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10th Architecture Biennale at the Arsenale and the Giardini della Biennale, Venice, until 19 November At the last Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004 there was a profusion of 'object' buildings - blobby, folded, warped - which often seemed forgetful of their site or their urban role. This year's event, 'Cities, Architecture and Society', curated by Ricky Burdett, is meant to refute such self-absorption and remind architects of their larger duties.

And in that it succeeds - but at a cost. The 300m-long Corderie, the voluminous exrope sheds at the Arsenale, are awash with images and data, but there is nothing physical, material or three-dimensional to give a real sense of how architecture can contribute to the city; not a single model.

Along with the 'object' buildings have gone buildings themselves - or so it can seem.

With an expectation that 75 per cent of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, half of it in southern Asia and coastal China, Burdett's show features 16 cities from four continents in a mix of maps, diagrams, photographs and film - and some rather tentative 'soundscapes' issuing from cylinders overhead.

A recent show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 'Sense of the City', tried to convey the role of senses other than sight in experiencing cities, but reviewers complained that it was 'not nearly noisy, stinky or gooey enough' (AJ 04.05.06).

The same could be said of these Corderie presentations, though the calm helps one focus on the fundamental issues that they touch on - local/global, urban/ suburban, social justice, etc.

Clearly, when it comes to designing such a large-scale exhibition there must be a degree of uniformity, but the installation here tends to blur differences between the chosen cities and the problems they face: one malign high-rise morphs into the next. Some sections are more thorough than others: Berlin is treated quite cursorily; Shanghai (appropriately) sprawls.

The accompanying texts don't always help. Each city has its epithet (Tokyo is 'City of Flux'), which can seem a bit pat, and to read that Barcelona 'has reinvented itself as a dynamic, accessible and tolerant city', or that Turin's 'industrial work culture has been creatively adapted to suit contemporary working practices', smacks more of a marketing brochure than acute analysis. And current projects simply don't have the impact they should, being left in two dimensions. How this exhibition would benefit from the kind of models that Diener & Diener do so well, which don't dramatise a single building but show its contribution to a larger urban form.

Apart from specific images in these presentations (there are some very striking photos, often quite dystopian), the most arresting moment at the Corderie comes when the show briey turns three-dimensional, expressing degrees of density in the various cites in the form of tall polystyrene models, which look like eroded skyscrapers.

Burdett spoke beforehand of 'trying to make something beautiful out of data', and in this room he does.

Burdett's exhibition continues in the sprawling Italian pavilion at the Biennale Gardens, with displays meant to 'reect state-of-the-art urban research today'. ETH Studio Basel's 'urban portrait' of Switzerland masses a multitude of tiny photographs and diagrams on a continuous folded wall - a partly rhetorical effort, given how much is simply too high to be seen.

With the Shrinking Cities project (an excerpt from a larger show eventually coming to the UK), there's a reminder that, in Detroit or the former Eastern Germany, it's not sprawl that's the problem.

Alongside the Berlage Institute and Venice's IUAV, there's 'Babylon: don' from Nigel Coates and the RCA - less facile than it first appears, but is this really 'state of the art'? And OMA/AMO takes on Lagos and the Arabian Coast, which makes one wonder how Koolhaas would have curated the whole show - I doubt that the texts would be bland.

Also in this section is a miscellany of images from a special issue of C Photo Magazine, which - given the number of photographs there are at the Corderie - reminds us how central they have been in mediating urban experience.

Amid all the 'facts', they offer a subjective take on things, with which we might identify or not, though their role is never thoroughly examined here.

Another subjectivity - the transformation or recollection of cities in novels and memoirs - is missing entirely.

At one of the Architectural Review's late night biennale 'crits', Brian Hatton spoke of the 'problem in representing' cities, and asked: 'If we can't represent them can we design them?' That's a problem this biennale doesn't solve.

In some ways, Burdett's exhibition works better as a book. It's easier to absorb the data and compare/contrast; each city comes with an essay by an insider (Deyan Sudjic on London); and over a dozen or more practitioners contribute - Chipperfield, Foster, Jacques Herzog, Koolhaas, Krier.

'The architect ought to resume the role of connecting those parts of society that are no longer together, ' says Fuksas.

Burdett's catalogue essay ends with what reads like a prelude to the 'Agenda for Cities in the 21st Century', which he plans to deliver at the end of the biennale. Cities should foster tolerance, justice and social integration; be dense and compact; be well governed; and 'inspire their citizens with beautiful, accessible architecture and public spaces'. Well, yes? but how to make this into a meaningful agenda, not a list of hopeful platitudes?

It's strange that the dearth of materiality and the threedimensional in Burdett's show recurs in many of the national displays at the Biennale Gardens. The projects in the Spanish pavilion are mostly just images in an installation that would not be out of place in a high-end department store.

The Dutch pavilion also only shows images, but to more effect, presenting a century of Amsterdam's development in some splendid, varied drawings - a large Berlage perspective of Amsterdam South, for instance.

In the neighbouring Belgian pavilion, curated by Label Architecture, is a surprisingly engaging trio of videos on the theme of 'The Beauty of the Ordinary'. Making effective use of both scored and ambient sound, and with quite long static shots, they subtly reframe (or reinvigorate) the everyday, and the small accompanying paperback of essays is worthwhile too.

At first sight, apart from a temporary construction giving access to the roof, there's no obvious architecture in the German pavilion, but this show, 'Convertible City', is among the best. Its theme is converting or transforming what already exists (the Smithsons' 'as found') with ingenious, often smallscale interventions, and the architecture isn't missing, but concealed beneath the surface of two elegant tables. Each scheme, presented in both two and three dimensions, is revealed when you prise open the successive pairs of heavy, hinged aps that ank each table; and despite the relative miniaturisation, there's enough to give a sense of each project in turn. But the pavilion's big central hall goes for nothing.

It's hard to argue with the concept behind the British pavilion, curated by Jeremy Till.

The choice of Sheffield - 'a classic graveyard of failed Modernist dreams', with 'an extraordinary urban quality almost despite architecture' - and decision to present it at four different scales, from the intimate 1:1 to the global 1:10,000,000, make perfect sense; especially now that some promising schemes by Mecanoo and Sauerbruch Hutton are in the offing to supply interest at 1:100. There's quite a gap between intention and realisation, though, especially at the heart of the pavilion.

Like the German one, it has a large central hall, and Till wanted to avoid the usual 'sumptuous model' there that makes visitors just 'passive observers'. But the opportunity for audience participation that he's put in its place is trivial; it's a void where the show needed substance ( ajplus 08.09.06).

As usual, the biennale provides some unexpected pleasures: a recreation of Frederick Kiesler's oating, De Stijl structure, City in Space, in the Austrian pavilion; the MAXXI display, which includes two vivid photo sequences of Nervi buildings under construction, all their structural virtuosity on show. But, given the focus on images and data in so much of the event, it's texture, patina and materiality that really make a mark.

Three instances of this all happen to be Asian. Terunobu Fujimori's architecture in the Japanese pavilion is organic, quirky, playful and sometimes poetic. Kim Seung-hoy's Constellation Time Layer in the Republic of Korea's pavilion is a collection of around 100 small square boxes which evoke the city and its architecture, old and new, in exquisite albums of photos, material samples, and tiny models. And tucked away out of sight at the very end of the Arsenale is the Chinese Tiles Garden - a gently sloping landscape of 60,000 recycled greyish roof tiles supported on a bamboo frame, with an L-shaped bamboo walkway leading to its centre.

From this 2006 biennale, I fancy that these three exhibits will linger in the memory as long as the statistics.

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