Venice Biennale: Golden lions and concrete cows

The curators of the British pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale talk about A Clockwork Jerusalem

 

Sam Jacob, founding director of FAT, and Wouter Vanstiphout, from Crimson Architectural Historians, talk about A Clockwork Jerusalem, their British Council-commissioned exhibition in the British Pavilion, Venice.

Why are there cows outside the British Pavilion?

Sam Jacob: We have borrowed Liz Leyh’s famous Concrete Cows and shipped them all the way from Milton Keynes - the last of the post-war British New Towns -to be exhibited at the British Pavilion as part of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia. The Concrete Cows are Milton Keynes’ most famous inhabitants and have become unofficial mascots of the town since their installation in 1978, as well as the butt of many jokes. We have brought the cows to Venice to help show the kind of places that Britain built in the post-war period.

Milton Keynes and other New Towns were real attempts to build for a brighter future and the Concrete Cows are a great expression of that moment: both modern and rural at the same time. To have them in Venice amongst the golden lions and renaissance architecture is fantastic. We hope it will also remind us back home of the sometimes overlooked achievements of that period and bring a touch of exotic glamour to the idea of town planning.

Can you tell us about the concept behind the portico installation?

SJ: The portico of the pavilion is treated as an ‘Electric Picturesque’ landscape. Tree trunks are installed from floor to ceiling, interrupting the symmetry of the Neoclassical pavilion and recalling the traditional, artificial representation of nature that stretches back to Capability Brown. Seen through these trees is an animated, galloping horse on a specially commissioned LED screen. Initially proposed as the cladding for Milton Keynes’ shopping centre, the animated horse was part of a design strategy that merged communication with pastoral ideas of landscape. Recreated for the Biennale Architettura 2014, the LED white horse represents a high-tech reworking of the Neolithic white horses carved into British hillsides and suggests a continuity of dreams over thousands of years of British culture.

 

What is the significance of the mound seen in the exhibition?

Wouter Vanstiphout: At the centre of the exhibition, in the main room of the British Pavilion, is a 1.5 metre high, 7 metre diameter earth mound. The mound is a central figure in the landscape of British architecture: from the giant Neolithic earthwork of Silbury Hill; through burial mounds; the piling of the demolished Old Nichol slum into the centrepiece of the Boundary Estate; the hills inside the great curves of the Hulme Estate where punks partied to acid house; to the landscape at the heart of the soon-to-be-demolished Robin Hood Gardens. It is both the end and the beginning, destruction and construction. Building a mound as the core of A Clockwork Jerusalem, at the heart of the British Pavilion, is both a eulogy to a period of ambitious and imaginative architecture and a provocation to our own, a challenge for us to build our own New Jerusalems for the 21st century.

What is the significance of the panorama image in the centre of the exhibition?

SJ: The 360°panoramic image is an allegorical narrative telling the story of British modernity through a continuous landscape: Neolithic scenes, the Industrial Revolution, social upheaval, visions of reform, arts and crafts, interior design, riots, war, the landscapes of post war architecture, and pop culture.

The panorama features a diverse range of references to British visual and architectural culture: from Pagan Druids, Thamesmead and the Mojave Desert, to Joseph Gandy’s painting of John Soane’s Bank of England in ruins, and Kevin Cummins’ iconic images of Joy Division, via Duran Duran, William Morris and Cliff Richard.

Overlooking the mound in the main room there is an image of an eye within a cog, where did that come from?

SJ: Over the mound floats the eye of the visionary artist William Blake, the author of the words to the poem Jerusalem – Britain’s unofficial national anthem – surrounded by a Droog’s cog from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Exhibited for the first time, location scouting photographs from the Stanley Kubrick archive show the research into Thamesmead for the production of A Clockwork Orange. Thamesmead was selected because of its futuristic look as it was brand new - scouting photographs show the estate still under construction – and it didn’t have the bad reputation it does now. There is a misconception that Thamesmead was selected for the film because of its notoriety, but this is one of the myths about British Modernism that we are trying to debunk through the exhibition.

How does the exhibition build on Crimson Architectural Historians’ and FAT Architecture’s previous work?

WV: From the beginning Crimson has been working on post-war Modernism, whether by writing books about it, curating exhibitions, or acting as planners and consultants for large-scale reconstruction and regeneration projects for modernist New Towns. It was actually in that context, as directors of the WiMBY! project, for the regeneration of the Dutch post-war New Town on Hoogvliet in the Port area of Rotterdam, that we first started to collaborate with FAT. Together we realised the cultural park The Heerlijkheid and The Villa, one of FAT’s most well-known projects. Recently, in fact at the Biennale Architettura 2012, Crimson also curated an exhibition called The Banality of Good in which we presented six post-war New Towns and looked critically at how their original values and ideas, which were based on the public good, gradually evolved into technocratic and purely commercial projects, like the more recent New Towns built in Asia.

A Clockwork Jerusalem has not just allowed us to delve deeper into the interests and attitudes that we share with FAT, but also to take another, more experimental and perhaps psychoanalytical exploration into the deep memory and the library of obsessions and desires that inform British Modernism.

How do you think Britain’s take on modernity compared to other countries, such as, France, Germany and Italy?

WV: I think that what distinguishes British Modernism from French, German or Italian, is that it does not originate in design ideas so much - in the critique of contemporary ornament or architecture - but in moral and social ideas. British Modernism stems from ideas like those of William Blake, William Morris, and William Booth, and while design surely played an important role in Morris’ work, for example, it was his ideas about the destiny of Britain that gives him his place in the proto phase of British Modernism.

With Ebenezer Howard it becomes clear that it was a utopian or even anarcho-Christian idea of a New England that then produced one of the diagrams that has most influenced international town planning: the Garden City. Of course, later on European Modernism was imported to Britain, but it was so absorbed into an entire tradition of Modernism in the sense of concepts to create New Jerusalems as alternatives to the contemporary condition, that it was just the vehicle through which very British ideas could be realised.

To say that Britain absorbed Modernism to the detriment of its own identity is therefore a statement that we absolutely reject as being extremely reductive and superficial.

What lessons can be learnt from the period of British Modernism?

WV: The lesson we could learn from the very long period of British Modernism, which we have studied and presented in A Clockwork Jerusalem, is that what drove some of the most spectacular reforms and transformations of British cities and communities were not design innovations or technology, but extraordinary leaps of the imagination in which unique hybrids of idealised pasts and speculative futures were concocted. Look at the Minoan Automobile Citadel of Cumbernauld, or the Electric Pastoral of Milton Keynes.

Each time this leap of the imagination was provoked by a serious crisis in the condition of British cities and communities. Now that British cities and regions are again facing crises of affordability of housing, inequality and social tensions, it is not enough to just bring back some of the old war horses of the past century, like the reintroduction of Garden Cities and New Towns, as British debate recently seems to suggest. What we can learn from William Blake and Ebenezer Howard, Milton Keynes and Thamesmead, Non-Plan and the Garden City, is that we need to release the imagination again, and to have ideas about our living environment produced from all corners of society, and for these to be debated and experimented with, just as they were in the period we are presenting.

 

Postscript:

The Venice biennale is open to the public from June 7 to November 23

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