Best supporting act . . . the installation from Spanish architects Antón García-Abril and Ensamble Studio. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

The problem with architecture exhibitions, so it’s argued, is that they lack the one thing you really want to see: real-life buildings. I disagree. The problem with architecture exhibitions is that they fixate on trying to represent buildings that are missing. Photographs, drawings and pretentious wall texts only highlight the fact that yours is a second-hand experience. They place you in the there and then, not the here and now.

The Swiss architect Mario Botta got around this problem spectacularly in 1999 when, for the 400th anniversary of the birth of Francesco Borromini, he built a full-scale wooden model of a cross-section of the baroque master’s most famous church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. There it was in all its glory – well, half of its glory – on the shore of Lake Lugano.

Most architecture shows don’t have Botta’s titanic budget. But there is another way, as demonstrated at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. This is not an exhibition about what buildings look like. Gone is the blowhard shape-making and bad sculpture of the previous biennale, curated by Aaron Betsky in 2008. Neither is it didactic, like the 2006 version, curated by Richard Burdett, which was a blizzard of facts and statistics about cities – vital stuff, but rather like exploring a book pasted on the walls. Instead, this year’s show is much more about what should happen inside buildings, the pure experience of space.


Justin McGuirk