Surely not the last words on the Tenth Venice Architecture Biennale, 2006.

From the RIBA Journal: That Sinking Feeling. It must be a strange thing to be the director of the greatest architectural exhibition in the world. For the build-up year, you are lionized. At the opening, the back-slapping is immense, the networking intense. But down little Venetian alleyways strung with washing, the knives are being prepared. The slightly alarming men with perfect silver hair and lightweight suit jackets slung across their shoulders – the Biennale top brass – are analysing your performance, checking the ticket sales. So: how highly do you score, Ricky Burdett?

Burdett has done a very risky thing. He has made this Biennale very serious indeed. Although the title is “Cities: architecture and society”, he has largely ignored the second of those three words. We are in a world of statistics, density, population growth projections, cellphone data, general demographics, analyses of cities which are expanding and those which are shrinking. Seldom has Google Earth and its equivalents been so much in demand for overhead views. Never have so many images of ordinary life in ordinary cities been gathered together in one place. It is all immensely worthy. It is also, with some exceptions, monumentally dull.

Burdett – globetrotting urbanist academic and advisor to London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone – is the second Brit, and the second member of what might be termed the extended family of that great Anglo-Italian architect Richard Rogers, to land this gig (in return, Burdett has awarded Rogers a Golden Lion for “lifetime achievement”). The first, four years ago, was Deyan Sudjic. It is instructive to compare the two shows.

Sudjic’s was the one with no theme and no discernible intellectual content: just a display of all that was most glamorous in forthcoming architectural projects, arranged by building type. It was shallow but it was stylish and it gave the punters what they wanted: architectural porn, lots of it, centrefold after centrefold. Burdett’s show is the exact opposite. It is all depth and all intellect, and no eye-candy. His key display in the Corderie of the Arsenale – which is usually the Aladdin’s cave of the whole show – will not detain you long, unless you like to read standing up. It consists of a stern line-up of boards and screens telling you about 16 of the world’s great cities in minute statistical detail. It is a book blown up to exhibition scale. You do not have to go to Venice for this.

So for the first time in many years, the focus of the Biennale has shifted back to where it started: the national pavilions of the Giardini. Especially the enormous former Italian Pavilion, which the Italians have now quit. There you will find Nigel Coates and his Royal College of Art students with their subversive “Babylon:don” show. They give you several typically cheeky architectural responses to modern London living including a party space for political parties and a communal megahome for single mothers. There you will find the Irish group show -more on that later – and there you will find Rem Koolhaas. Rem has decided that the Persian Gulf is the new China, and shows graphically all the mind-boggling developments going on there (and it’s not just Dubai with its artificial islands). As usual, he comes to no firm conclusion, just observes. Expect a number of Koolhaas commissions in the Persian Gulf soon.

There are surprisingly few eager attempts to built new Utopian cities. Italy gives us what looks like an updated version of Milton Keynes, a new city called VEMA (because it would be built between Verona and Mantua). Various architects design object-buildings to slot into its grimly axial grid-plan. Switzerland offers a much better, more dispersed elliptic city plan by Bernard Tschumi, envisaged for a Caribbean island. The United States shows some interesting working proposals by various practices for housing on the hurricane-hit gulf coast – including some remarkable water-absorbing architecture proposed by Anderson Anderson Architecture of San Francisco. Russia is the most poetic, with a marvellous installation on an urban theme by artist Alexander Brodsky.

France trumps everyone with its marvellous spirit-of-’68 pavilion, imagined as a commune taken over by activists who live there. And so they do, with a central kitchen and dining area, vertical sleeping pods, and services slung high on a gantry that breaks through the roof. Up there you find a sauna, showers, a roof garden, even a paddling pool. It is all done with enormous bravura. The jealousy emanating from the distinctly lacklustre British pavilion alongside was palpable.

Jeremy Till’s fantasia on his adopted city of Sheffield through the medium of various artists in various media is sweet, subtle, and all wrong for the Venice Biennale. This is an exhibition for speed-readers: you need arresting images and big, simple, clear ideas, the fewer the better. You don’t want a jumble-sale of nuanced interpretations.

You have to work at Till’s show even to understand vaguely what it is about, let alone get much out of it: even then, it seems like a very thin idea stretched through too many rooms. The central room in particular is disastrous: you are meant to move comic wooden objects around on a table and see them projected on the wall ahead of you. You are making a city. But you’re not: you’re moving silly objects around. And please note, aficionados of the Arctic Monkeys and the Long Blondes: the intermittent presence of successful pop acts in a city does not define successful urbanism. Quite the reverse: the worse the city, the better the pop. Had the whole pavilion been given over to an examination of the history and imminent rebirth of the great Park Hill estate (a sideshow here) it would have been infinitely better.

Thank heaven for Japan’s gentle examination of ordinary, unconsidered objects: for Hungary’s charming, beautiful celebration of its Chinese immigrant population; for Greece for exploring the notion that the Aegean islands form one great polis; even for Belgium, for saying – yes we’re boring and we don’t care. But if France wins the prize for getting noticed, Ireland does best when it comes to tackling a real, knotty urban problem: its own. Ireland is undergoing a population surge. People are building little bungalows all over the countryside. Commissioner Shane O’Toole has brought together nine practices (one of them, FKL Architects, also curates the show) to produces nine solutions. Some of these – such as Heneghan:Peng’s bridge across the Irish Sea, or ODOS Architects’ “Vertical Sprawl” are merely provocative. Others, such as Tom de Paor’s modern reconsideration of the medieval tower house in order to densify rural development somewhat, are immediately realisable. Medium-term, Boyd Cody’s proposal for an eco-city threaded into the worked-out bogscape of central Ireland, is highly promising.

City-making is certainly the most serious and vital subject that the biennale has ever tackled. And it undoubtedly makes for a dull old show, enlivened by the occasional flash of inspiration. Perhaps it marks a turning point. I would not be surprised to find the thing much reduced in two years’ time, if it happens at all. I can’t see the men in the lightweight suits much liking the visitor numbers on this one.


From The Architect’s Newspaper: End of the line for the biennale?

Despite the importance of the subject matter and the high seriousness with which it has been approached, this biennale, for me, does not work as an exhibition.

The long, long gloomy columnar promenade of the Corderie in the Arsenal complex – in recent years the heart of the show, crammed with goodies – has never been sparser. You feel you are attending a stern lecture. Only the lecturer is absent, and has sent along his notes instead.

The rest of the show, over in the pocket garden suburb of national pavilions and scattered here and there throughout the city, is as patchy as ever though one finds intermittent flashes of joy. But it is difficult to imagine where this exhibition can go from here. The last good one with a strong theme was curated six years ago by Massimiliano Fuksas: “Less aesthetics, more ethics”. That allowed plenty of provocative architecture, but it also required an analysis of the social dimension.

And now? The architecture biennales are always rather touch-and-go. The go button is always pushed late: it is always a scrabble to get it together in time. This one feels like the end of an era. If the series is to continue, it must be comprehensively re-thought. It must have a reason to exist.


© Hugh Pearman. As published in the RIBA Journal, London, and the Architect’s Newspaper, New York.