IF ART IMITATES life, then architecture certainly reflects it. At a time when economic bubbles have burst and the threat of war looms, there can't be a better insight into the global mood than the 8th Venice Biennale Architecture Exhibition.
Simply titled Next, the exhibition showing at the magnificent but deteriorating naval arsenal in Venice until November is a radical departure from the usual fantasy and virtual surrealism that surround such art events. For a start, curator Deyan Sudjic is an architecture critic, journalist and editor of Domus magazine. His approach is pragmatic, analytical and straightforward, making this biennale focus on what will be rather than what can be. Instead of presenting models that take on the demeanour of art installations, Sudjic concentrates on the real and tangible - models, prototypes and photographs. All are mainstream - certainly not an easy task when treading in the realm of the familiar can be so banal.
But Sudjic insists on making it real. 'This time, it has not been about choosing architecture, but choosing projects,' he says. 'This is the picture that will be realised in the next 10 years. It is important that you can predict the architecture.'
For the past 11 months, Sudjic has travelled the world in search of the next big thing. From Beijing to Birmingham, more than 140 projects have made it to the biennale, with designer John Pawson turning the dark, long halls of the arsenal into one major exhibition. 'The most important element of this exhibition is communication, if a viewer can leave the show with five things on his mind then I have done my job,' he says. 'There is no point creating a show that leaves people confounded, I want to be more straightforward.' He is referring to his departure from the last biennale's more convoluted theme, 'less aesthetics, more ethics'.
This year's biennale is easily navigated because all the exhibits are grouped into types: housing, museums, towers, work, communications, performance, shopping, education, church and state, and masterplans. The full spectrum of names is represented, from big guns such as Richard Meier and Frank Gehry, to relative newcomers such as Gary Cheung from Hong Kong. Reputation aside, all is fair in Sudjic's eyes: it is the project's relevance in society, and to the world, that makes the cut.
So it is no surprise that China, a robust market force in the new millennium, is having its day at the biennale. A giant model of the Great Wall Commune in Beijing greets visitors as one of the first exhibits near the arsenal entrance. A group of avant-garde homes built on a site adjacent to one of the oldest architectural wonders of the world, the model has been the buzz of the biennale for its daring concept. The developers, Redstone, chose 12 Asian architects and fulfilled their fantasies by letting them build free-standing houses. Gary Cheung and Rocco Yim from Hong Kong, Shigeru Ban, Kengo Kuma and Nobuaki Furuya from Japan, Cui Kai, Young Hochang and Chien Hseuh-yi from China and Taiwan, and Kay Ngee Tan from Singapore are just a few of the talents represented in the commune, who will help define the future of architecture in Southeast Asia. The model and the picture on display does little justice to the scale of the real project, propped against the magnificent backdrop of the Great Wall.
'The commune has been recommended to me by many people and I think it is an interesting project because for so many years, China has been importing ideas from outside,' Sudjic says, adding that it is important for China to have an identity of its own, a sense of originality. 'I think the project achieves that.'
In June, the South China Morning Post previewed the commune, which is due to open next month. The husband-and-wife team behind Redstone, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, were undecided on whether or not to take these unique prototype homes and turn them into a larger residential complex. At a cost of US$10 million (HK$78 million), it was a business risk for a company swimming against the tide of what appears to be a construction boom of uninspired skyscrapers and residences.
'For a long time I have been thinking about what is next for China, because we can see that in the past 50 years everything has been about industrial design. There is no personality, just economical planning,' Pan says in Venice. 'But what I am more concerned about is how we face the future, if we don't even have a Chinese identity.'
Pan and wife Zhang made their first fortune in real estate investments on Hainan Island, but decided to establish their niche in the booming housing market in cities such as Beijing by building upmarket, individually designed habitats.
'I see myself as a creator of value. I am a businessman, but if I want to be an entrepreneur then I have to add value to my product; in this case, it is aesthetics,' Pan says. 'Our goal is to make architecture more accessible. China is going through an uphill journey and it seems that everything is economically driven, but I think a country can express itself in multi-facets. I want to develop our local architects and give them a chance, while at the same time waiting for China to mature politically, because politics can influence architecture.'
Their gamble paid off. The jury of the biennale awarded a special prize to Zhang for her perseverance in realising the commune. And at a site not far from the commune, a new estate of homes inspired by it is already being built.
But Beijing isn't the only city in China achieving recognition, with the country as a whole seemingly on a roll. Chinese architect Ma Qingyu's library project for the Zhejiang University Ningpo Campus, as well as Japanese architect Arata Isozaki's project in designing the Shenzhen Cultural Centre, are solid indications that even amid a building boom, there are shining examples of artistic architecture in China.
Of course, a biennale needs crowd-pleasers, luminaries. And Sudjic pleases the public by selecting projects by stars such as Toyo Ito (Groningen House, the Netherlands), Gehry (MIT Computer Science Building, Boston), Yoshio Taniguchi (Museum Of Modern Art Expansion, New York) and Meier (Arts Library, Newhaven) - all well on their way to acclaimed status.
Gehry's magnificent concoction for the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science Building comes straight out of Alice In Wonderland, its distorted exterior ensconced in steel and brick. It is no less striking than the architect's last major project, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Due to be finished late next year, the distorted MIT building, with tilted angles and curved sides and parts that seem to go in their own direction, will house more than 400,000 sq ft of classrooms, laboratories and research facilities, a standout from the traditional New England red-brick buildings that spread across the college town. But alas, even the greatest inspiration cannot escape the perils of everyday disasters.
'Gehry was originally going to display a huge model of the building,' Sudjic says. 'But he called at the last minute to say that, by mistake, cleaners at MIT had destroyed it.' In its place is a giant photographic panel. Though not as glorious as a three-dimensional model, it is the next best thing.
Walking through the elongated space of the arsenal, adorned with models and photographs, you begin to wonder if it is possible to show the impact of architecture without a sense of space. After all, models and photographs can only do so much. 'I think John Pawson did an excellent job in presentation, and there is a sense of space,' Sudjic says. 'There is a sense of excitement in this building, and he created compressed areas and open ones, there are quiet moments and exhilarating ones.'
Reality continues to reign even in the individual national pavilions that make up the second part of the biennale. The Giardini di Castello, a stone's throw from the arsenal, showcases the individual work of architects from nearly 40 countries, each under its own theme.
The United States pavilion addressed one of the country's saddest moments in an exhibition titled World Trade Centre: Past, Present, Future. A twisted girder from the wreckage stands almost art-like at the front of the pavilion, but closer examination reveals a more sinister side - the death of thousands of innocent people. Photographs of the wreckage placed next to models of proposed reconstruction are a sign that even under the worst of circumstances, creativity brings about hope and change.
Perhaps the most daring and controversial pavilion is by Israel, which, through art and architecture, tries to make sense of the complexities of the Middle East conflict. Titled Borderline Disorder, it makes no attempt to present a sugar-coated exhibition of trite modern homes and town designs. Rather, it illustrates city planning of a different sort - a design that, in some architects' words, serves the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The entire pavilion takes the form of a map, with specific spots marked in blue.
This is an important message curator Zvi Efrat is trying to convey - how architecture is used to serve the purpose of politics. On the map, sections highlighted in blue represent Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but what on the surface appear as random choices are actually strategic spots for the country to maintain control over the Palestinians.
One of the pavilion's featured architects, Eyal Weizman, has become persona non grata in his own country for being one of the pioneers of this project. 'We did aerial photographs and extensive surveys. This started as a cultural investigation of Israeli architecture and I didn't know where I would end up, but here we are,' he says. 'Israeli settlements only account for 1.7 per cent of the West Bank, but they are all strategically placed, on high ground or along important routes, for the purpose of surveillance and political motivations.'
Weizman, who travels between London and Tel Aviv, has been in the spotlight since December 2001, when he began his research. He is unfazed by his own people in Tel Aviv calling him a 'self-hating Jew' and accusing him of 'doing the Palestinians' work'.
'I love my country, but I am doing this for humanity, it's a human rights issue,' he says.
It may be ironic that an event which celebrates what architecture can achieve also reflects what can be destroyed. But that's what reality is all about, perhaps.
Next, the 8th Venice Biennale Architecture Exhibition, until November 3. For more information visit www.labiennale.org .