The world's best designers have descended on the Venice Biennale to show their wares again – so where's world architecture going next?
The greatest architectural show on earth has opened in Venice.

The Biennale – officially titled the Eighth International Architecture Exhibition – is a monster, filling kilometre-long warehouses of the historic Arsenale and the shady Giardini di Castello gardens at the eastern end of the island city.

About 140 projects by almost 100 architects are on display, as well as thematic shows laid on by 30 countries in their national pavilions.

It is unmissable: a thrilling and comprehensive summary of the state of global architecture at the start of the 21st century.

Stars from around the world packed the official opening last weekend: Lords Rogers and Foster embraced in the Biennale gardens, Daniel Libeskind berated a group of anti-war protesters who targeted the America delegation, and Zaha Hadid touched up her make-up in a pavement cafe. There was a distinct sense of optimism among the participants; a feeling that serious architecture is undergoing a renaissance.

Previous Biennales have been criticised for being fantastical or incomprehensible, but this year's main event focuses solely on real projects that are either under construction or will start soon, and goes under the accessible title of "Next". Architects have not been allowed to run riot with conceptual – and unbuildable – ideas; nor have they been allowed to mount fancy computer-generated presentations.

Instead, the main show at the Arsenale presents schemes using an incredible parade of detailed models – costing up to £60,000 and weighing up to 12 tonnes – and full-size prototypes of facades and structural details. These, together with photos of buildings under construction, bring credibility to proceedings. Projects are arranged by building type in 10 categories: shopping, museums, housing and so on. The UK once again emerges as a powerhouse of design talent, with 13 practices represented – a number matched only by the USA.

Although the Biennale is, in Will Alsop's words, "primarily architects speaking to other architects", the rigour of director Deyan Sudjic's curation and the clarity of architect John Pawson's exhibition design mean the show should reach out to the wider public.

But some feel the exclusion of fantasy has stifled the traditional Biennale frisson. "There's no vision here," says critic Charles Jencks.

"There isn't the kind of energy you'd usually find, the conceptualisation and speculation. It's too driven by what's happening in the next few years." He goes on to say that this is not the Biennale's fault: "It puts its finger on the pulse of architecture today, but the pulse is weak."

It seems that today's architects are happy to shelve the rhetoric and get on with building things. Strangely, despite the "Next" title, the Biennale does not throw up any clear future trends or next-big-thing stars. "You can't say there's a breaking building," says Jencks. "There's no Guggenheim museum."

Instead, the show gives the sense of a remarkable consensus in world architecture; it has become a transnational discipline. The influence of a few key designers that were considered radical just a few years ago – particularly Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas – can be seen in everything from arts buildings in Boston to beach promenades in Tenerife. Radical projects commissioned by corporations such as JVC, Philips and BMW suggest big-money clients are ready to ditch American-style corporate architecture for a sophisticated new European sensibility.

There is a mood of optimism among work-hungry young architects. "Clients are becoming much more courageous in what they will accept," says Future Systems' Amanda Levete, who adds that advances in technology have taken much of the risk out of commissioning daring buildings. "In the past few years, we have become free to create forms, to make buildings in a very extravagant and expressive way, yet which still work in terms of function and environmental performance."

However, the Biennale shows that the contemporary "landmark building" is often a computer-assisted agglomeration of a few basic elements rather than a wild diversity of new forms. Colliding shapes, buckled planes and spirals are everywhere; decorative cladding is all the rage. Towers seem to be out of favour; instead, fractured megastructures ripple across the landscape, or are broken up into series of cubes or tectonic plates.

Projects from Mexico and Qatar share the same vocabulary as schemes in Australia and Switzerland; in many cases they could probably be transposed without anyone noticing. "With all the new technology, the projects tend to look alike," says Alsop. "I do think that is a major issue."

Yet this homogenisation is being heralded as a positive force. "It's not globalisation in the same way as Nike or McDonald's. That suppresses identity," reckons Rowan Moore, chairman of London's Architecture Foundation and a member of the Biennale jury. "Projects like Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama Ferry Terminal (shown in the British pavilion) enhance identity. In the national pavilions, some of the smaller countries talk about local identity in the face of globalised culture, but that is somehow simplistic."

Aside from the notable exceptions of the Israeli and Brazilian pavilions, architecture comes across as an apolitical – even amoral – discipline. The selection of projects by building type means that there is no room for issues such as green buildings or urban regeneration – surprising, given the current interest in the subjects. There is a whole section devoted to proposals for ground zero, but very few projects from the developing world and none whatsoever from Africa. The fabulous models reinforce the cult of the individual building rather than reflecting recent trends towards viewing cities holistically.

This raises the danger that the Biennale could be seen as a fashion parade; a distraction from present global problems such as the perceived failure of last month's earth summit and post-11 September tensions. "Unfortunately, issues such as regeneration in third-world cities aren't particularly photogenic," admits Hadid, one of many architects who felt this was not the right forum for such topics. "Architecture should engage in these issues but I think there are different ways of dealing with them. Ultimately, architecture is about making people feel better."

"The Biennale is trying to deliver a more upbeat message and I sympathise with that – but it doesn't mean there isn't a crisis," agrees Richard Rogers. "Architecture is not abstracted from these issues: buildings create 50% of pollution and transport creates 25%. Architects are in a pivotal position to address these issues."

Norman Foster agrees, but adds: "The Biennale is a very powerful platform for architects to draw attention to these issues, but they don't commission; all they can do is try to influence the client. The most powerful role is one of advocacy."

But Foster, like most architects at the Biennale last weekend, was overwhelmingly upbeat. "The influence of architects is increasing. We are playing an increasing role in infrastructure and industrial buildings – areas that used to be considered outside the architectural mainstream. In a lot of societies, there are now enlightened clients and there are political leaders who have come from architectural backgrounds. Things are going in the right direction."

All the world’s a stage: Highlights of the pavilions

The national exhibitions in the Giardini di Castello are a mixed bag; this is a frivolous-yet-provocative sideshow to the main action in the Arsenale. Some of the more reflective pavilions are worth seeking out … The USA
The American pavilion, inevitably and rightly, is dedicated to 11 September. A twisted girder from ground zero lies outside and a model of the World Trade Centre stands in the shrine-like lobby. Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs of the rescue and salvage operation are remarkable, but an exhibition of dire proposals for the site reveals a paucity of intelligent thought. A second exhibition in the Arsenale presents a series of more recent ideas that attempt to bring architectural coherence to the site and its relationship with Lower Manhattan. What to do with ground zero – and in particular, striking an appropriate balance between replacement real estate and a memorial to the tragedy – was the subject of a gripping symposium on Saturday, with contributions from Daniel Libeskind, Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Roger Duffy, Stephen Holl, Bernard Tschumi and others. The political dimension of the tragedy was highlighted when demonstrators briefly invaded the stage and unfurled an anti-war banner. By the close, a broad consensus was reached that more effort and reflection was needed before adopting a strategy. Israel
The Israeli pavilion is one of the few to address serious political and social issues. Called Borderline Disorder, it powerfully maps the shifting territorial relationships between Jewish and Palestinian communities caused by the settlement-building programme, and graphically describes the horror of suicide bombings through video footage and audio. The louvred aluminium facade – a standard product commonly used in Israel – is painted with a camouflage-like map showing Jewish settlements in blue and Arab ones in brown and green. This information has never before been exhibited in public. “I want people to understand how people live in my country,” says architect and curator Zui Efrat. “I’m not a politician; I’m an architect. I can only speak about spatial relationships and forms. In Israel, if we cannot deal with the territorial issues, we cannot move on. Architecture is always about real life. If real life is about shopping or going to museums – fine. But our reality is about terror and survival.” Brazil
A series of shanty huts stand outside the Brazilian pavilion; inside, Favelas Upgrading presents recent projects to improve life in Brazil’s urban slums, which house an estimated 50 million people. The projects shown – parks, sports facilities, canalisations, landscaping – are tiny in scale and sometimes ugly, but they have all in some way improved conditions for local people. “Architecture for the poor is very difficult, but when you put in infrastructure, the favelas start to improve,” says commissioner Carlos Bratke. “You bring people together and they start to feel pride. It fits the theme of the Biennale – next, we have to solve the problem of the favelas.” Greece
“I doubt there’s anything being built in Greece right now that would raise eyebrows at the Biennale,” admits Thanasis Moutsopoulos, curator of the Absolute Realism show. “We don’t care about the 2004 Olympics.” Instead, the show presents the unplanned architecture – domestic extensions, roof terraces, television aerials – that define many Greek cities, documenting organic urbanism rather than individual buildings. Moutsopoulos says Athens is comparable to sprawling “peripheral cities” such as Shanghai and Bombay. “It’s not a question of aesthetics, but dynamics. Personally, I think a lot of European cities are a bit too clean, too functional. A little bit of chaos adds something to the mix.” Britain
The pavilion (see page 23) presents a single building: Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohama Ferry Terminal. A genuinely genre-busting project, the terminal’s woven surfaces blur the boundaries between architecture, infrastructure and landscape. There are no walls; instead, spaces are enclosed by planes that rise, fall and intertwine. The selection of a project in Japan designed by the London-based partnership of Iranian Farshid Moussavi and Spaniard Alejandro Zaera-Polo admits that ideas of nationality and local identity are in a state of flux, while the projected imagery explains how computers are helping architects develop previously unimaginable forms.
  • The Biennale runs until 3 November. Details on
  • That’s just so last season …

    • groundscrapers
    • hards
    • seriousness
    • Toyo Ito
    • cubes
    • models
    • expressive facades
    • bespoke materials
    • spirals
    • Europe
    • Melbourne
    • industry
    • megaprojects
    • skyscrapers
    • stilts
    • frivolity
    • Frank Gehry
    • blobs
    • virtual reality
    • expressive structures
    • prefabrication
    • domes
    • America
    • Sydney
    • nature
    • gems