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Brits show Venetian class

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Although still in its infancy, the Venice Biennale is recognised as an important launchpad, and a place in the British Pavilion will be a major boost for the nine architects chosen to represent the UK in 2004.

Zoë Blackler reports

Each New Year brings with it the inevitable round of predictions. Journalists can never resist the urge to predict the next big thing - the names to watch in the next 12 months, as fortunes take off and the gently rising curve of success turns exponential. With this in mind, the AJ can identify nine British architects who will make a name for themselves on the international stage in 2004.

Ian Ritchie, well-respected in the UK but still to gain an international foothold, is one.

Another, Edinburgh-based Richard Murphy, will this year make the transition from B-list to A-list. And theorist, practitioner and Barlett lecturer C J Lim, currently overlooked in the UK, will become a familiar name.

How do we know? Easy. All three, along with Kathryn Findlay, John Pawson, Future Systems, Caruso St John, Ron Arad and Peter Cook, will be representing Britain at the Venice Biennale this autumn.

Cook, who compiled the list and will curate the show, has chosen the nine as representative of the various strands that make up the contemporary British scene. He wants to 'put the chatter back', to create some edgy juxtapositions and demonstrate that British architecture is contentious, and not dominated by a single position or voice.

For those already in the international club, the Venice Biennale, and the two-day opening celebrations, offer the chance to meet old friends, catch the gossip, discuss the hot issues and see what everyone else is up to. But for those still breaking through, to exhibit in the British Pavilion at the world's greatest architectural event can be a major boost.

Still in its infancy Compared to the art biennale established back in 1895, the architecture biennale is still in its infancy. This year will be the ninth event. It is also much less well attended. In 2002 the total number of paying visitors over the eight-week exhibition was just over 100,000 compared to the 260,000 who visited the 2003 art show (the two tend to alternate).

But the architecture event has snowballed. The 2002 figure represents a huge 44 per cent increase over those for its predecessor in 2000. And though there are other biennales - at SÒo Paulo, Rotterdam, Valencia - the location, reputation and buzz of Venice remain unrivalled.

Andrea Rose, head of visual arts at the British Council, expects this rise to continue.

Press coverage and increasing awareness of the event has helped, accompanied by the mounting public interest in architecture as a social as well as visual discipline.

Venice, says Rose, is an essential date in the calendar for the British Council, charged as it is with promoting British culture abroad. For her it is a key opportunity to draw attention to well-known British figures who could do with some international exposure to take them to the next level.

'Since architecture is a major player, if you are in the business of promoting contemporary Britain it would be very ignorant to neglect Venice, ' she says.

Major breakthroughs The architecture biennale lacks the overt dealing that surrounds its art equivalent. It bears no resemblance to the crass corporate schmooze that is the annual property fair MIPIM. ('And nor should it, ' insists former British representative David Chipperfield. ) Nonetheless, it has been the occasion of some major professional breakthroughs - not least for Daniel Libeskind on winning the Golden Lion in 1985 and the emerging Herzog & de Meuron, which made a big splash after exhibiting in 1991.

As with any club, it is the opinion formers and middlemen that decide who is in or out in the architecture scene and Venice plays host to these influential figures.

Venice provides the opportunity for culture ministers, city planners and cultural clients to size up the talent for future commissions. And attention there can also help open doors and change attitudes at home.

When the British Council gave the pavilion over to Foreign Office Architects in 2002, it was trying to catch the prevailing atmosphere of architecture at the time. The practice was on the cusp of international fame, but had yet to clinch a major commission in the UK. After the exposure of Venice, which coincided with the completion of its Yokohama Ferry Terminal, FOA went on to secure the prestigious BBC Music Centre commission and a show at the ICA.

For Chipperfield - who was picked to exhibit along with Zaha Hadid, Alsop and Störmer, and Nigel Coates and Doug Branson in 2000 - it was reassuring to be included in the British effort, despite having built little in the UK. 'It was just nice to be regarded as a British architect, ' he says.

'It also turned the tide for Sandy Wilson, ' Rose recalls. When he presented his British Library scheme at Venice in 1996, the project had become bogged down with endless negative press back home over cost overruns and delays. But in a different context, away from the cycle of problems, the project was judged afresh. 'It renewed interest in what Sandy was trying to do, ' she added.

This is part of the Biennale's strength - to provide a forum for the celebration and exploration of architecture free from the usual constraints of clients, budgets and planners.

The exhibition is divided between the Giardini - the garden setting for the national pavilions - and the vast halls of the Arsenale.

At each event, a director is appointed to set the overall theme and to curate the substantial Italian pavilion and the main display.

The nature of the event depends on the taste and style of the curator. Themes tend to be broad, catch-all concepts and, according to Cook, largely ignored by the national pavilions.

This year the curator is Austrian academic Kurt Forster who follows critic and former Domus editor Deyan Sudjic. Sudjic's show 'Next' revealed work in progress by established names. Its straightforward presentation earned high praise as a contrast to the pretentious, esoteric approaches favoured by the likes of Massimiliano Fuksas and Hans Hollein.

Chosen theme No one is yet sure how Forster will tackle his chosen theme, Metamorphoses, but he has an impressive history, including the directorship of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. 'It's a curious beast, the architecture biennale, ' says Rose. 'It's still a young event dealing with a difficult subject.'

But Rose predicts that, as it finds its feet, it will become more like the art show. For the art world Venice is now the main forum through which to introduce fresh new talent.

The inclusion of Murphy in this year's British show - his first visit to Venice - suggests his acceptance into the London-based British scene. Murphy - who was most surprised of all nine to be included - welcomed the news as good for Scotland. 'And it's not going to do us any harm, ' he adds.

Rose puts it another way: 'I would imagine that Murphy - who is little known internationally - will become a lot better known because of this. Venice is where careers are made.'

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