If Deyan Sudjic's own account of his 15-month period as director of the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale is to be believed, he decided on the title 'Next' while still fishing for his job in the treacherous waters of Italian cultural politics. Next is also the name of a British middle-of-the-road, catalogue-based clothes retailer that seemed like hot news in the mid-1980s, but which has since lapsed into high-street anonymity. Unlikely as it may seem, the biennale and the retail chain have something in common. At its height Next offered a new category of clothing - smart casual - and a new way of buying - through subscription to a well-designed, seasonal catalogue. It was totally conservative, but it was undeniably fresh.
Sudjic's biennale is a bit like that. Full of projects that have progressed through various committee-choked stages of planning, some even on their way to being built, its focus is not on rupture or radical change but on the general tide of architectural development. High-street Next pointed towards the inevitable direction in clothes shopping; Venice Next does the same thing for architecture.
Although this assessment may sound damning, it isn't. There is a purpose in putting together an exhibition displaying the demonstrable near future of a discipline that plays such a large role in everyday life. Seeing scores of museums, office buildings and airports that will spring up in cities over the next ten years is fascinating, and Sudjic's show is well organized and clearly explained. In particular, the arrangement of the Arsenale is a revelation. Whereas curators of the art biennale usually turn this kilometre-long gallery into an arena for a particularly cruel endurance sport, Sudjic, working with the architect John Pawson and the graphic designers Esterson Lackersteen, has created a series of spaces each with its own focus: 'Museums', 'Housing', 'Communication' and so on. They can be taken singly or altogether, and they work whichever way. For the most part the buildings themselves represent the confluence of capital and high-techery. It is a show of loud statements rather than low-key solutions.
The architecture biennale is much younger than the art event. This year's exhibition was only the eighth of its kind: the first was in 1980 (not 1988 - the Venetian calendar is quite different from any other). Possibly because of its youth, but also partly owing to the nature of the discipline, it is much more contained than its older sibling. Rather than being a lagoon-wide sprawl, all but a handful of the exhibits were confined to the Arsenale and the national pavilions of the Giardini. To guide the way around these sites Sudjic and Esterson Lackersteen created a comprehensive leaflet that includes Venice's rarest luxury: a functional map. The graphic identity of the show is a little strident - a bright yellow background and diagonal black and red stripes are its uniform element - but its consistent use in everything from signage to catalogue holds the affair together. Wandering through the Arsenale, I saw someone clutching a bag from the 2001 art biennale. In contrast to the assertive yellow 'Next' brand, this battered plastic carrier bore the title 'Plateau of Humanity' in smudgy red type. More than a shift of disciplines, the gap between Venice 2001 and Venice 2002 is like a change of planets. (Architects are from Mars, artists are from Venus.)
Sudjic has created a very convincing conceit with 'Next', but it would be a mistake to buy into it too whole-heartedly. A degree of dissimulation lies beneath. The ostensible subject of the exhibition is the major buildings likely to be constructed in the next few years, but if you spend any time in the exhibition the real focus becomes apparent: the architect's model. Sudjic gives some of this away in his introduction. His excitement about the enormous concrete mock-up made by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to illustrate his plans for the Diocesan Museum in Cologne is irrepressible. The gazebo, big enough to hold two people, was shipped to Venice and installed on the pathway outside the Arsenale because it was too heavy to sit inside the building. In the same vein, the photographs of models in the exhibition catalogue are treated with an intensity that brings to mind the work of Thomas Demand.
This enthusiasm is perfectly understandable. Miniaturization has an irresistible appeal and these models are lovely things. At the press view a man from Herzog & de Meuron was still gluing the people on to the landscape of a tiny Tenerife. The figures reveal a surprising degree of detail: the women have high heels and remarkably protuberant breasts, while the men wear open-necked shirts and flared trousers (there are no children - apparently they are too fiddly to handle). Architects' representation of humanity is fairly standard, and much the same 1970s crowd is walking over most of the models in the exhibition. The same cannot be said for the way they see plant life. The variety of tree things - twisted wire, etched glass, sponge, marbles, plasticine - is extraordinary. Some of these objects are sufficiently odd to raise serious questions about the relationship between the architect and the organic world.
The finale of Sudjic's Arsenale show is a section devoted to the future of lower Manhattan. On press day the exhibit was still incomplete: pictures lay on the ground and the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill model lay unassembled. Sensing a buzz in the vicinity, I drew near and was treated to the sight of a distinguished-looking man with grey hair, presumably a partner at SOM, arranging the buildings below 14th Street with his own hands. There he was, an architect playing with the world's most potent doll's house.