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Trying to tame the mega-city

The Architecture Biennale tackles the problems stemming from the great migration into cities.

September 15, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Venice, Italy — PARADIGM shifts rarely emerge quite as dramatically as the one that dominates this year's Architecture Biennale in Venice. In the curatorial equivalent of capital letters, the exhibition announces what has become increasingly apparent to those in the field: that architecture, after spending much of the 1980s and early 1990s mired in obscure theory, and the last 10 years preoccupied with image, is moving into an encouraging period of engagement -- with the future shape of rapidly metastasizing mega-cities, with politicians and developers, with poverty and with environmental destruction.

The show, which opened to the public on Sunday, is organized by Richard Burdett, a professor of urbanism and an advisor on architecture and planning to the mayor of London. His approach, heavy on infographics and dramatic top-down photographs of 16 big cities around the world, including Los Angeles, leans rather far in the direction of digestibility. In the main part of the exhibition, covering half a dozen rooms in the old Venetian shipbuilding complex called the Arsenale, he manages to suggest both that urbanization is racing out of control and that its attendant problems are entirely solvable -- and by architects, no less.

The result is something like a Brueghel or a Goya scene as painted by Wayne Thiebaud: all the emerging woes of the world's cities -- desperate poverty, congestion, pollution -- lined up in neat, brightly colored rows. Still, simply in its effort to grapple with such a massive and overtly political theme, the show easily distances itself from typical architecture exhibitions these days, which tend to be either hagiographic tributes to a single architect -- often designed or curated by the architect herself -- or facile exercises in trend-spotting.

This is true not only in the sections arranged by Burdett but also in the national pavilions, which are organized by their host countries. The U.S. pavilion, curated by the editors of Architectural Record, includes winners of a competition for housing in post-Katrina New Orleans. The projects are most impressive for their earnest ambition. A design by the San Francisco firm Eight Inc. calls for a 12-story building into which prefabricated apartment units of various lengths can be slotted. Though it recalls Moshe Safdie's influential Habitat '67 project in Montreal, it also bears an unfortunate resemblance to the pictures of tiered shacks in Caracas, Venezuela, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, that Burdett shows elsewhere.

In its broad scope and determination to be Highly Relevant, the show leaves itself open to the complaint that it contains no architecture, or that it is merely a throwback to the optimistic mega-projects of the 1970s. There was plenty of griping along those lines during the opening weekend from the more-jaded-than-thou set, which is always well represented at the Biennale. Yet the subject Burdett tackles here is, in many ways, the only subject for architecture at the moment: the human and planetary costs of the great migration into cities that is now taking place from Shenzhen, China, to Sao Paulo.

The statistics around which Burdett centered the exhibition lost little of their force despite the near mantra-like way they were repeated throughout the weekend. A century ago, 10% of the world's population lived in cities. That figure is now 50%. By 2050 it will be 75%. Precisely how this massive urbanization unfolds -- how politicians, planners and architects wind up "settling these new arrivals," as Burdett put it, "in three-dimensional space" -- will determine the stability of various regimes, particularly in Beijing, the pace of global warming and the state of the oil market.

Of course, the world's city-dwellers face vastly different circumstances depending on whether they live in a London flat or in a tin-roofed shack they hammered together on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria.

One of the show's most compelling themes is the way it charts the rise of the city-state on the one hand and of its chaotic sibling, the mega-city, on the other.

The new city-state is a place more conversant in the language of global capitalism and economic and cultural "flows" than of nation or homeland. In other words, 21st century Tokyo has more in common with London and New York than with Nagoya. And there is a whole group striving mightily for membership in that class. The most fascinating are Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the other city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates, where quite a few of the world's most famous architects are now employed by leaders working feverishly to diversify their economies before their oil reserves run out.

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