Architecture: The shapes of things to come

The Venice Biennale of Architecture offers a chance to view tomorrow's buildings today. Bruce Bernard looks into the future
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The Independent Culture
You don't have to know very much about architecture to feel fairly sure whether a building is a friend, enemy, rogue, fool or revelation, as our experience of it never ceases. At the current Venice Biennale far more of the projects exhibited gave me a sense of apprehension and distaste than of a brighter and more enlightened future. Sometimes I had the feeling, under the attempted brainwash of the models and photographs - which latter can perhaps lie more glibly, if unconvincingly, about this subject than any other - that I was looking at microbe or virus cultures, some of which might spread uncontrollably around the world. The seemingly infinitely replicable (though varied enough) Mosques of Abdel Wahed El Wakil might suddenly spring up overnight in the smallest town.

Preferable, I thought, might be the entirely useless computer-generated structures in the Hungarian pavilion entitled "The Architecture of Nothing", which would no doubt imme- diately disappear into thin air, unlike some of the alarming and often horrible erections proposed in the large key-note display "Sensing the Future - The Artist as Seismograph". The Japanese relate to this notion with a trendy evocation of the Kobe earthquake in rubble, photographs and spooky noises.

But perhaps the most threatening message of hope is provided by the United States, whose space is given over entirely to building concepts - both completed and projected - inspired by Disney Millenarianism, a dream of (something like) swimming forever in unpleasantly coloured ice- cream. The message that "... any building, however minor or mundane, has the potential to transport us to another realm ..." is displayed as a sacred text, flanked by a Mickey and Minnie looking delighted to have found virtual immortality. Grumpy and Doc as huge caryatids, together with other Disney bric-a-brac, are designed into endless hotels and palaces of recreation, skilfully contrived by so-called "Imagineers" - competent architects in a happy and no doubt profitable collusion with the Disney Daymare.

The Biennale is a very rich mixture with a great deal to feel sceptical about, not least a piece of certainly unintentional black humour in the German pavilion. Worthy projects are illustrated there showing how old heavy-industry areas and installations can be made to serve contemporary culture. A huge and ancient gasometer has been converted into an exhibition space, but it is also a vast echo chamber where a new "holo-acoustic" musical form can be experienced by the whole body.

It seems that for sanity, one should go quickly past the mechanical Japanese figures waving green flags and flashing warning lights in honour of the Kobe earthquake, to the British pavilion and "The Architecture of Information". There, the British Council has, not without some complaints from the cutting edge of the profession, made Colin St John Wilson's highly con- troversial British Library the main exhibit, with Norman Foster's Carre d'Art at Nimes presenting the insistent translucence of this established - indeed world-famous - British architect in second place.

There is an adventurous proposal for a kind of giant (1km long) "lean- to" greenhouse built along the face of an old china-clay quarry in Cornwall. Known as the Eden Project, it will house a real rainforest, with trees growing to a height of 50 metres, and a desert section which will be made, on occasion, to flower spectacularly. Both will be viewed from the ground and from suspended walkways. A place of scientific and public interest as well as recreation, it is surely a deserving National Lottery fund-seeker (its fate was decided last week, after the Review went to press). The architects are Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, best known for their International Terminal Waterloo, and they seem to have contrived a very impressive and perhaps unsurpassable climax to Joseph Paxton's great 19th-century initiatives. The technical/climactic problems are formidable but they are confident of overcoming them. This could result in pleasure, both exciting and thought- provoking, for millions - though one hopes not all at once.

There's also the model for a small library (by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard) now under construction in Lancaster. In the model, it seems like a reverential shrine, lovingly protective of the memory of John Ruskin, probably the greatest of our 19th-century worriers about art, God and everyday right and wrong. It consists of an ovoid shell, with the books and documents in a tower within it. There is a huge blow-up of one of Ruskin's daguerrotypes of Venice, which, as it is placed, seems rather to overdo the reverential. But the whole thing feels like a good deed, and I very much hope to visit it one day in Lancaster.

Then there is the largest public building commissioned in these islands - and for a so-far ungrateful nation - during this century. The architect, Colin St John Wilson, has been working on the British Library for 30 years, at first designing two complete schemes for a building in Bloomsbury for which space proved to be unavailable, and then this final one on a site large enough for future and necessary expansion - though the present government seems to favour selling the land put aside. (Perhaps it would also like this highly intelligent and hard-won structure to sink into the clay and be replaced by something privatisable.)

It is only hi-tech in the sense that its 14 million volumes can be ordered electronically and delivered from its vast basement in the space of 12 minutes (whereas some take days to deliver at the British Museum, where they are currently stored in 19 buildings and have to be located entirely by human labour). The new building had to be built to last at least 250 years, while glittering, transparent and clever-looking hi-tech structures survive only 30 without expensive renovation and maintenance. It is therefore built of brick, the same kind used for St Pancras station next door in 1868. Having seen most of the interior spaces near completion, I am entirely convinced that everyone, including sophisticated aesthetes, will enjoy using it far more than the BM Round Reading Room. Their comfort and sense of security has been given a high and entirely ungrudging priority by Wilson. Readers will not be made to feel threatened, even subliminally, by those working on the higher levels. Large circular windows in dividing walls ensure that personal orientation in the complex pattern of facilities can hardly ever be in doubt. The furniture is solid and comfortable, and the detailing judicious and satisfying. The architect, a notable collector himself, had always intended that works of art should be commissioned for the building, but was eventually denied sufficient funds. Now, however, the Lottery fund has made some amends by paying for the large tapestry by RB Kitaj planned for the entrance hall. The curious but quietly adventurous Chinese-temple character of the outside will, I think, seem more and more attractive when it is fully exposed; and the, at first, worryingly shallow canopies or louvres have a very important function in filtering the sunlight, with the whole interior flooded with far more daylight than might be expected.

One must hope that our Heir presumptuous, who hasn't been back since laying the foundation stone in 1982 - though he has made a number of highly publicised and irresponsible observations on its merits - will eventually return and have the grace to eat a few of his words; as might also Gerald Kaufman MP who described it as "probably the ugliest building in the world".

Many of us, I believe, will take something like a national pride, at present one of our rarer shared sensations, in this building. !

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