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Banging techno architecture? It’s all happening in Venice

As the Olympics of architecture opens in Italy, Jay Merrick surveys the unexpected

The Venice Biennale, which opened yesterday, is the Olympics of architecture. But this time it’s not a beauty parade for the work of the profession’s usual big winners.

The show rebels against the idea of architects as "me-me-me!" design maestros. Curated by Sir David Chipperfield under the title, Common Ground, the message is simple: good architecture is rarely about lightning-strikes of genius. It’s about collaborations, places, purposes, materials, and people.

Chipperfield’s team have created an almost icon-free, antiheroic show. The only architect-as-Jesus moment is the screening of a film, on an ice-white pontoon, about the proto-superstar architect, Ole Scheeren. The hideously banal imagery and the 1950s B-film actor voiceover presents Scheeren as a postmodern Citizen Kane, a slickly marketed messiah with a Bambi-cum-Kraftwerk manner that will presumably lead us to the New Jerusalem.        

The Biennale will resonate powerfully with British architects, whose collective self-image has been remorselessly eroded in a Britain whose towns and cities are being architecturally dumbed down by developers uninterested in good design, and by local authorities desperate for urban regeneration, but without the funds to contest second-rate planning applications and building designs.

The government’s new planning guidelines, designed to speed up construction under a cloak of ill-defined public consultation, will make the situation worse. And this has fuelled a fatalistic apathy among many architects, characterised by the uncontested “election” of Stephen Hodder as the new president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. His predecessor, Angela Brady, was installed after an 18 percent voter turnout.

But the architectural energies coursing through the Arsenale supply some brilliant antidotes and encouragements. And the most startling proof is Norman Foster’s installation. Models of high tech skyscrapers? Corporatised design? Nope. Instead, a profoundly unsettling cacophony of sound and images created in collaboration the film maker Carlos Carcas, and artist Charles Sandison.

It’s mind-blowing. Enormous, rapidly changing images from antiquity to the present– people, places, buildings, order, disorder – swirl around the room like  the hallucination sequences in Ken Russell’s film, Altered States. They also recall Godfrey Reggio’s trippy 1982 cult film, Koyaanisqatsi. Foster – white trousers, white T-shirt – moved around the space two days before the opening of the Biennale, checking that the visual onslaught was working properly: architecture’s greatest technocrat suddenly seemed like a 76-year-old clubber in the land of banging techno.

Not all British architects are under the cosh of witless planners and loadsamoney developers, and the work of three architects on show in the Arsenale makes this very clear. Eric Parry has become a master of fastidiously detailed commercial and cultural buildings, and his full-size model of a segment of the wildly colourful cornice of the St James’s Gateway building, currently nearing completion in London, is a brilliant and risqué fusion of classical architecture and vivid postmodernity.

Like Parry, the younger Patrick Lynch is obsessed with architecture in relation to the physical and psychic history of cities, and the big scale model of the facade of his forthcoming major project in Victoria Street previews a building that will become one of the capital’s most artfully expressive pieces of 21 century architecture.

A few rooms away, the Irish architects Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, have produced an utterly engrossing wooden structure whose abstracted form manages to suggest both a hearth and a chapel. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of architectural magic whose angles, materials, textures, light and shadow generate poetic and emotional gravities.

But this Biennale is just as much about the unexpected, the loose-fit, and the controversial. The Croatian exhibition, for example, is physically delicate, literally shouty, and bluntly political. A series of pale, gossamer-fine screens hang down, moving slightly in the breeze passing through the room; each reflects images from a film showing protesting crowds.

It’s noisy and edgy, apparently nothing to do with design. But it’s message is clear: the architect’s primary duty is to help recover the most fundamental common ground of all – the freedoms of public space and public individuality.

Even superstar architects find themselves in battlegrounds, as the Tate Modern’s designer’s, Herzog and de Meuron, demonstrate. Their installation is essentially a panorama of blown-up newspaper front pages chronicling the tortured, decade-long history of their huge Elbphilharmonie project in Hamburg. The design and construction of this vast concert hall has been mired in disputes between the city authorities, the contractor, and the architects; not so much David Chipperfield’s idea of common ground, more like an endless near-death architectural experience.

Zaha Hadid’s installation has nothing to do with architectural common ground, either. As always, she pursues the uncommon ground of her imagination. And here, it is rather beautiful. Almost gone are the zigs, zags and jags of 1920s Russian modernism that have characterised her work in the past.

Now, we find organic forms – a giant, asymmetrically faceted arum lily, for example – created by intensely complex unfoldings of gigabaroque form created by computer-generated algorithms. The feted British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who created the show-stopping Olympic flame tableau, will surely study these new moves by Hadid with interest, and perhaps a little envy.

The Biennale is heavy on photographs in particular – everything from grainy monochrome shots of the brutish Serra Dourada stadium in Brazil, designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha; Pino Musi’s super-crisp collages of Milan’s postwar modernist apartment block facades; and the deliberately anaemic, unearthly images of buildings and deserted urban spaces captured by Thomas Struth, like eerie stage sets from Rod Serling’s 1950s television series, The Twilight Zone.

Even the finest architects – let alone those cowed by the pressures of austerity and philistine clients – need to have their mindsets and preconceptions refreshed. And  this Biennale is a fine tonic, the least corporate and the most interesting for at least a decade. It has the sharp, fizzing tang of a prosecco – sipped, preferably, in the delicious calm of Alvaro Siza’s abstraction of a Venetian passage, in the Arsenale’s Garden of the Virgin.

Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice, until 25 November (www.labiennale.org/en)