Even among those people who do it for a living, there is a widely held belief that exhibiting architecture is an activity that stretches the limits of plausibility. You can never show the real thing, runs the received wisdom, so the best that you can hope for is a less-than-satisfactory representation of the subject. Models, drawings and photographs are just that; you might as well try to describe post-impressionism entirely through the medium of postcards.
It's a belief that at times has threatened to overwhelm the Venice Architecture Biennale, the world's largest architectural exhibition - and, some would say, its largest coffee-table book. But the Biennale also has an ambition to be seen as the place to find architecture's best-of-the-best. Perhaps as a result of this, it has tended to foster in architects the delusion that they are actually installation artists or film-makers, or even philosophers. Or - as has happened this year, with the Biennale moving beyond architecture to concentrate instead on the bigger picture, the city - it has encouraged them to think about something else entirely.
The 2006 Biennale, which opened in September and runs until November, comes in two parts: a collection of national contributions in the mini-World's Fair of pavilions dotting Venice's festival gardens, and a curated exhibition in the nearby Arsenale, a revamped eighteenth-century dockyard. Richard Burdett, the Biennale's director, has his own exhibition in the Arsenale, and it packs a serious punch, marshalling an awe-inspiring amount of information. There are super graphics delivered with considerable panache, videos, and sound portraits that attempt to capture a flavour of street life.
There is so much to digest about the scale of the urban transformation that the world is going through - delivered from what can seem like a height of 30,000 feet, through the windows of a Boeing - that it's not always clear what Burdett is asking us to think about the phenomena he is showing. He picks few architectural projects to illustrate: the vertical gymnasia from Caracas, for example, are included not because of their cutting-edge architectural design, but rather because they encourage dispossessed street kids to come indoors, away from the death squads that prey on them.
Yet Burdett, one of London mayor Ken Livingstone's architectural advisers and an impressive networker on the international mayoral circuit, clearly believes that the huge problems facing cities do have solutions. There is a sense, in his exhibition, that plans and policies can make a difference. In Latin America, the solution to making the poor mobile is the impressive network of bus lanes pioneered in Bogatá by Enrique Peñalosa; in London, the model for contemporary housing comes from replicating the density and diversity of the nineteenth-century terraced streets of Notting Hill Gate.
Burnett's part of the Biennale could be seen to serve as a kind of map for the national pavilions to follow, but many of them struggle to live up to his urban theme. Nor are all the visitors impressed by the idea of switching from the perspective of the building to the wider view of the city. Odile Decq, the French Goth who is an exponent of a particularly Gallic version of turbo-charged high-tech architecture, was heard complaining bitterly at the absence of architecture in the show: "It's as if it suddenly became a bad word."
Nevertheless, Venice in the first week of September was certainly the place to see the whole flying circus: those 30 or so perpetually jetlagged architects who hoover up more and more of the world's high-profile commissions, reflecting our celebrity-obsessed culture. Norman Foster and Richard Rogers both showed up, fresh from New York, where they had unveiled their respective towers for Ground Zero; Zaha Hadid lunched on the terrace of the Hotel Monaco with Thomas Krens, the lanky director of the Guggenheim, hatching plans for yet more ambitious museum franchises.
I have never bought the idea that architecture is art, or the idea that it is unexhibitable. Venice could stage a convincing account of the way that the world uses architecture simply by opening the doors of the national pavilions, leaving them empty. The city has been collecting them for almost a century now, and among the idiosyncratic assortment are the works of some historical heavyweights. Josef Hoffman, the Viennese master of proto-modernism, built the Austrian pavilion; Heinrich Tessenow, Albert Speer's architectural mentor, designed the German one, giving it a sinister neo-classical style. The Scandinavians share a beautiful structure, designed by Sverre Fehn, which settles itself easily around a couple of mature trees. Alvar Aalto made one for Finland; the Dutch have a box produced by Gerrit Rietveld, although he clearly did not design it on one of his more inspired days.
Other pavilions reveal more about national characteristics, or perhaps national stereotypes, rather than demonstrating an individual architectural signature. The British have a prominent site at the head of the formal avenue that runs the length of the gardens, occupying what looks like a tearoom. Year after year, successive artists and curators attempt to tweak the mangy imperial lion's tail by playing about with the colour scheme of the Union Jack - or, as they have this year, insisting on shutting the front door and demanding that visitors make their way to the back to gain admission. The Americans have a miniature version of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, complete with air-conditioning. This year, it's occupied by the traces of a tragedy - it documents the attempt to rebuild New Orleans - just as it was four years ago, when a twisted piece of steel salvaged from Ground Zero was laid to rest on its front steps. The Russians, close by, occupy what appears to be a slightly dusty Romanov-era dacha.
And then there is Australia. In 1988, in what must have seemed like an inspired act of architectural patronage, a bright young fifty-something by the name of Philip Cox was selected to design a little pavilion that would demonstrate just how unstuffy, open-minded and up-to-date the country had become. Indeed, Australian architects such as Carey Lion, the current president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA), say they have stopped worrying about national identity. In the catalogue accompanying the current show, Lion writes that "the current climate doesn't encourage speculation on Australian identity, it's a done deal." It's hard to be sure whether he is suggesting that there is no more to be said, or that there is nothing more that can be said.
There is certainly more to Australianness in architecture than the vast flag on top of the parliament building in Canberra, the crinkly-tin contemporary vernacular, or the preoccupation with building ever more elaborate war memorials cum military museums. Philip Cox, at least, claimed - in what reads like a notably bad-tempered acceptance speech that he gave upon collecting the RAIA gold medal, four years before he got the job of doing the Biennale pavilion - that he was interested in creating a specifically Australian architecture. He suggested that Harry Seidler was displaying a cultural cringe when he demanded that architecture in Australia be measured by the same criteria applied everywhere else. Cox went on to decry the "knockers" and "philistines" who do their best to tear down the achievements of authentic Australian geniuses.
Unfortunately, his design for the Biennale pavilion gave the philistines plenty of ammunition. It has a terrible sloping site, in a clearing in the shrubbery behind the Czechs. Cox designed it in the style with which he made his name: it is a white-painted steel structure in the manner of his hotel at Uluru. It has not worn well. And it's a difficult space in which to exhibit - a fact that has not escaped the attention of successive Australian curators. Cox told the Age a couple of years ago that he was fed up with being the target of constant sniping from artists who complain about the impossibility of doing anything worthwhile in the pavilion: "We gave our services for nothing; we persuaded BHP to give us the steel. The complaints give me the fucking shits. I would be perfectly happy to see it demolished; it was never meant to be anything more than temporary."
Whatever its merits, Australia's architects have been fighting for years to get their hands on the keys to the pavilion, to show the world what they can do with it.
From the first architecture Biennale in 1981, Venice has attempted to establish itself as the most compelling showcase for contemporary architecture. With a combination of brilliant timing, a strong idea and a team of inspired set-builders from Rome's Cine Città studios, the Biennale ushered in the age of postmodernism to a world hungry for a bit more than the steel and concrete shoeboxes that defined the architectural ambitions of that period. The Biennale director of the day, Paolo Portoghesi, invited a clutch of architects - ranging from Frank Gehry to Rem Koolhaas - to each devise a façade for a row house. The houses formed part of a street that was later built as a continuous strip within the sublime interior of the Arsenale's Corderia, the seventeenth-century rope factory built to mass-produce Venetian galleys.
Ever since, directors have struggled to put on anything as cogent, or as immediately popular. They have done it, more often than not, without the assistance of Australia, which - while its cultural bureaucracy has been ready to support the country's participation in the art biennale - seemed to have decided that architecture is more commerce than culture, and so left the pavilion either empty or under-funded. "We do not see architecture as part of our remit," the Australia Council, which has control of the pavilion, has said in the past.
This year is different, thanks to some effective professional lobbying. The RAIA has rallied a team of sponsors, with Lucy Turnbull as commissioner, and Shane Murray and Nigel Bertram as creative directors. To start Australia's regular participation in the architecture Biennale, Murray and Bertram have produced Micro-Macro City, a serious-minded exploration of the nature of the contemporary Australian city, in response to this year's urban theme.
Unlike the French, who have turned their pavilion into a Big-Brother-meets-May-'68 squat, or the Japanese, who have mounted a celebration of tatami, burnt timber and manhole covers, Australia plays it straight. It explores a dozen different responses, by architects of various generations, to the different contexts of Australian cities. They range from the mushrooming residential towers of Queensland to the unravelling mining towns of rural Victoria - though it's moot if "city" is really the right word to use for a settlement that is down to its last 500 people.
This is not, however, an exhibition that is going to do much to fire a passion for architectural design in the general public. It is an exhibit that requires a visitor to work, and to have an understanding of what is being presented. Which is something of a pity, as there are other, more obviously engaging aspects of Australian architecture that are nowhere to be seen in the show.
For instance, I remember Howard Raggatt, from Ashton Raggatt McDougall, whose Marion Cultural Centre in South Australia (designed with Phillips Pilkington) is one of the projects included in the pavilion this year, taking me to see the National Museum of Australia shortly before it opened. As he walked me round the Canberra building, he began to lay bare its secrets. At the first level, there was the complex geometry of knots and strings that so interested him - and which I could not for the life of me understand, until he brought out the physical models that showed the mathematics of the project. Even then, it was not entirely clear why a museum should be a representation of string theory. But it was certainly a building that could not be considered anything other than commanding of attention, even if it was not exactly easy in its skin.
Raggatt spelt out the multiple meanings of the museum, and revealed just how bleak so many of them were. He told me about the sampling of the floor plan of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin to accommodate the Aboriginal exhibits, the giant Braille messages, the convict-uniform colours, the football references and the massacre sites on the building's garden level.
What really shook me was the revelation that part of the complex was housed in a rough facsimile of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie. But the façade differs in at least two crucial ways: it is black rather than white, and it is an inversion of the original. It's a detail that, according to Raggatt, recalls the fact that when a photograph of Villa Savoie - a symbol of the modern world in the same league as Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, or Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase - was first published in an Australian magazine, in the 1920s, it was reproduced back-to-front. (Nobody noticed.)
In the same self-lacerating train of thought, one of the main interior spaces is framed by fragments of the glazing system of the Sydney Opera House. While it's a long time since Raggatt explained its significance to me, his words still come back: "It's not the Utzon piece that we used; it's a fragment of the clunky Australian work designed by the team that finished the building after Utzon had gone home to Denmark."
The National Museum itself, then, can be seen as a monumental celebration or exorcism of the cultural cringe. If the exhibition in the Australian pavilion at the Biennale were half as provocative, it would have queues snaking around the block.
The idea that architecture can express a sense of national identity is not exactly new, and it works in multiple ways. The international style that Harry Seidler delivered to Sydney does it in one particular way; the works of Mexico's Luis Barragan and Sri Lanka's Geoffrey Bawa have done a lot to create a sense of what those countries are, or perhaps what they want to be. But Ashton Raggatt McDougall is in the grip of an extraordinary forensic self-examination that makes me think of the uncomfortable scene in Master and Commander in which Russell Crowe's surgeon-sidekick, using a mirror to see what he's doing, removes a bullet from his chest - without the benefit of anaesthetics, and with his shipmates holding him down.
Set beside this, Micro-Macro City is deliberately downbeat. This is an exploration of the nitty-gritty of architecture that makes few compromises to a non-specialist audience, and no attempt at evoking material or spatial qualities. It's an apparently random collection of generations and sizes of architectural practice that appear to have little in common. Its true purpose is to slyly introduce us to the real nature of the urban context in which architects must operate, and the way in which they must come to understand what zoning and street grids do to architecture.
In an age of spectacle and celebrity architecture, Australia's Biennale exhibition is defiantly unflashy. It concentrates on carefully drawn analyses of urban contexts. There are plenty of infills in industrial suburbs, and descriptions of how industrial sheds - once they start to accommodate Lebanese bakeries - can start to inject the spirit of the Left Bank into the middle of some of the blandest urban environments anywhere in the world. But there are no airports, no museums, no beach houses: none of the kind of projects in which architects usually get to demonstrate their skills. Even the one Seidler-designed tower in the show has been included not for its qualities as an architectural object, but instead for the effect that its site, hemmed in by other high-rises, has on its entrance plaza.
"We describe a collection of urban conditions experienced in everyday life," say the creative directors, Murray and Bertram. They take the world to see service lanes in Melbourne, rotting toxic dumps that became Olympic parks in Sydney, and troubled Victorian suburbs: a timely reminder that even as the world outwardly becomes more and more the same, there is still an unmistakable tang of specificity to be found in the most unexpected places. On the other hand, there is nothing of Melbourne's sprawling redevelopment of its docklands, and nothing of Federation Square; nothing even of the huge impact that Australia's architects have had on cities outside Australia, from Bangkok to Beijing ...
If the pavilion is trying to show the rest of the world what is most interesting about architecture in Australia, then it has not achieved its aim. But if the pavilion is trying to show that Australia has an unusually reflective architectural culture, then it does a better job - even if it doesn't do much to dispel the suspicion that architecture is unexhibitable.
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