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Venice Biennale spat points to a deeper rift in architectural culture

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Jacob and Hatherley represent the two standpoints in British architecutral culture, writes Rory Olcayto

News that Owen Hatherley and Sam Jacob could not agree a curatorial approach for the British Pavilion at Venice this year is disappointing but not really surprising. Their world views are, in fact, poles apart.

The surprise was, in retrospect, that they managed to come together in the first place, to wave the British flag at what is still the only architecture biennale than anyone’s really interested in.

How so? Jacob and Hatherley are two of the best writers on architecture we have. Sam was a regular columnist in these pages for a couple of years. He makes apparently lightweight subjects - like the foamy toppings on a Starbucks coffee or the iconography in Roadrunner cartoons - feel heavy and serious, but reading his thoughts is always a joy: it’s accessible, funny, pop-culty stuff. The impression given is one of someone interested in everything, and someone able to see the value in everything, too.

Hatherley, on the other hand, is way more old-school; Hatherley is a polemicist: he’s famous for his raging stomp around Britain’s city centres decrying the barcode facadism of buy-to-let rubbish and vacuous landmark trophy architecture commissioned during the Blair years and detailed in his Ian Nairn-inspired A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Four years old now, it’s still essential reading and still the most succinct take on British architecture you’ll find on the shelves. Perhaps more importantly, he is a passionate advocate for Modernism as a force for good, a framework in which to structure a fairer society.

This divergence between Jacob and Hatherley is actually quite important. On the one hand, Jacob takes pleasure in exploring processes and a multiplicity of viewpoints, yet refuses to be drawn to conclusions. A favourite formulation of his, which neatly sidesteps commitment, goes: ‘we might call this X’ or ‘we might say that X means Y’. On the other hand, Hatherley is never fuzzy about what he thinks: a typical Comment is Free headline reads: ‘If we don’t want to live in shoeboxes, we need to bring back housing standards’. It’s important not in terms of who gets to sip wine in June with Venice Biennale director Rem Koolhaas and the British Council. It’s important because it represents the two standpoints in contemporary British architectural culture: context, and ‘fuck context’, as Koolhaas (most definitely) said. Which side are you on?

Space standards

News that space standards are under threat because the Housing Standards Review has failed to make them compulsory is worrying - and London is likely to suffer the most. Not only does it undermine Mayor Boris Johnson’s drive to set a minimum, it will no doubt lead more unscrupulous housebuilders to claim they are building smaller to keep prices down and, as those same housebuilders know, Londoners will pay good money for shoeboxes.

In praise of … Duggan Morris

Duggan Morris’s new office scheme in Shoreditch is a major leap forward for the still-young practice (it’s just 10 years old this year). Not only have Mary, Joe and their talented studio team waved goodbye to what was beginning to feel like an obsession with brick (their own house, their housing schemes, their New Learning Centre), they’ve transitioned to a more ballsy, expressive style.
The Curtain Road facade is pure class: slick glass units in what looks like laser-cut corrugated mesh panels apparently floating above a retained Georgian facade of … brick. Context? Or Fuck Context? Duggan Morris is having both!

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Readers' comments (3)

  • fuck physical/aesthetic context, embrace spatial, social and cultural context

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  • By accepting to work on the British Pavilion in Venice, Hatherley has confirmed his "armchair radical who'll never really be a threat to anyone and won't rock anyone's boat" status.

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  • not sure i follow your logic Urbanist. could you explain? cheers, rory

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