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Peter Cook: in Babylon don you look and listen beyond the cliches.

By now you can't go wrong with the Venice Biennale: charming city, perfect time of year, meet nearly everybody, fizzy wine, super sunsets, architectural girls' toys as well as boys' toys, come back with sniff of the architectural trends. You also have to deal with gnat bites and the city's constant failure to become a great food town. You can't have it all.

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Indeed you can't. We should have realised that, after a run of three or four Architecture Biennales that have broadly succeeded in pushing forward the confidence, the exploration and the joie de vivre of architecture--a condition that is surely linked to the increased interest in the subject by non-architects--the Arsenale centrepiece would put a stop to it. Our attention this year is drawn to 16 world cities. Abstracted volumetric models, statistics, massive aerial photographs, challenging statements: all attest to the PROBLEM, the failure of our artefacts, POLICIES, the lack of our CONCERN.

Make no doubt whom this is directed at, for the Biennale has been getting more and more popular over these last years. As a veteran teacher, it seemed as if half of my former students were here, leaping out of the bushes of the Giardini, having made it on the first day from Bangkok, Nicosia, Rio, Aarhus. We reminisced about the wonderful models in the Deyan Sudjic-led show of 2002, we remembered the reaction to the march of the waves and blobs last time. But the intention of this year's director, London's very own Ricky Burdett, was to stop all this creative nonsense.

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It reminded me of the challenge that I faced when I took on the Bartlett School of Architecture in 1990: full of clever, socially and politically conscious folk who wagged fingers but couldn't ever bring themselves to suggest anything positive. As we know, it took a little while to re-open that Pandora's box. Eye-dead is action-dead. Actually.

The approach (or is it confrontation?) misses a trick: that when really inspired by problems, good architects are very willing to put their talents to work on seemingly intractable situations. Bernard Tschumi made this point brilliantly during one of The Architectural Review's 'Dark Side Club' events, but this, of course, was an unofficial gig where irritation with the Arsenale had the chance to erupt.

Never mind, the positivists were there to be found, in nooks and crannies. Every ten minutes someone else would recommend you to go to the Japanese pavilion, where the architecture of Terunobu Fujimori, simultaneously winsome, naughty and delicate, offers what is I suppose an escape from bombast and rhetoric and is undeniably inventive.

The three old warhorses of Europe--Britain, France and Germany--sit up on their own little hill and have to remind the world that they have modern credentials. So the Brits have plastic trinkets and do-it-yourself collage to underwrite Sheffield and, as the Sheffield pop group started playing outside, the French let up their balloon from a jolly rag-tag of bits that could have fitted into an Archigram rally, somewhere around 1976. Not to be left behind, the Germans were suitably irreverent with their solid, Classical pavilion; they built a steel and plastic contraption that climbs through and over it, culminating in a shiny red deck. Not that special, but chirpy. Certainly an idea. Maybe those problem cities could use it?

Many people, and not just from London, urged you to see the RCA exhibit in the Giardini's old Italian (ie international) pavilion. Its appeal was obvious: it took the 'city' theme and even threw out some statistics--but then responded in a creative and jolly way--with toy-like proposals that were not necessarily irrelevant. Nigel Coates knows his London but also his Italian audience, and one wonders how he might have tackled the Arsenale and the business of message-making without tedium.

But if the issue revolves around culture, analysis and response, surely it benefits from invention. From an unexpected corner--the Hungarian pavilion--came the most beautiful surprise. Entitled 'Re:orient--migrating architectures', it reveals the fact that many Chinese have found their way to Budapest, with market stalls that sell cheap electronic and electric toys. In the pavilion the tin cars, the toy penguin walkie-talkies, the responsive lamp-trees, fences made of hundreds of small loudspeakers, are wired-up, do their thing and create a further reminder of the wit of architects as well as their observational abilities.

Back to Tschumi: architects are trained to look, urban planners are trained (sadly) to devise rules. But don't stay away. Please don't stay away: we need a living, pulsating, responsive Biennale so that we can prove that we can bounce back with ideas.

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Author:Cook, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Words:772
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