Argentina's national pavilion features a terrarium for the Pampas © Federico Cairoli
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The long, theatrical corridor of the Corderia is one of the world’s great rooms. A 300m-long rope-works which was once at the heart of Venice’s shipbuilding business, it is an exquisite early product of the military-industrial complex. Still nominally part of the Italian navy’s dockyards, the space has gone post-industrial and segued into what we might call the “culture complex”, a temporary gallery whose peeling plaster and crumbling brickwork now form a finely textured backdrop to expensive art and avant-garde architecture.

The curators of this year’s Architecture Biennale, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin-based Grafton Architects, clearly appreciate it. Its entrance is draped with a curtain of ropes in reference to its origins and, rather than compartmenting it, they have let it be. The arched windows have been left uncovered and the whole space can be seen in one grand sweep: the darkness and decay as well as the finesse and power, the pure architecture of a functional Renaissance factory building.

The entrance to the Corderia is draped with a curtain of ropes

In allowing the space to shine, the curators have won half the battle. This year’s show is a breeze to walk through — uncluttered, elegant, visually coherent, cool and quiet. But the job of a biennale is to reveal the culture of architecture and its preoccupations — physical, political and social — at a particular moment. The question, then, is what exactly does this seemingly unconflicted space tell us?

These curators are concerned with the haptic qualities of surface, material and grain, architecture as substance. And the projects displayed here have a surprising consistency both in expression and display. There are plywood models, clay models, brick walls and lots of cardboard, laser-cut MDF and meticulous carpentry. It is mostly the colour of muesli, a kind of healthy diet of modernism. It is remarkably homogenous, not necessarily in a bad way, but its aesthetic coherence comes, perhaps, at the expense of exposing the contradictions, crises and commercial imperatives inherent in the practice of this most contingent of the arts. There is a kind of consensus here — a certain type of modernism, a mid-century, sculptural, monumental, self-conscious brutalism. Very much, in fact, like Grafton’s own work.

The display of architecture always struggles with the split between the spectacle and the societal, between architecture as object and architecture as activism. McNamara and Farrell try to elide the distinction by christening their show Freespace and asserting that their interest lies in an exploration of the commons, the public amenity that the best architecture affords as a side effect of its design — the gardens, courtyards and benches. But I’m not sure it truly emerges. Rather, what appears is a series of very fine, very sculptural and ultimately unsurprising studies of buildings.

There are familiar names here: Alvaro Siza, Mario Botta, Rafael Moneo, Toyo Ito, Sanaa and others. But the space is mostly given over to mid-career, middle-aged non-starchitects, mostly from Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Britain and Ireland, building serious and assured works of mostly public architecture. Sergison Bates, Aires Mateus, Alison Brooks, Niall McLaughlin and others all present very fine work. There are a couple of outliers: I was captivated by Riccardo Blumer’s machines, which slowly draw up a soapy liquid, creating a membrane like a delicate glass wall suffused with a subtle spectrum of colour, which disappears like a bubble in a child’s hand. It is the most minimal conceivable architecture and it is beautiful, a momentary counterbalance to architecture’s solidity and permanence.

UK collective Assemble have created a swirling tiled floor

The curators have been ruthless in their rigour, ensuring that the installations are of sufficient scale and formal quality to stand up to the historic backdrop. The result is an enjoyable stroll through a world of deeply considered and carefully crafted buildings, which might reflect a real change in the culture (just look at all those bricky, cookie-coloured buildings going up across northern Europe) or might merely record a refined but ultimately marginal phenomenon.

It is left, then, to the national pavilions to highlight the screaming problems so delicately plastered over in the Arsenale. The US does it with a series of explorations of big issues from migration to the potential for cross-border co-operation in sharing water, but there is too much to read and too much to watch. The French effort is a cabinet of curiosities, things associated with the former lives of now-converted buildings. With walls crammed with objects both quotidian and surprising — from dentists’ tools to taxidermy and deckchairs — it’s an eye-catching and joyful experience which exposes the humanity at the heart of lived architecture.

The British pavilion, with its tangle of scaffolding leading to a platform above its roof, leaves its interior coolly empty. But the rooftop terrace is a searingly hot surface which, though designed to host a programme of public events, ends up being rather alienating. The Hungarians have done something similar, though the view from the top of their pavilion is less impressive and their back-story more complex, a meditation on Budapest’s Liberty Bridge becoming a place of public encounter when it was temporarily closed, and reflecting on what converting roads to public space can do for a city. The Swiss pavilion is a surreal, out-of-scale developer’s interior with shades of a banal Wonderland or Lilliput. Japan’s exploration of the complexities of contemporary architectural anthropology is a delight, the drawings on display delicately illustrating the web of interconnections in domestic interiors.

Budapest’s Liberty Bridge became a place of public encounter when it was temporarily closed

The most striking of the national pavilions, though, is not in the Giardini but back in the Arsenale, where the Argentines have built a terrarium for the Pampas. A visually arresting glass box containing a landscape of grasses sets up a perspective with brewing storm clouds above, something like a panorama but far more filmic. A strip of backlit, socially conscious architectural projects surrounds the room, each a hand drawing, each intriguing. It is a superb combination of technology, nature and digital artifice.

Nearby, at the Pavilion of Applied Arts, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exploration of Robin Hood Gardens, the recently demolished London housing estate designed by the avant-garde Smithsons in 1972, centres on the scaffolded, raw concrete ruin of an archaeological chunk of the building, which was saved by the museum. Also on display is artist Do Ho Suh’s film of some of the interiors, a painfully poignant slice through the scenes of life as it was lived rather than as it was airily imagined.

The Central Pavilion provides space for more diverse explorations of architectural culture. UK collective Assemble have created a swirling tiled floor which reflects the colours of the frescoed dome above the main entrance; the tiles were made at their Granby Workshops in Liverpool, an admirable and fascinating experiment in urban regeneration. One particularly strong nexus places Stockholm’s ArkDes Museum’s presentation of Sigurd Lewerentz’s classical-turned-modernist architecture alongside a display of Italian architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni. These latter buildings are mostly mid-century apartment blocks of astonishing accomplishment, merging modernism with familiar details and historic proportions — a hybrid, very Italian urbanism.

Eduardo Souto de Moura’s minimalist stone chapel

Finally, for the first time, the Holy See makes its contribution on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. A peaceful, wooded park now inhabited by a smattering of chapels, it builds on both the wild success of the Serpentine Pavilion in using architecture itself as a medium to promote architecture, and architects’ proclivity for the chapel form. In the absence of any formal ecclesiastical function, these become a kind of pure architecture in which designers revel in the numinous and in the power of their art to evoke emotion. Terunobu Fujimori’s log-cabin temple, with its gold-leafed crucifix and ridiculously narrow door, is unsettlingly good at making you think about what architecture is doing, while Eduardo Souto de Moura’s minimalist stone chapel is moving in its simplicity. A stroll around an almost deserted island dedicated to architecture is an ideal way in which to end an enjoyable show.

To November 25,

Terunobu Fujimori’s log-cabin temple

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