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Journeymen architects

For Venice Takeaway, the British Council’s pavilion at last year’s Biennale, 10 UK architectural teams scoured the world to discover ‘Ideas to Change British Architecture’. Merlin Fulcher reassesses the exhibition on its return to RIBA in London

The British Council’s Venice Takeaway concept for the Venice Architecture Biennale tackles the existential crisis of global exploration head-on. Google Earth, Wikipedia and Flickr have made quick and cost-effective research a few clicks away. Budget flights have simultaneously blurred the distinction between physical research and tourism, meaning architecture schools are increasingly accused of behaving like travel agencies. Surface understanding is superlative, yet shallow interaction now hampers genuine knowledge exchange.

The exhibition’s relocation to the RIBA provides an opportunity to evaluate its success

Sending a handful of teams to scour the world for innovation and return with ‘Ideas to Change British Architecture’ optimistically places activism at centre stage in transforming these moribund relations to the world. The exhibition’s relocation from the British Pavilion in Venice to the RIBA in London provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate its success.

Our critical analysis of journeying starts with Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG’s exploration of the Centre for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles. In a bid to replicate the centre’s unique terrestrial focus and set up a British Exploratory Land Archive, the team launched an ambitious survey of 79 UK amenity clubs and land use societies, from the Kent Field Club to Subterranea Britannica, a society for the study of man-made underground structures. While the armoury of Heath Robinson-style contraptions for measuring earth’s gullies and contours appears fanciful, the team’s plan to launch a nationwide repository of sites by 2014 is not only achievable, but also proof of architects’ social and organisational inventiveness.

Compare this to Aberrant Architecture’s investigation into Rio de Janeiro’s prefabricated primary schools. Conceived by Darcy Ribeiro and Oscar Niemeyer with the then state governor, Leonel Brizola, the Integrated Centres of Public Education of the early 1980s were planned to cover the entire country, until Brizola failed in his bid for the presidency. Aberrant’s conclusion is to pitch for a new ‘global standard’ of school design, coupled with a somewhat naïve hope that the UK government might launch an open architectural competition. While studding the country with starchitect-designed primaries might inspire some, a toolkit to win political support for design would do more to change British architecture than this fantasy.

Measured optimism is spoiled by crystal ball-gazing

Similar doubts concern Elias Redstone’s study of ‘fideicomiso’ housing in Buenos Aires, where a deep and prolonged economic downturn has seen architects sidestep developers and, under fideicomiso legal trusts, become the new initiators of projects. This earnest inquiry proposes that by 2014 enterprise zones with fideicomiso-friendly permitted development rights could spring up across the UK. The measured optimism is, however, spoiled by the crystal ball-gazing suggestion that: ‘David Kohn Architects, an early supporter of fideicomiso [will be] inundated with potential investors wanting a Kohn-designed apartment.’

This is not to say achievable aims alone validate the explorers’ recommendations. For example, dRMM’s study of Dutch floating houses inspired plans to see a Royal Docks pilot win outline planning by 2014. While eminently viable – Boris Johnson has recently announced plans for more than 800 homes on stilts in the same spot – the imaginative proposal is let down by its failure to acknowledge Studio Egret West’s already consented floating leisure project for the site, or give the wider UK profession a role in the pilot. Ross Anderson and Anna Gibb’s documentation of Russia’s Paper Architecture raises similar problems. An online ‘focal point for discussion’ based on the subversive Soviet architects’ fantasy competition entries could be launched in a day. But ensuring a contrived online space doesn’t inadvertently marginalise architects from real debates is harder. Anderson and Gibb’s George Square charrette for young Glaswegian architects appears otherwise promising, although supporting images would be helpful.

The self-critical analysis of architects’ global image by Public Works, Urban Projects Bureau and Owen Pritchard offers a stark comparison. Here a modest attempt to decode architects’ self-image as agents of world progress prompted a wider debate about the profession’s future. Pritchard’s solution is to launch an open charter think-tank which would ‘clarify, critique and act’ on issues impacting architects. Such a gambit reflects wryly on RIBA, which beneath its layers of pomp and circumstance boils down to a similar simple mission.

The inevitable sense of tourism is made worse by reliance on holiday snap-style photos

Few of these projects will be successful in the real world, nevertheless viewers can learn as much from those which succeed as those that fail. The curators have taken a big risk coupling post-colonial adventure to a creative cult rife with overseas jollies for the ‘people who know people’. The inevitable sense of tourism, perhaps more grating in London than Venice, is made worse by exhibitors’ heavy reliance on holiday snap-style photos and poorly edited film to present their findings. Few people truly enjoy friends’ holiday albums, so why the casual public would lock themselves into a two and half hour video fest in the name of architecture is hard to fathom. Is this really the sort of ‘takeaway’ activism the curators envisaged or just another form of rapid gratification? Can, for example, a video showing dRMM aimlessly cruising the Royal Docks on a watering can and plant-bedecked raft – proudly displayed in Portland Place’s lobby – appear anything other than smug, alienating and irrelevant to people yet to meet the profession? When I visit on the day after the exhibition’s opening, I seek answers from other visitors – but the show is abandoned save a solitary retired architect. His and many others’ onward journeys, whether real or metaphysical, will be the test for this activism’s appeal.

Venice Takeaway: Ideas to change British architecture, RIBA, London W1, until 27 April, free

 

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