THE VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE is as close as the industry gets to the Edinburgh Festival. Split into separate sites but centred around one theme, it is huge, unwieldy and, often, a bit patchy.
This year director Kurt W Forsterâ€™s concept was Metamorphosis, his notion being that architecture is going through a period of revolutionary shifts in thought that have already opened up unexpected perspectives. So in one half of the show, at the cityâ€™s Arsenale, Forster gets to play around with his ideas while, over at the Giardini, various nations from Argentina to Serbia and Montenegro via the US and Georgia attempt to interpret his intentions, while, at the same time, trying to outdo each otherâ€™s pavilions. While Forsterâ€™s Arsenale exhibition is well thought through and full of good intentions, itâ€™s too big and one-paced to sustain attention. Inevitably, itâ€™s at the Giardini where the real fun is to be had. Itâ€™s impossible not to try and spot national stereotypes. Will the German Pavilion be ruthlessly efficient? Actually no, it was rather inventive and very charming. Can the Japanese do anything other than kooky? Well, not on this evidence. Proceedings, as ever, were dominated by the enormous Italian Pavilion (again curated by Forster) which was by turns fascinating, irritating and completely incoherent. And the UK can be proud of its contribution. Curated by former Archigram member Peter Cook, the pavilion showed the eclecticism of contemporary British architecture, from the almost-austere minimalism of John Pawson to the joyous 1960s-inspired retro-futurism of Future Systems, and it even managed to deliver a dash of genuine wit into the bargain.
Throw into this potent brew some bizarre, substudent offerings, such as the Estonian section that showcased a bunch of outside toilets, including one inspired by the Trojan horse, and you begin to get a sense of the range of quality, as well as the breadth of budget, available to each nation at the show.
Itâ€™s in this context that Scotlandâ€™s first-ever stand-alone section has to be judged. There are two things to remember about Venice: youâ€™ve got to make an immediate impression and thereâ€™s a lot of industry gossip. However, Scotland didnâ€™t make a massive splash at the show. When I quizzed a couple of colleagues about their thoughts on the Scottish stand (situated, by the way, at the tail-end of the Arsenale and next to that horse-shaped outside loo) the reaction was identical: “There was a Scottish stand?” There can be no doubt that Scotland was dipping its toe in the water rather than diving in with a somersault and triple-pike.
At the Biennale the secret is not to try to show too much. Find a few of the best buildings or most interesting architects your country has to offer and concentrate on them. In the Scottish pavilion the balance is just about right. The temptation must have been to focus on the Scottish parliament – the most significant building to be finished in the UK in the past decade. However, it forms part of a much wider-ranging exhibition that roams across the post-devolution nation and pays no heed to budget or scale. Thus the tiny but beautiful Mount Stuart Visitor Centre on the Isle of Bute stands alongside the Radisson SAS in Glasgow.
This was a professionally put together exhibition. There might not have been any Japanese comic strips or outside toilets on display but Scotland should be (quietly) happy with its contribution to the Biennale.