A little Buggins goes a long way

The British Library may be worthy; it may also be the focus of a conspiracy theory surrounding Cambridge architects; but compared with its rivals at the Biennale, it's a sure winner. Jonathan Glancey in Venice sings its praises

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When the great library at Alexandria was torched by barbarians, the citizens of what survived of the Roman Empire wept and gnashed their teeth. It was as if the whole of classical learning had been destroyed at a stroke, or, in today's terms, as if some virile computer virus had wiped clean the central databank that held the story of western civilisation.

Libraries mattered 2,000 years ago; they matter today. Tears were shed for the fate of the library that nursed the original texts of Aristotle, amongst many great authors whom we know today only through the diligence and, to an extent, inaccuracy of the religious orders who kept alight the flame of learning during the Dark Ages, But it appears that no one cares for the colossal British Library nearing completion alongside St Pancras Station in latter-day London.

Quite the reverse. The pounds 450m building, due to open next year, has been under attack for years. Perhaps surprisingly then, from this week until mid-November, the library is the principal representative of British architectural culture at the Venice Biennale. This is the one big opportunity for architects from around the globe to show their wares to one another, to potential clients and to a large and curious public.

When the British Council, which organises the British Pavilion here, announced its decision to make the British Library the star of its show, the architectural press bleated, as with one voice, "No to the library". How could the British Council choose this ungainly and outmoded public monument? After all, Britain over the past decade, and certainly since the last Biennale held four years ago (the 1994 event was in effect closed for restoration - chiuso per il restauro as they say here) has produced some of the most radical and sophisticated architecture in the world.

British architects have been much in demand, prophets perhaps without too much honour in their own land, but welcome ambassadors of contemporary culture abroad. And what of a younger generation of architects? Why bother with a building that is unpopular even before it has opened, when we could be using the Biennale to display the talents of an up-and-coming generation?

The temptation is to jump to a conclusion that could be true in part, but would unfairly distort the case for the library. The exhibition at the British Pavilion has been organised on behalf of the British Council by Michael Brawne, a veteran architect who first taught in the Department of Architecture at Cambridge University, where he has also been a member of the advisers committee of the Martin Research Centre. Sir Leslie Martin, who lends his name to this academic body, was for many years Professor of Architecture at Cambridge. One of his pupils and an architect he was to employ was Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library and also a former Professor of Architecture at Cambridge.

Alongside the exhibition of the British Library at Venice is a presentation of the up-and-coming (and very fine) Ruskin Library for the University of Lancaster by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. Richard MacCormac was a pupil of Professor Wilson at Cambridge.

By this time, conspiracy theorists will be making knowing noises. These gentlemen architects were at school together, and clearly it's Buggins' (ie "Sandy" Wilson's) turn to take a bow and show Johnny Foreigner what the Light Blues can do: the most expensive building recorded in British history, for one thing. Given the hostility hurled at the immense walls of Wilson's library, it is easy to believe in such a complacent conspiracy. However, if there is something in it, there are mitigating factors.

Amongst these is the undeniably intelligent theme of the British pavilion: "The Architecture of Information". Brawne has curated a show that is consistent, relevant, crystal clear and good-looking. With very few exceptions, the other pavilions of the Biennale are inconsistent, irrelevant, perplexing and even potty.

The clearest national message of all, however, comes from the American pavilion. Entitled "Building a Dream: the Art of Disney Architecture", the American show is an intimate collusion between the wonderful world of Walt and big gun US architects; so much so, that the message given by the US pavilion can only be that Disney is American architecture.

Triumphant above squeaky clean models of an astonishing volume of brightly coloured Post-Modern confections (for which, read "buildings") is a statue of Mickey Mouse himself. Forget Le Corbusier; stuff Palladio, the cartoon rodent is the future of transatlantic culture. Where once we joked that the Post-Modern design that blossomed so ludicrously in the United States from around 1980 was "Mickey Mouse" architecture, now the mouse has proved us right. Suddenly, the earnest British Library seems infinitely desirable.

Architecture, as presented by most of the rest of the world at Venice, appears to be little more than an overplayed joke.

The French and Italian pavilions, for example, are confusing, ugly and designed in ways that make them almost impossible to walk around. This international tendency towards unmitigated gimmickry is, perhaps, best summed up by the Hungarian pavilion, in which bizarre red and white neo- Constructivist sculptures designed by one Gabor Bachman are labelled "The Architecture of Nothing". Quite.

If the British pavilion excludes youthful talent, it cannot be accused of being empty-headed. In fact, the dramatic and likeable way in which Colin St John Wilson has presented the British Library - a collage made up of prototype pieces of the library's interiors, from solid oak readers' desks and chairs to glass-fronted shelves, and leather-wrapped handrails - speaks volumes for the quality of this public monument and for the vast reserves of information it will contain.

Supported by MacCormac's jewel-like Ruskin Library, Foster & Partners' Carre d'Art at Nimes and the proposed Eden Project (a spectacular biosphere planned for abandoned Cornish quarries and a future centre of bioclimatic research that will be open to the public) designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, "The Architecture of Information" is indeed informative.

A little on the worthy side? Perhaps, but when most of the Continental European pavilions seem aimed at confounding literal-minded Brits, a little worthiness goes a long way.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that younger talent does need to be encouraged and shown abroad. It would be unwise to divide architects into the young and the established, because architectural talent emerges over a lifetime and whilst some architects - Lutyens is a good example - appear to emerge fully armed like Minerva from the head of Zeus, others need to time to mature.

It is significant that many of the "young" international hot-heads and radicals on show in the central pavilion at the Biennale are older than many of the mature architects producing refined buildings in, say, Switzerland and Scandinavia.

The British Library presentation at Venice will, undoubtedly, make this massive building new friends. Whilst it remains difficult to begin to like the exterior, the interior is refined, polished and handsome. With its warm oak surfaces, leather handrails at every stretch and promise of superbly controlled daylight, the interior is almost, although this seems awkward to say, rather sexy. Or, at least, certainly more sensual than many of the spiky, show-off designs that pervade all too many of the architecture shows at the Biennale.

Colin St John Wilson likes to say that the library that has dominated the latter half of his career has been designed to last at least 250 years; its reputation as a work of architecture will (he hopes) slide in and out of fashion. For the architect as well as for the trustees of the library, this is a comforting thought.

There is no doubt that the architecture Biennale is, by and large, a fashion show. The bravest pavilions are, perhaps, those that have tried to eschew ephemera in favour of imaginative buildings that will endure. Whether this is the right strategy for an all-singing, all-dancing fashion show is another matter.

The British pavilion, compared to its rivals, is a bit like a stand at the Motor Show manned by chaps in heavy tweeds and brogues, an apparent anomaly among those strewn with half-clothed lovelies.

Undoubtedly worthy and a bit worrying on the chaps-were-at-varsity-together level, the British pavilion does go a long way in convincing the sceptical visitor that the construction of the British Library is not in the hands of barbarians and that no matter what form new libraries take in terms of the information they convey, we will probably always want them to be housed in buildings that promise security against savage destruction - even if Buggins does get to design them.

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