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Commissioning the British Pavilion

Venice Biennale 2014: Vicky Richardson on commissioning the British Pavilion

Thanks to Rem Koolhaas’ insistence that he needed longer to develop the Venice Architecture Biennale as a newly framed global research exhibition, we’ve been working on the British Pavilion for nearly 18 months. The 2012 British Pavilion exhibition, Venice Takeaway, anticipated the move towards Venice as an opportunity for research. In fact, for some time many national pavilions have abandoned the conventional model of merely promoting their best architects, and so it was the right time for Koolhaas to declare this an exhibition about ‘architecture, not architects’.

As commissioners, our task was to write the brief and select a curator for the pavilion. In the open competition we launched last year, A Clockwork Jerusalem immediately stood out for its brilliant title. It can be understood in several different ways and captures the essence of the argument put forward by FAT (Sam Jacob) and Crimson (Wouter Vanstiphout). It connects British architecture with our wider literary, artistic and musical traditions and suggests that the origins of a British form of Modernism lie well before the Jazz Age and Le Corbusier’s Domino House of 1914.

Language continued to be an important part of the show as it developed, and the curators came up with other hybrid expressions that challenge many preconceptions about British Modernism. FAT and Crimson have uncovered stories, people and places that are rarely considered. They have gone beyond the focus on certain fashionable Modernist projects to make unexpected links and to discover the sources of inspiration for forgotten places, such as Manchester’s Hulme Crescents.

A Clockwork Jerusalem is not just significant because of its content. It’s a collaboration between a British architect and a Dutch historian, and it has allowed the development of a set of ideas that their two firms originally worked on together in 2008 for the regeneration of the Dutch town of Hoogvliet (AJ 08.12.08). The exhibition is also FAT’s final project, as the three partners go their separate ways after 20 years of ‘playful Postmodernism’ (to use the AJ’s expression).

But, despite being the end of the road for FAT, the best thing about A Clockwork Jerusalem is its optimism. If you want to understand where British Modernism came from and, more importantly, find new, equally ambitious solutions for a future British architecture, ‘release the imagination’, say Jacob and Vanstiphout.

Vicky Richardson is director architecture, design, fashion at the British Council

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