British pavilion at Venice Biennale takes architecture beyond buildings
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“There is a reason, after all, that some people wish to colonise the moon,” wrote James Baldwin in 1972, “and others dance before it as an ancient friend.” This elision of the space programme with political events in the US has been adopted as the slogan — or at least the embarcation point — for this year’s British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, held under the aegis of the British Council.
Inspired by Baldwin’s idea, the curators — Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham — are, Kellay tells me, “aspiring to bask in the moonlight”. And not just bask: carnival is one of the biennale’s themes, so they are also looking to celebration and ritual for their cue in their exploration of the field of “spatial practice”.
“Spatial practice” has become a mechanism for architects, educators, academics and others to enlarge the world of architecture. The term suggests that all of us are involved in making spaces: at home, in the city, around us daily, even in our dreams and fears. This gives agency to individuals and communities often excluded by the academic jargon of architecture and its establishment, of which the Biennale is arguably often the epicentre.
“The making of space is not just a material pursuit,” says Ali. “It’s about soft infrastructural stuff — the financial levers, policy, politics, collectivisation, coming together.”
The curators are well placed to examine the field, given that they work in the peripheral neighbourhoods of architectural culture rather than in traditional practice. Henry, an urbanist and architect, has been an influential voice on housing and design in the Greater London Authority as well as a founder of Sound Advice, which explores the connections and communication between community, space and music. (He also brought banging youth music nights to the usually quiet halls of the V&A.) Ali is an interdisciplinary practitioner, educator and architect, and Upham and Kellay are both well-known curators, Kellay at the V&A.
Spatial practice, which grew out of academia, can sound as vague and as self-involved as architectural theory. These curators are determined to address that. “We’ve tried to do a show about how people collectivise around rituals,” says Henry.
Kellay continues the sentence: “And those rituals are the production of space. For instance, in Southall [in west London] we went to see tens of thousands of people gathering and food being distributed for free [at a Sikh festival]. It was an event that started with religion, but it became one about community and making space in the city.
“Dancing, for instance, or cooking,” she continues, “become tools for diasporic communities to build and hold space. It contains their past, their present and their future and it’s those social practices we want to celebrate.”
One of the first things that visitors will see on the exterior of the pavilion is an installation by Ali that builds on his Trinidadian and Cypriot heritage; it features hammered steel to represent both tin pan drums and Cypriot cooking pans. “It comes from the messiness of opposites, the realities of the world we live in, a conflicted society where beautiful things happen, those moments of hybridity and tension,” he says.
In the main hall, a new film about the importance of community and ritual to Britain plays, while individual galleries have been taken over by six UK-based artists. Among them are Yussef Agbo-Ola of Olaniyi Studio, who makes textiles into architectural skins, and Madhav Kidao of Nebbia Works, who has created an immersive space. The British-Caribbean designer Mac Collins has made a sculpture, while the pavilion’s film features a pub in his hometown, Nottingham, centring on dominoes, a popular game in the British-Caribbean community. Meanwhile, Sandra Poulson, an artist of Angolan heritage, has made an installation inspired by the rituals — even smells — of outdoor washing in Luanda, where she grew up.
This attempt to showcase immigration and the cross-pollination of cultures sits within the stiff neoclassical British pavilion — a difficult space to programme and one built at the height of empire in 1909. “You can’t shy away from the building,” Ali says. “But we’re all British and are attempting to develop a dialogue with it while also trying to break free from it.”
Isn’t it hard to capture such intangible themes and ideas in a physical space? “We’re asking what would happen if you were able to transform or capture those rituals in objects,” Henry replies. “We took the budget — very modest, I’m allowed to say that, aren’t I?” — he looks at the British Council representative — “and empowered these artists to conduct their crafts.”
And they’re not just aiming at architects and Biennale-goers, Kellay points out: “This is also a park used by Venetians and most of the people coming here will be students and kids from nearby. We want to allow people to enjoy it in a visceral, immersive way. It’s all about humans, not buildings.”
At this point Ali begins to look a little fidgety. “Well,” he says, “it’s in the Architecture Biennale . . . ” He clarifies: “Some of these fragments are at an architectural scale, they act almost as building elements . . . The installation in the portico is both suspended from and supported by the structure. It would not exist without the support and the infrastructure of Britain and the old building.”
As Ali suggests, perhaps the point is interdependence. Immigrant communities often create spaces with minimal resources and maximum resourcefulness. To place examples of these in the formal halls of the British pavilion is a poetic reflection on adaptation, accommodation and the irrepressible traces of culture and renewal.