisingly dispersed. Surely its fortunes should have been a focus?

But one should end on a positive note. For the most part, the picture of architecture at this Biennale is, as Sudjic claimed at the opening, 'optimistic'. There are, quite simply, some excellent projects here, persuasively displayed.

Anyone who visits will start jotting down completion dates and planning future trips.

The product of a simple idea that has been skillfully executed, Venice From The Bell Towers (Merrell, £29.95) is one of the very best picture books on the city, with gatefold panoramas taken from 18 campanili by photographer Daniele Resini.

Pictured is a view from San Pietro di Castello.Also issued this month is a new hardback edition of Deborah Howard's The Architectural History of Venice (Yale University Press, £25).When it was first published in 1980, there was no equivalent study in English, so its rather grey appearance was acceptable, given the quality of Howard's text.Doubtless mindful of the much better production values of Richard Goy's later Venice: The City and its Architecture (Phaidon, AJ 30.10.97), which is dryly written but beautifully illustrated, Yale's repackaging of Howard's book supplies a quantity of colour photographs along with a more compact format (though not pocket-sized), while Howard adds a brief epilogue covering the last 20 years.Paolo Barbaro's Venice Revealed: An Intimate Portrait (Souvenir Press, £10.99) is an evocative and illuminating insider's view of the city as it is today.After many years in Milan, Barbaro returns to Venice, the scene of his childhood, and sees his former haunts with sharpened eyes.

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