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The froth and flotsam of the Biennale permeate Venice.

Frank Gehry has a word for it. Ungap/iukket from the perpetually expressive Yiddish meaning 'messed up, slapped together without form, excessively and unaesthetically decorated'. Gehry employed it to describe his contribution to the Biennale, a 1:25 model of a facade for a new Moscow hotel he's working on. constructed from an armature of timber with clay made on the premises in real time, by real artisans. This stunt was inspired old photographs of (""Frederic Bartholdi's studio during the construction of plaster and wood moulds for the Statue of Liberty and will be ongoing during the course of the- Biennale. But, of course, ungapathchket is also a deliciously appropriate epithet for the Biennale itself, a diverse, perplexing and at times frankly incomprehensible architectural brocade that spreads itself with hedonistic abandon across a bemused Venice. If last lime around director Ricky Burdett assumed the role of geography master, with his epic assemblage and dissection of world cities, then this year Aaron Betsky was more your multimedia studies tutor with an energetic nod to the drama club. Out There--Architecture Beyond Buildings" was his chosen point of origin and cue for often feverish speculation about the role, meaning, and imaginative potential of architecture in a technologically sophisticated but increasingly dehumanised and disinhibited world.



A laudable aim, but one which also provided participants with a licence to go more off piste than usual. The Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion in particular were transformed into Dantean labyrinths of self-referential. scenographic perversions that had little to do with anything except curatorial chutzpah. In some ways, the die was cast with the opening salvo in the Arsenale, the self-styled 'Hall of Fragments', in which architecture was filtered through vicarious and voyeuristic medium of film, from Metropolis to Minority Report, a perfect, easy-on-the-eye triumph of image over reality. The great sheds of the Arsenale traditionally provide room for all sorts of overscaled, over-ambitious and over here conceits, and this year you could cherry pick from Coop Himmelb(l)au inflatables, Greg Lynn's recycled plastic toys, Barkow Leibinger's laser-cut tubes, Atelier Bow-Wow's cute 'Furnivehicles' (a cross between vehicles and furniture), Massimiliano Fuksas' acid green peep show and Nigel Coates' frankly libidinous 'Hypnerotosphere'. Fighting to be heard above this din were the original drawings from the 1978 Roma Interrotta project by Stirling, Graves, Rowe, Venturi, the Brothers Krier el at. lovingly reassembled like a reformed supergroup. Hand drawn ink and pencil on paper now seems wonderfully unplugged, a reminder that there was a simpler, saner world before the era of parametric modelling. These archaeological finds acted as spur for 'Uneternal City', as the baton of worrying what to do about Rome passed to a younger generation who now propose neural networks, valleys of desire and a balefully hovering Death Star.

Respite from the Arsenale's sensory overload came in the form of one of the Biennale's few palpable hits, a landscape installation in the grounds of the Church of the Virgins, a former Benedictine convent destroyed in the 1800s. Gustafson Porter's 'Towards Paradise Garden' is, astonishingly the Biennale's first external landscape installation, and as such, long overdue. In a gentle reminder of the slow, sensual power of nature, time and the seasons, five different sorts of green spaces, from a vegetable plot to a bower for contemplation, were carved out of a thicket of brambles and ivy-encrusted tree stumps. Venice is full of secret gardens and this unexpected treat added to that continuum.

In the Giardini proper, the national pavilions were rallying calls for a familiar array of fetishes and follies. Sverre Fehn's calm, considered colonisation of his Nordic pavilion brought some much needed perspective- to the general febrility and made a fitting tribute to a genuinely great architect. Both the US (under commissioner Bill Menking) and Denmark embraced grittier themes of social and ecological responsibility, while Junya Ishigami for Japan constructed a series of delicately ethereal greenhouses around the void of an empty pavilion. The UK, under critic and journalist Ellis Woodman, attempted to address the vexed issue of cramped, unimaginative and overpriced national housing provision with a clutch of thoughtful propositions from a younger generation, but the po-faced presentation did little to enliven a challenging theme. But it did at least have the only comprehensible working drawing in the Biennale (from Sergison Bates).

France showed more presentational brio with rooms full of perspex cabinets containing architectural models mounted on moveable arms so you could pull, wrangle and twist them, thus excitingly liberating the static model from the horizontal plane. Germany featured yet another meditation on global injustice and environmental destruction, animated this time by some fetching 1970s patchwork chair covers. In the scrum of the Italian Pavilion real highlights were hard to discern, but Herzog & de Meuron and their Chinese artist collaborator Ai Wei Wei did some implausible things with bamboo, while Zaha Hadid and Madelon Vriesendorp each showed a series of their surprisingly subtle and dainty early drawings.

Beyond the Giardini is a shifting Kuiper Belt of nomadic countries with no permanent national pavilions, but Peter Cook, batting for charmingly historic but politically riven Cyprus, and Hugh Pearman, for robustly down-to-earth Scotland. showed thai this was no impediment to fecundity or provocation. Scozia in Venezia was billeted at the unfashionable end of town, beside Santa Lucia station, where Gareth Hoskins had designed a kind of flakeboard version of the Spanish Steps, for sitting, viewing and pottering, over an exhibition bothy below.

And what of Venice itself--small, sinking, over polluted and over exposed, now more in peril than ever, with a population half of what it was 10 years ago? Its dilemma was perhaps most pithily epitomised in Diller Scofidio + Renfro's 'Chain City' installation in the Arsenale, which cast a jaundiced eye over the cosy familiarities of cultural tourism through the medium of filmed gondola rides in the real Venice and its recreated stage set at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Here dirt, history, unpredictability and the wrong sort of people are carefully edited out and the water is a just-so shade of cerulean. But though the (real) Venetian gondolier talks winningly of tides, light and boatcraft, which is now the more 'authentic' experience? At the current rate of native population decline, by around 2046 there will be no more Venetians in Venice (if the Adriatic doesn't get there first), and its transformation from working city to tourist backdrop will be complete. The Death of Venice. Perhaps someone might even conjure a Biennale out of it. CATHERINE SLESSOR


Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is the recipient of this year's Praemium Imperiale for architecture. Awarded by the Japan Art Association in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and theatre/film, the Praemium Imperiale .Awards, now in their 20th year, are regarded by many as the arts world equivalent of Nobel Prizes. Zumthor joins an esteemed gang that includes Foster, Rogers, Piano, Niemeyer, Yoshio Taniguchi and Frei Otto. Surely the RIBA Gold Medal can now not be far off. (

Anyone contemplating a visit to Venice to see this year's Biennale, which closes on 23 November, can enjoy an extraordinary smorgasbord of architectural thinking. A splendid way to view the event is to see it in conjunction with a visit to nearby Palladio buildings; Villa Foscari at Malcontenta has a bonus of two beautiful installations designed by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher, hymns to 'parametricism' (one of the sub-themes of this year's Biennale). In Vicenza, the Palladio Centre is host to a first-class exhibition on Palladio's life and work (until 6 January), with a significant number of drawings provided by the Royal Institute of British Architects; the exhibition moves to the Royal Academy in London in the New Year (the RA is co-organiser of the show).

Like Le Corbusier, the subject of an excellent afternoon discussion hosted by the RIBA, Palladio was heavily influenced by the past. But his architectural work also related strongly to changing political and economic circumstances; his shade lies long over European architecture because his experiences are in a sense those of every architect who has since grappled with history, changing circumstances and experimentation.

Aaron Betsky's injunction to think beyond architecture has drawn a spectrum of responses; in the Arsenale everyone is trying pretty hard, in some of the national pavilions less so. The US pavilion was nicely judged for example, but the British pavilion wastes the talents of the architects featured by avoiding any engagement with the Biennale theme in favour of a stiff lower lip gaze at a few nicely presented designs. At best the pavilion was semi-detached.

Robert White's Dark Side Club saw late-night debates on everything from parametricism to space exploration with more or less heated responses from sages including Jeff Kipnis and Peter Cook, The club's jokey award for best pavilion, announced by your correspondent, went to the Nivea pavilion (which dispenses its range of commercial lotions) on the grounds that it was the only one where' form follows unction'. And one could not help noticing, with Zaha designing shoes as well as buildings these days, that the functional tradition still has, well, legs. PAUL FINCH


Gehry's 'Ungapatchket'--an evolving model of a Moscow hotel facade.


One of Junya Ishigami's delicate greenhouses built around the Japanese pavilion.


Sverre Fehn show in the Nordic pavilion.


Architecture and ecology hang in the balance in the German pavilion.


'Singletown' examines the 'predicament' of the single life by Dutch designers Droog with KesselsKramer.


'Gathering Place' by Gareth Hoskins outside Santa Lucia station, as the Scots take Venice.


The original drawings from the 1978 Roma Interrotta show, reassembled 30 years on in the Arsenale.


Model cases on moveable arms in the French pavilion. All photographs: Paul Raftery/VIEW.






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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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