WHILE THE Venice Architecture Biennale remains the most anticipated and ambitious design show in the world -- not to mention the only one featuring cocktail parties in canal-side palazzi -- every edition is marked by a curious split personality. There is a core exhibition, organized by a single curator and displaying work by the leading names of the profession, and along with it a scattered collection of national pavilions filled with designs by mostly anonymous younger architects. Because the pavilions vary so much in quality -- and theme -- they always knock the central exhibition at least a bit off message.
Rarely, though, has the gap in tone between the two sections been as wide as it is this year. The main show, organized by American-born Aaron Betsky, manages to be unsure of itself, divided against itself and pleased with itself at the same time. Its biggest gestures -- at the start of the exhibition, inside the cavernous old shipbuilding complex called the Arsenale -- come from a parade of celebrity architects, including Zaha Hadid, Elizabeth Diller + Ricardo Scofidio and Frank Gehry, nearly all of them playing down to the moment with overscaled, underwhelming work. A separate section on experimental architecture, which Betsky prepared with a young Italian curator, Emiliano Gandolfi, has the opposite problem. It is dense and unwieldy, a thicket of projects containing a handful of stirring moments but no clear theme.
In the way it embraces celebrity architecture and digital design without hesitation or irony, Betsky's Biennale seems nearly a decade out of date. It reflects the attitudes that dominated architecture before 9/11, the Iraq war or the current economic crisis -- and before rebuilding fiascoes at Lower Manhattan's ground zero and in New Orleans, which proved a kind of Waterloo for architecture's star system and exposed computer-modeling skills as ultimately meaningless in the absence of political ones.
In chasing glamour, and in trying to wring the last drops of relevance from tired and impenetrable theory, Betsky walls off the show itself from the real world and its growing list of ailments with a certain incoherent nonchalance.
Where the action is
The tone in the best of the national pavilions, on the other hand, could not be more different or seem more timely. The standout Polish pavilion -- curated by a pair of young architecture critics, one 28 and the other 32 -- features Photoshopped images of new buildings in Warsaw as they might be used in a dystopian future five or six decades from now, with a steel-and-glass office block by Norman Foster re-imagined as a dank prison and an airport holding livestock instead of planes. The tone of the accompanying wall text is pitch-perfect: apocalyptic but dry, like Cassandra writing in the Onion.
The Belgian pavilion is wrapped in makeshift metal scaffolding and filled ankle-deep with confetti, suggesting that the party architecture has enjoyed for the last decade, with seemingly endless sources of capital available for big building projects, has finally and definitively come to an end. It asks how architects with a collective hangover might rally to design projects to save a ruined world.
Those two pavilions, by leading with black comedy and taking environmental degradation as a given, offer a reminder that, while tough times don't produce many new buildings, they often help cultivate architecture's most lasting ideas. That alone is reason, in this shaky moment, for at least some optimism.
The prize for bluntness, meanwhile, goes to the Estonians, who erected a bright yellow pipe as their pavilion. Snaking through the grounds of the Giardini, the leafy gardens where most of the Biennale's national pavilions are located, it offers a sophomoric but highly effective commentary on plans by the Russian gas conglomerate Gazprom to run a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, through or near Estonian territory.
Other pavilions are quietly forceful. Japan is showing defiantly fragile, dreamlike house designs by Junya Ishigami. The American pavilion, intelligently organized by William Menking, is packed with substantive projects, such as a tribute to Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project as well as work by Rural Studio, Teddy Cruz and others, that aren't helped by a rather dull installation. And the Chinese pavilion, curated by a team led by Yung Ho Chang, dean of the architecture school at MIT, features handsome photographs, sealed under glass atop schoolroom desks, of what it calls "ordinary" architecture. The pictures show Soviet-style housing blocks that went up in Beijing and Shanghai in the 1950s and are now under nearly constant threat of demolition as the Chinese government pursues headlong growth and urbanization.
In those sections, it's possible to imagine a long list of themes Betsky might have turned to for inspiration in place of "Beyond Architecture," the boilerplate, intellectually jaded one he chose. Now the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and before that head of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Betsky has long been known more for his broad web of relationships with architects, critics, curators and editors than for the strength of his ideas. This Biennale will only cement that reputation. He has enlisted an impressive collection of talent -- including Atelier Bow-Wow, UN Studio, Droog Design, An Te Liu and MVRDV -- without managing to shape their contributions into a pointed argument. Los Angeles is represented by a generational cross-section that includes Gehry, Thom Mayne, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Greg Lynn and Ball-Nogues Studio -- although it may say something about Betsky's selection process that he once worked in Gehry's office, as did Lynn and both founders of Ball-Nogues.
To be fair, Betsky had less time to organize the exhibition than did curators of other recent Biennales. But feeling rushed and slightly ad hoc is the least of this Biennale's problems. Particularly in the Arsenale, where the boldface names reside, you get the sense that the architects told Betsky what they wanted to include in the show and exactly how they wanted to present it rather than the other way around. When they mail it in -- as many do -- the show sags. And when they produce something inspired, it peps up, if only temporarily: The landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson nearly saves the Arsenale section all by herself with an evocative garden hidden behind the warehouse buildings, while the Chinese firm MAD Studio turns nostalgia for Archigram and other collective firms of the 1970s -- which was rampant in this Biennale -- into something relevant to contemporary city-making. Its proposal for a new kind of stand-alone mobile city -- in the form of a multi-pronged, star-shaped megastructure -- can easily be read as a critique of Chinese ambition, which is limitless and heavy-handed but also markedly isolationist.
Betsky also asked more than two dozen architects in the show to contribute manifestoes, playing directly to their vanity -- and overlooking the fact that nearly all of them are proud owners of almost comically wooden prose styles. The Spanish architect Vicente Guallart delivers this bit of rip-roaring, to-the-battlements rhetoric: "Any vital function is part of a scaled relation of environments, networks and nodes that interact with individuals on the basis of cultural and economic patterns." Viva la revolución!