Venice Biennale Curator Series: Britain

by | 04. Apr 2016

Article | Exhibitions and Events | Interview | Venice Biennale

2016 British Pavilion Curatorial Team: Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams. Photo by James O Jenkins and courtesy of the British Council

Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams have been selected as the curatorial team for this year’s British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. In response to Biennale curator, Alejandro Aravena’s call for proposals under the theme ‘Reporting from the Front’, the team proposed the exhibition ‘Home Economics’, a reflection on the home as the contemporary frontline of British architecture. arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, recently sat down with them to find out more about the concept behind the pavilion as part of an ongoing series Venice Biennale interview series.

Robert Martin: Shumi, Jack and Finn – I’d like to thank all of you for giving up your time to talk to arcspace and also congratulate you on being selected for the role as curators of the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. First of all, I’d just like to ask how the working relationship between you three occurred? Have you worked on previous projects together?

Shumi Bose: We have known each other for several years, although we haven’t had the opportunity to work together in a sustained manner before. Jack and I met at the Architectural Association in 2010, where Jack initiated Fulcrum, one of the most successful student publications on architecture and its broader contexts, and for which I was part of the editorial board. Funnily, I met Finn at the Venice Biennale in 2012, when I was co-curator of the main exhibition Common Ground, under the direction of the British architect David Chipperfield. More recently, Jack and I edited a little book called Real Estates: Life without Debt (Bedford Press, 2014), in which Finn was one of the interviewees. Home Economics was a great opportunity to join our converging interests.

RM: We’ve seen an abundance of biennales starting to pop up all over the world with the most recent being held in Chicago last year. What do you think is the specific role of the Venice Architecture Biennale in contemporary society?

SB: There are, as you say, an ever increasing number of architecture biennales, which we think reflects a growing public engagement with the built environment and the forces – creative, cultural, social and economic – which inform it. However, the Venice Biennale as the oldest and most prestigious example, occupies a special place in setting the international discourse for architecture. Unlike art biennales and expos, the architecture biennale has nothing for sale, as such – it’s more a platform for ideas. Ever since the first architectural exhibition in 1976 (with the first dedicated architecture biennale in 1980), La Biennale has set a critical and interrogatory tone in terms of how architectural practice reflects and informs the world at large; furthermore, the Venice Biennale is the most internationally comprehensive and prominent platform for these discussions.

Finn Williams: At the same time, we’re conscious that this global biennale circuit only represents a fraction of the architecture industry, and an even smaller fraction of what is actually happening in the built environment around the world. We’re keen to use the platform that the Venice Architecture Biennale offers to break out of these circles and engage with the widest possible audience, not just in Venice but back in the UK.

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Home Economics #1, 210×297mm, OK-RM and Matthieu Lavanchy, 2016

RM: The overall theme set by the biennale director and 2016 Pritzker Prize laureate, Alejandro Aravena, is “reporting from the front”. From an international perspective, Britain has one of the strongest economies in the world, is a well-functioning democracy and has liberal welfare provisions. However, in a global context, we can see huge problems in other regions to do with mass migration, war, megacities, poverty, etc. In this context, why do you see the “front” in Britain is ‘the home’?

Jack Self: I don’t think Aravena’s theme is intended to create a world ranking of national problems. It’s not a competition to highlight the greatest poverty or most brutal conflict. Rather, I think Aravena believes that global society, and thus international architecture, is an emergent condition stemming from regional specificities (and not a universal condition applied unevenly around the world). In Britain we have a strong economy, healthy democracy and liberal welfare precisely because we spent four centuries producing a plentiful, inexpensive, high-quality, equitable and standardised stock of housing. Modern Britain became possible only after the invention of the terrace house. The last few decades has seriously undermined that legacy: our economy collapsed as a result of a housing crash; our democracy sold all the social housing to benefit a few people, and the government continues to artificially constrict the supply of new homes. The depth and speed of the UK’s welfare cuts, particularly the “bedroom tax” penalising public renters, must surely be famous by now. So the home, and housing, are central to British life and our struggle to preserve living standards for ourselves and future generations.

RM: In your exhibition text you state that there has been a failure of traditional housing models to accommodate new patterns of domestic life. It is highly documented that there has been a steady decline of the nuclear family unit now for the past few decades and is slowly being replaced by new forms of family units and living situations. Why do you think the housing market hasn’t been able to react effectively to this?

FW: Well, I would say the housing market in Britain has started to adapt to these new domestic structures, but only really through the conversion, extension and subdivision of existing properties. Meanwhile the mainstream new build market has singularly failed to keep pace – and I would argue that’s a reflection of how dependent we are in the UK on a small number of large housebuilders, who are in turn dependent on risk-averse finance. I think it’s important to recognise how influential finance is on the form of new homes, whether through private investment or public subsidy. Those investors are looking to minimise their risk. For the housebuilders, it is easier to roll out tried-and-tested housing types that have already been approved by planners, built, and sold before. The whole model errs against innovation. On the other hand private landlords, independent developers, or self-builders can respond to the failures of the market more quickly. There’s a new generation of smaller developers like The Collective, Fizzy Living, HUB and Naked House who are already challenging traditional housing models – but it will take a while for the likes of Barratt, Bellway, Ballymore, and the banks, to catch up.

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Home Economics #2, 210×297mm, OK-RM and Matthieu Lavanchy, 2016

RM: The exhibition is investigating the changing rhythms and patterns of life through a series of five architectural propositions designed around incremental amounts of time: HOURS, DAYS, MONTHS, YEARS and DECADES, with each proposal occupying one of the five rooms of the British Pavilion. Each of these rooms has been described as an immersive 1:1 environment with no architectural instruments such as plans or scale drawings being displayed. Is there a reason you’ve moved away from traditional forms of architectural media to communicate your ideas?

JS: Architectural drawing is a highly specialised, professional type of communication. Architects sometimes forget that the overwhelming majority of people cannot read a plan – in fact, even for those who can just about muddle through they rarely understand anything meaningful about the design of space. It seemed important to us to pursue a language that was general; our audience is really the public, not just the world of architecture. Full-scale interiors (even those which have been abstracted) don’t need explanation. The way you engage with them is the proposition. This isn’t to say we have everywhere abandoned architecture: our catalogue includes these types of drawings – targeted more specifically at designers – because this is the only way to present a truly architectural project.

RM: You’ve had a series of artworks commissioned to accompany the exhibition which are quite provocative and polemic. One even states “Without unpaid domestic labour the family ceases to exist” Could you elaborate a bit more on this?

JS: The idea behind the artworks was to use press interest before the exhibition to both prime the audience, but to publicise a specific agenda. We want to question social norms and bring concerns (social and gender equality, or worker exploitation) to the fore. With specific regards to unpaid domestic labour: a singleton is not a family. But even in the couple (which is increasingly the new family), if I paid my wife to do my laundry, or paid her to vacuum, she would become my employee. This would establish a profound power unbalance in our family. In fact, the family is based on the idea of affective labour, which is work done out of love. My wife doesn’t pair my socks for any other reason than that she loves me. I drop off and collect her dry cleaning for the same reason. This unpaid domestic labour is the basis of family, and in these examples it is equitable, reciprocated and positive. But in many cases it is exploitative. In fact, “domestic” comes from “domus,” which means “the place of discipline” (the home). Hence domination, dominion and domestication. So the family is also the product of intense violence. When the head(s) of a family can no longer discipline the members into reciprocal ties of free labour, the family falls apart…

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Home Economics #3, 210×297mm, OK-RM and Matthieu Lavanchy, 2016

RM: Through the Venice Fellowship Programme, 50 students from the UK will contribute their ideas to the discussion about the architecture of the home. You all have backgrounds in teaching – is it important to you that students are having an integrated role in this year’s pavilion? How do you intend to incorporate this work into your exhibition?

SB: We think it is indeed vital to involve the next generation of practitioners in our programme. Rather than being purely critical or reflective of past projects and processes, our exhibition is definitely one which is forward-facing, looking at conditions of the near future. Therefore it is essential to engage and listen to the opinions of those who will shape the built environments of the tomorrow.

We have involved a few students and recent graduates in the development and research of our Pavilion, as well as sharing and presenting our themes and concerns in the institutions where we teach on a few occasions. Furthermore, for our Public Programme – which will continue in Britain during and after the Biennale itself – we’re planning a series of special lectures related to the themes of Home Economics, to be delivered at various higher educational institutions within the UK.

The Fellowship programme, initiated by the British Council in 2014, invites 50 students from architecture schools across the UK to participate in the presentation and performance of the Pavilion itself throughout the duration of the Biennale. In addition to engaging and guiding visitors, the fellows will also be set individual and group research projects on the themes of Home Economics during their time in Venice.

RM: You’re exploring the theme of the “home” through a diverse range of non-architectural industry partners. Is inviting collaborators from fields including hoteliers and financial institutions a way of expanding/forcing the discussion outside of the architectural profession? Do you think this expanded view is where the answers to future architectural questions lay?

FW: We’re realistic about the influence of architects on the form of residential development in the UK today. You’re not going to challenge or change that form of development just through architects speaking to architects on an island in Italy. That’s why we wanted to use the platform of the Venice Biennale to engage the wider development industry – both through the partnerships we’ve set up, and through events we’re planning to hold back in Britain over the six months of the exhibition. We see these questions about the way our homes are financed, about the wording of government policy, or the terms and conditions of platforms like Airbnb, as important fields for architectural design. That’s not to say we shouldn’t also be concerned with the best way to detail a window – but there is no point designing the perfect solution to the wrong brief.

RM: Thanks Shumi, Jack and Finn for giving up your time and providing some more insight into your intentions for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016.

The British Pavilion has been made possible by the British Council. Read more about their contribution here is run by the Danish Architecture Centre, who is also commissioner for the Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Read more about the Danish pavilion 2016 here