Wednesday23 August 2017

British Pavilion takes Jerusalem to Venice

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First images of FAT and Crimson’s biennale exhibition unveiled

Images of the British pavilion at Venice have been unveiled ahead of the opening of the biennale this week.

This year’s British pavilion, titled A Clockwork Jerusalem, has been curated by Sam Jacob, of FAT, and Wouter Vanstiphout, of Crimson Architectural Historians. It was commissioned by the British Council.

Their response to the theme, Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, set by biennale director Rem Koolhaas, explores how a specifically British form of modernity emerged from the aftermath of the industrial revolution.

It focuses on large-scale projects from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, “the late, last flowering of radical British Modernism: the moment it was at its most socially, politically and architecturally ambitious but also the moment that witnessed its collapse”.

The exhibition features pastoral scenes and post-war housing, Cliff Richard and portraits of Joy Division taken by Kevin Cummins on Manchester’s Hulme estate – and concrete cows imported specially from Milton Keynes.

This year’s biennale, which opens on Saturday, also features first-time pavilions from New Zealand and Antarctica. It is the first time an entire continent has been represented at Venice and brings together architects and artists including Zaha Hadid and Hugh Broughton to explore present and future models of living in Antarctica.

Meanwhile, the winner of this year’s Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement is Phyllis Lambert, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal who played a pivotal role in the Seagram Building.

Koolhaas said: “Not as an architect, but as a client and custodian, Phyllis Lambert has made a huge contribution to architecture. Without her participation, one of the few realisations in the 20th century of perfection on earth – the Seagram Building in New York – would not have happened.

“Her creation of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal combines rare vision with rare generosity to preserve crucial episodes of architecture’s heritage and to study them under ideal conditions. Architects make architecture; Phyllis Lambert made architects.”


Introduction to the British Pavilion

- Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout

A Clockwork Jerusalem explores how a specifically British form of modernity emerged from the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. It explores how responses to the industrial city combined with traditions of the romantic, sublime and pastoral to create new visions of British society. These visions looked simultaneously backwards and forwards, and combined in one sweep, science fiction and historicism to form ideological and aesthetic approaches to the contemporary city.

The Industrial Revolution set in motion enormous changes in the physical, social and economic landscape of Britain. A particularly British response developed in return. For example, the strange text of William Blake’s Jerusalem railed against the ‘Satanic mills’ and merged religious visions and paganism into dreams of social reform. Jerusalem, the stirring unofficial second national anthem – sung by socialists, suffragettes, and patriots alike – can be thought of as the founding text of British modernity. From it, springs a narrative of struggle with the forces driving modernity, which echoes down the centuries.

The long-standing British cultural interests and obsessions found within Jerusalem were absorbed into the body of continental Modernism to make it as much a product of the Picturesque, of landscape, of narrative, of pastoralism (a tradition of Capability Brown, John Ruskin, William Turner and Sir John Soane) as it was a product of the industrial and technological (the tradition of Isambard Brunel, Joseph Paxton and Spitfires). Indeed, British Modernism was shaped into a unique and sometimes surreal phenomenon, evoked in the New Jerusalem of post-war reconstruction. The obsession with these interests is written into the visions of techno-pastoralism that span such diverse examples as Garden Cities, Non-Plan and Milton Keynes.

A Clockwork Jerusalem describes a world where ruins become utopias, where history is written to alter the future, where archeology and futurism merge, the Picturesque is rebooted as concrete geometry, the pastoral is electrified and where pop culture, history and social ambition fuse into ways of imagining new national futures.

Taking large-scale projects of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies as a point of departure, the exhibition explores the late, last flowering of radical British Modernism: the moment it was at its most socially, politically and architecturally ambitious but also the moment that witnessed its collapse. It is a period that saw both epic ambition and a complete loss of nerve. The grand utopian projects of this period were a high point for a vision of society that was being remade through modern architecture.

In parallel to this, the exhibition also tells the story of how these modern visions were absorbed into the popular imagination. They became the sites of new imaginative speculations in the form of novels, films and music that both documented the experience of modernity and also propelled futuristic visions into the mainstream in ways that still resonate today.

Ranging from Stonehenge to council estates, Ebenezer Howard to Cliff Richard, ruins and destruction to back-to-the-land rural fantasies through architecture, records, books and adverts; from William Blake’s Jerusalem to the New Jerusalem of the post-war welfare state, and into the landscapes that this created, A Clockwork Jerusalem explores the culture and products of British modernity as an architectural project and as a wider cultural experience.

This tradition is still relevant now that our cities and regions face issues of unequal development, affordability of housing and social tensions, while public planning and architecture seem unable to convincingly address these challenges. What is needed are not simple solutions, but new visions, new dreams, a new Jerusalem to mobilise architects, politicians, activists and developers. The attitudes and imagination that characterise the architecture and planning described in A Clockwork Jerusalem can be the starting point for new visions of Britain to face the challenges of 21st-century modernity, as we attempt to answer once again Howard’s central question: ‘The People: Where Will They Go?’



Readers' comments (7)

  • Andrew Jones

    Forty-five year old ideas 'borrowed' from Terry Gilliam?

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  • - which nobody except British visitors will understand anyway.

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  • Looks more like Barbican in a circus Bath scrapbook - and rather amateurish at that!

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  • Less is more and FAT is bore

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  • @ Sophia Psarra - I agree, but Sam Jacobs is one of those people (Piers Gough is another) of whom you'll never hear anything bad. This is Britain, and in Britain there is a class of people who are beyond criticism.

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  • @urbanist, I should perhaps rephrase and say that the ideas do not sound very original, but I think there can be some sophisticated answer to this too, which is debatable though. Fresh views into the past can help define fresh approaches for the future, and this for me should be the message in a good exhibition, how to inspire people.

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  • what the Brits don't seem to have realised is that this is an *international" exhibition. If this load of crap is what British architecture currently has to contribute to the international exchange of ideas, then we're in a World Cup type of situation.

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