Architects Zaha Hadid, Alsop & Störmer, Branson Coates and David Chipperfield were chosen to represent British design excellence at last week’s Venice Biennale. So, why aren’t they landing more major projects in the UK?

Culture secretary Chris Smith, visiting the seventh Venice Biennale of Architecture last week, called the British pavilion a “tremendous demonstration of British imagination and excellence in the arts”. He applauded the “flourishing creativity” and international success of the four exhibitors – Zaha Hadid, Alsop & Störmer, Branson Coates and David Chipperfield Architects, adding “please, the rest of the world, give us more work”.

For at least two out of the four practices, however, the exhortation was missing the point. Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield have won major international projects in the past year – Hadid is designing the Contemporary Arts Centre in Rome and Salerno ferry terminal, and Chipperfield is busy with the Salerno Law Courts, the “City of Cultures” ethnographic museum complex in a former munitions works in Milan and an extension to Venice’s 15th-century San Michele island cemetery – but major commissions in Britain continue to elude them. Meanwhile, Alsop & Störmer and Branson Coates have only completed major UK projects in the past three years: North Greenwich Station and Peckham Library for Alsop & Störmer, and Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music and the Geffrye Museum redevelopment for Branson Coates.

These four practices are highly individual. What unites them more than anything else is the struggle to crack a British market dominated for decades by the hi-tec architecture of Lords Foster and Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and Sir Michael Hopkins. Brett Roger, deputy director of the British Council’s visual arts department, which asked the four architects to represent Britain in the exhibition, says it picked them because they are “so different from the previous generation in so many ways”.

Chipperfield believes that the major difference is that they are working in a less hostile climate of public opinion. “Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw and Hopkins were all concerned with trying to prove that architecture was, I won’t say commercial, but reliable. They had to get work at a time when architects were seen to be unreliable. Our generation is more interested in playing with ideas. It is more innovative, more free, more exploratory, the others even more so than me. I’m the more conservative.”

It seems that the confidence and adventurousness of this generation of architects has not been shared by UK clients, which have often shortlisted these practices but have rarely chosen them for major projects.

Christophe Egret, partner in Alsop & Störmer, says it took time to persuade clients that it could take on large-scale schemes: “Through persistence and hard work, we have slowly got the message across that we are not a wild card. Strangely, when we did the government headquarters in Marseilles, it still did not register with people in the UK that we could do large buildings.”

Hadid had completed just one major scheme by 1998, a fire station in Weil-am-Rhine, Germany. Having since won a clutch of major public commissions worldwide, including the Cincinnati Arts Centre and the Wolfsburg Science Centre, she also feels that things are changing: “They have realised that people enjoy different kinds of stuff, that the idea that people would be scared of these things is nonsense. The effect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao changed a lot of things.” She also believes that increased press interest in modern art and architecture has helped.

She says: “When people were shown an architectural design and asked, ‘Do you like it?’ they might say ‘No’ because they are too embarrassed to say they don’t understand it. I wouldn’t understand a chemistry diagram – I would need time to work it out. But now that there is more discussion on television and in the press about modern architecture, this makes it more available to people.”

Chipperfield, who says he gets “three or four calls a week about commissions, but none from England” despite having won a clutch of awards in 1998 for his River and Rowing Museum in Henley, suspects that this is because British clients are preoccupied with the process rather than the product.

“When I present to a client, I still start with ideas. English clients are frightened by that.

They are much more interested in project management speak. They don’t want to hear ideas – they want to hear that it is going to be on time, on price, delivered a certain way. They don’t want to take any risks. The previous generation started with the way they are going to build the building, the efficiency of the structure, the management of the project. Our generation thinks ‘Well, you do all that anyway, so let’s focus on the ideas’.”

So what ideas are influencing the way these four design? They are so diverse that common themes are hard to identify. Hadid continues to test ideas of the symbiotic relationships between architecture and “topography, landscape, land formation and geology”. She says: “The one thing that is interesting for us is to provide useable civic space – not generic space but what a particular situation requires.”

Chipperfield says he keeps it simple: “I think I have a more cautious attitude to what architecture can be and what it can do. I establish very simple principal ideas and build out from that. I make architecture that does not have a heavy hand. I don’t think a building should allow us to enjoy ourselves and do all that we do. It should be the stage on which we live, but the building should not occupy that stage, it should form that stage.”

A guiding principle for Alsop & Störmer is involving the local community in the architecture of new civic spaces. “We have discovered that through workshops, consultations with the local population, raising proper budgets for big buildings – typified by Peckham Library and our work with C/plex, we can create landmark buildings that have a sense of ownership for the people who use them, and act as a catalyst to regeneration in deprived areas.” In the international pavilion, Will Alsop proposed to apply this design strategy to large urban areas, such as Rotterdam where he is designing a £800m masterplan. He calls this idea “architecture as geography” or ”masterplanning as big architecture”.

All four architects acknowledge the impact of IT and the Internet, both on the design process and the environments and activities they are designing for. Branson Coates partner Nigel Coates says: “The effect of computer-generated forms is just beginning. The fact that we have a technology to create previously unimaginable shapes has affected lots of architects. It affected the way we did the body in the Millennium Dome, for example. We couldn’t have built that without the computer build-up.” Alsop and Störmer’s Egret stresses that the impact of IT is limited to form, not content. “That is still down to the individual.”

All are experimenting in structural and materials technology, but in a less overt way than their hi-tec predecessors. “We are always looking for new technology, whether in materials, design or the construction process, but our aim is to make use of technology, but not to glorify it,” says Egret.

All that is left, then, for the new generation to do after the Biennale is over, is to beat the

hi-tec old guard to more work at home. Hadid herself picks up on Smith’s remark: “The rest of the world should give us more work, but what about Britain?”

What is the Biennale?

The Biennale of Architecture, a misnomer as it is staged every three years, is “the Olympics of architecture” according to Nigel Coates, partner in Branson Coates. It is the world’s biggest exhibition of international architecture, and the seventh is the most ambitious ever staged, running for four-and-a-half months and overspilling from the gardens housing the 35 national pavilions into an extra 12 000 m2 of exhibition space in the Arsenale, a former munitions store. The British Council sponsors and maintains the British pavilion. Its original plan for the 2000 Biennale was to showcase the Jubilee Line Extension, complete with train set, but this was shelved six weeks before the exhibition’s start, as the council was unable to raise the £600 000 it needed. The four practices were invited by the council to design and part-fund the pavilion with only six weeks’ notice. The council contributed £200 000, which, says Brett Rogers of the council’s visual arts department, was “more than matched” by the practices themselves, adding: “It is an important platform for emerging architects so the commercial spin-off is an obvious asset to them and to Britain as a whole.” Will Alsop devoted the most resources to it, spending eight days and £60 000 on his spectacular exhibit on the C/plex project in West Bromwich (it’s no coincidence that C/plex is currently bidding for £24m in lottery funds). Richard Rogers Partnership, likewise took a “strategic” decision to exhibit its design for the National assembly for Wales at the Arsenale, prior to Wednesday’s vote on the future of the Welsh Assembly. However, most architects agree that Venice is primarily a forum for ideas. Says Zaha Hadid: “It is important to make a statement here. Lots of students come to visit and you can influence architectural thinking a lot.” Alsop & Störmer partner Christophe Egret says: “The Biennale tries to capture the zeitgeist of international architecture”.

Who won best pavilion?

The preference for video or text installations, computer-generated organic forms and interactive events over traditional exhibits was striking in this year’s Biennale. French architectural superstar Jean Nouvel won the Leone d’Oro prize for the best interpretation of the Biennale theme, “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics”, for his concept for the French pavilion. In true French intellectual tradition, the pavilion eschewed architectural exhibits in favour of a polemical rallying cry to the architectural world, crayoned on the walls in several languages. The aim was to engage in a debate over “the continual emergency, the hand-to-mouth existence of one-third of the world’s population – in the countries and cites of the south, and also in the urban and suburban minorities of the north”. The French pavilion organisers had also chartered a motor boat and invited architects, sociologists, politicians and philosophers from both hemispheres to participate in a four-month programme of debates and workshops on how “given the pathetically small place occupied by architecture in the world’s accelerating urban growth … to respond to the needs and the distress of a population lacking access to the most basic living conditions.” Spain won the best foreign pavilion for “expressing the cultural roots of its architecture with elegance and clarity” with its lavish display of dozens of exquisite models contributed by 35 architects, suspended almost invisibly from the ceiling and dramatically lit in the dark pavilion. The Dutch pavilion was also much talked about. It invited visitors to lounge in undulating couches sunk into the carpet or huge armchairs surrounded by television, film, photography and Internet installations featuring “images of inclusion and exclusion”. It was designed to show “how developments in technology, economy and society are blurring the distinction between public and private and to demonstrate the effect of architecture on the public domain”. The US pavilion, conceived as “a production in process, an architectural testing space and contemporary research laboratory” attracted hordes of visitors to its glossy banks of state-of-the-art CAD equipment, and showcased organic prototypes of ultra-modern materials for mass-produced housing interiors. “It was very interesting for its use of technology and inventiveness in new forms,” says Christophe Egret, partner in Alsop & Störmer. Egret says the British pavilion, by contrast, “instead of analysing and philosophising, is showing true solutions that are relevant to this theme”.