British Pavilion is a missed opportunity

Home Economics, the UK’s contribution to the Venice Biennale, could have made some radical proposals for better ways of living but instead relies on models that already exist. Hugh McEwen finds debate is raging at Venice. Just not here

“Undoubtedly, the front line in Britain today is our societal failure to provide sufficient housing” Jack Self states in the opening gambit for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This “front line” brings a UK specific perspective to the wider Biennale theme, “Reporting from the Front”, chosen this year by Pritzker laureate Alejandro Aravena. Following a competition by the British Council, the three curators Jack Self, Shumi Bose and Finn Williams, have responded to this front in their exhibition titled Home Economics.

Home Economics views the crisis, not as one of housing, but rather as one of living. Therefore the exhibition proposes new 1:1 examples of how the home could be readdressed in light of contemporary needs. Williams expands on this, “We can flood the market with numbers of units, but they’re not necessarily going to be the kind of homes we actually need today. That’s why Home Economics isn’t about designing better layouts for existing tenures and typologies; it’s about proposing new models for domestic life.” This intention to propose new models is important, and we will come back to it.

As you approach the “Italianate English country house” that is the British Pavilion, an oversized gloss black front door appears to block the way. It’s the first of these 1:1 installations made to be experienced, and then read about. This one symbolises the letting go of traditional models of housing typologies, as we step inside the exhibition. Though curated by Self, Bose and Williams, the show is organised into a series of rooms by four other designers, speculating on how we might live in a new home for hours, days, months, years and decades.

Inside the first space, HOURS, is a common room designed by the three curators. Intended to be accessed by a number of dwellings, it is imagined to provide the amenity space for all of them, and is based on a project by Self, documented in the show’s accompanying catalogue. The parable of this room is to show how sharing leads to having more rather than less. More than this, Self states, “an obsession with individual ownership produces a poorer quality of life than collective ownership.” Items that we want, but don’t use all the time, hang in a central transparent wardrobe – a hoover, power tools and androgynous haute couture by fashion designer JW Anderson. Unfortunately the objects are locked away, becoming symbolic rather than enabling us to use them. Meanwhile low day beds – which many visitors do take advantage of – provide a flexible space to relax, charge your phone and talk to other occupants. This common room, of the type found in co-housing, is the most effective of the five spaces, especially in proposing how we can benefit from the sharing economy by using rather than owning.

Appropriately, moving clockwise around the spaces is the next increment of time, DAYS. This proposes how we might deal with existing housing stock and satisfy our addiction to smart phones with, of course, a rather retro inflatable Zorb. Created by the art collective Åyr, the room is at odds with the others, eschewing the use of sheet material and contemporary style in favour of colourful plastic spheres. Yet the proposal starts a familiar theme of these models having been used before, with the work of Haus-Rucker-Co and their Oase No. 7 a clear influence, alongside the travelling Suitaloon by Mike Webb. At least we are able to take part in this room, by climbing inside the spheres and logging on to free wifi, which is more than we can do with the core tenants of the other spaces.

In the Dogma and Black Square designed MONTHS room made entirely of Valchromat coloured MDF, the installation begins to feel like a Thomas Demand set. The austere and totemic proposal looks like a paper model which has been scaled up. Here a bedroom tower and reading room is held aloft by a bathroom and kitchen beneath. The ubiquitous cardboard-like materiality, and simple detailing further the model feeling – but also raise questions how wear and tear will affect the installation, with chips and scuffs already marking the unsealed, sawn edge MDF.

This model-like nature is key to the project, as Williams puts it “A successful solution is often unique. But a successful model is ubiquitous – the more it’s copied the stronger it gets. We hope some of our models will be copied, modified and adopted.” In MONTHS, the model aims to remove unpaid domestic labour from the home, and proposes to create a co-living space of dormitories. But again this model is already in practice, with The Collective, established in 2010, offering a fixed fee co-living room, with cleaning and linen included.

The YEARS room looks at the home from the perspective of a mortgage lender minimising the cost of a home, by stripping out anything that is not required – even the kitchen. Bose explains that this also enables residents to fully customise their space, since the only fixtures supplied are a toilet and basin. Meanwhile a customised mortgage, similar to a shared ownership scheme, minimises the up-front cost of the home. Julia King designed this room, and her company Naked House, founded in 2013, are currently realising this scheme in Enfield. The aim of this model is to limit the value on which a developer’s 20% profit is made. A great model, but one that has already been developed in numerous ways, such as Gus Zogolovich’s “Inhabit Homes” are already constructing at Blenheim Grove, which offer savings of up to 30% (albeit on £900,000 properties). Meanwhile Pocket Living, established in 2005, builds homes which are bought and sold at a value 20% below market rate (averaging £250,000), which is locked in for perpetuity. Indeed variations on this proposal are found elsewhere in the biennale, where proposals for “shell and core” are suggested for housing refugees in Germany by BeL Sozietät für Architektur, or the Full Fill Home by Anupama Kundoo Architects.

What is the best medium to distribute these models, architects, developers or via legislation? It’s a combination of all of them according to Williams, and this becomes especially pertinent in DECADES. Here the architectural practice Hesselbrand have designed a space that is not split into rooms, but rather areas of light and dark, wet and dry, soft and hard. It is uncannily like a home, with domestic datums such as ceiling heights, horizontal lighting, and doormats at every entrance. Its generic form suggests the diagrams for an economic and temporal requirement as part of Lifetime Homes or an additional building regulation Part S for economic longevity. Yet this is abstracted from a fully worked up proposal that is documented in the catalogue, clearly illustrating a home that can adapt to changes in your living patterns, and those of future occupants.

Aravena set a challenge to report from the front, but the British Pavilion ends up not being the front line of its chosen subject. With many of the “new models” it reports on having already been tested and in progress, if anything, it feels behind the times. The exhibition is dense with ideas. But none of them are explored far enough to pursue a truly new model. Because of this, the medium is at odds with the message. This is because the exhibition is intended to be read as models for further use, yet they are all parts of wider, pre-existing projects, which are thoroughly documented in the catalogue. As such, their possibilities have already been quenched by being real. The exhibition spaces become not models for proposals, but reductions of them. Their reality has allowed the cutting edge to move on.

At the same time, the experiential nature of the project is hampered by its attempt at making these established, specific models into general terms. The unplumbed toilets, uninhabited rooms and locked wardrobe make each room a museum piece to be looked at, but not touched. The spaces could be utilised as an AirBnB in order to discuss the sharing economy, or could themselves tackle the issues unearthed by research. These possibilities are played out in the wider Biennale, where a cinema made of insulation panels by Rural Studio will be used to rebuild social housing in the Venetian neighbourhood Casette, and the projects in the Austrian and Portuguese pavilions have both led to housing being built. Because of the earnest intention of Home Economics to make a wider difference, it misses the opportunity to make an actual difference.

It is a timely examination of contemporary domesticity, but falls short of opening up truly new models in this field.

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