Culture secretary Chris Smith, in Venice for the biennale preview days, told the AJ of his admiration for the British pavilion. 'I was very impressed with it, ' he said. 'It displays very well the talents of four very different architects, and the contrasts in their architecture are matched by the contrasting styles of exhibition.' Although stressing that it would be 'invidious' to single out one practice, Smith commended Alsop & Stormer's proposed C/Plex community arts building in West Bromwich for 'the involvement of the local community in working on its design'.
Smith visited other national pavilions in the Castello gardens and concluded that 'the British pavilion can hold its own very handsomely. Some others seem to want to be works of art instead of furthering the understanding of architecture - or conveying its sense of purpose.'
One exception for him was the pavilion of the Czech and Slovak Republics, with its emphasis on social issues in the former Czechoslovakia. 'For all its apparent simplicity, it is very effective. When you read the texts and think about the questions they raise, you understand some of the social issues that are allied to architecture.'Smith also praised the Austrian pavilion, where submissions for a 'square of tolerance' were on show.
Having also seen the exhibits at the Arsenale (where he admired Fuksas'video wall of city images for 'showing the pressures that architecture has to deal with'), Smith added: 'The main impression that I came away with was the extent to which leading British architects are in demand, and held in respect, across a range of other countries. They're working on many substantial projects - some of which I was aware of, but by no means all.'
What was Smith's opinion of the biennale's theme, emphasising ethics over aesthetics? 'Designing buildings and spaces has to be about both. It's about how they look and how they feel; but it's also about their purpose, their sustainability, and how they will interact with their users. Ethics and aesthetics are inseparable.'