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Labour MPs slam ministers for Venice Biennale no show

Jowell and Goodman condemn lack of support for British architecture

The government’s decision not to send any ministers to the opening of the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale has been condemned as ‘extraordinary’ by Labour.

Last week, director of architecture at the British Council Vicky Richardson, called it ‘extremely disappointing’ that neither housing minister Kris Hopkins nor culture minister Ed Vaizey would be attending the launch of the UK’s A Clockwork Jerusalem exhibition, which has a strong political theme.

The Department of Communities and Local Government said Hopkins had ‘Parliamentary business’ to attend last Thursday and Friday.

Vaizey – whose birthday was last Thursday – attended the Society of Chief Librarians seminar in Coventry that day and a telecommunications conference in Luxembourg on the Friday.

Shadow culture minister Helen Goodman said: ‘British architecture is among the best in the world. There is a lot of scope for exporting architectural services, and it is therefore extraordinary that government ministers do not support it when it is exhibiting internationally.’

Tessa Jowell, Labour’s culture secretary from 2001 to 2007, agreed.

She said: ‘It is a great pity that no government minister from the many relevant departments was able to find the time to support British architecture by visiting the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.’

The British Pavilion was visited instead last week by Aurélie Filippetti, the French minister of culture and communication.

Many other national pavilions enjoyed ministerial visits including those for countries as far away as New Zealand.

AJ editor Rory Olcayto last week wrote to the two ministers to challenge them on how they will respond (pictured below).

Richardson, who showed journalists and other dignitaries around the pavilion ahead of its official opening on Saturday said: ‘I know [they] tried and had the intention of coming. Parliament opened [yesterday] so we may have been a victim of timing. Kris Hopkins was certainly keen to come and see the show and talk to us about it. We do understand the constraints on MPs.’

The UK’s 2014 pavilion responds to the theme ‘Absorbing Modernity’ set by Dutch architect and Venice Biennale director Rem Koolhaas and contains messages about the lessons the UK can learn from previous eras in terms of proactive planning, housing and infrastructure.

Curated by FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians, the exhibition will explore the diverse cultural influences that shaped and were shaped by British Modernism in the post-war era and over the past 100 years.

Letter to Ed Vaizey over Venice Biennale no-show

Letter to Ed Vaizey over Venice Biennale no-show


Previous story (AJ 05.06.14)

UK ministers snub British Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2014

No UK ministers have plans to travel to Venice to visit the British Pavilion at this year’s architecture biennale

Director of architecture at the British Council, Vicky Richardson, called it ‘extremely disappointing’ that neither housing minister Kris Hopkins nor Ed Vaizey, the minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries would be attending.

It is understood Hopkins has been forced to stay in the UK because of a ‘three-line whip vote’ in the House of Commons, while Vaizey has other speaking commitments. It is also Vaizey’s birthday today (5 June).

Responding to accusations that Vaizey, the current architecture minister, was not as enthusiastic as Hopkins in attending the UK’s 2014 pavilion entitled ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’ a spokesman said: ‘It is neither true nor fair to suggest that Kris Hopkins was extremely keen to be there and not to say the same for Vaizey.

‘The reality is that Vaizey is already committed to speaking at other events (in Coventry and Luxembourg) today and tomorrow. Ed’s office went to great lengths to secure someone else for the British Council but, as you know, although Kris Hopkins agreed, he couldn’t get ‘slipped’ to excuse him from the vote.’ 

He added: ‘We asked if other dates would work for Ed to attend, but the British Council said they wanted someone specifically for the opening. We have left it with the British Council that they will give us some suggestions for other times that he could visit.’  

Meanwhile a spokesman from the Department of Communities and Local Government said: ‘[Hopkins] had wanted to attend the event, but unfortunately owing to Parliamentary business he is now unable to.

‘This government’s efforts are helping aspiring homeowners onto the property ladder and getting Britain building through locally lead, less bureaucratic and well-designed development.’

Despite the UK snub, French politician Aurélie Filippetti - the country’s Minister of Culture and Communication - has already taken a tour of the British Pavilion.

Richardson, who showed journalists and other dignitaries around the pavilion today ahead of its official opening on Saturday (7 June), said: ‘I know [they] tried and had the intention of coming. Parliament opened [yesterday] so we may have been a victim of timing. Kris Hopkins was certainly keen to come and see the show and talk to us about it. We do understand the constraints on MPs.’

The UK’s 2014 pavilion responds to the theme ‘Absorbing Modernity’ set by Dutch architect and Venice Biennale director Rem Koolhaas.

Curated by FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians, the exhibition will explore the diverse cultural influences that shaped and were shaped by British Modernism in the post-war era and over the last 100 years.

Previous story (AJ 01.06.14)

Venice Biennale 2014: first images of British Pavilion plans

The AJ can reveal the first visualisations of this year’s British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

The UK’s 2014 pavilion entitled ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’ is being curated by FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians, and responds to the theme ‘Absorbing Modernity’ set by Dutch architect and Biennale director Rem Koolhaas.

The exhibition will explore the diverse cultural influences that shaped and were shaped by British Modernism in the post-war era and over the last 100 years.

Outlining the plans to the AJ in March (see below), Sam Jacob of FAT Architecture said: ‘This year we are responding to a much stronger brief than normal – to talk about Modernism and modernity in Britain. We are most interested in a certain type of Modernism when it was at its most political and architectural – between 1955 and 1975. This period also contains the end of the movement.

‘It focuses on architecture as part of a gigantic process – the future of the country, society, and how we would like to live and work. It was a time of great public projects – the construction of a new kind of Britain. We are looking at Modernism not in terms of projects, but in the context of a culture which created them, and the surrounding stories. We are also interested in how these ideas and visions of architecture were communicated. So much was happening through propaganda and advertising. Interestingly, this shows how central architecture and planning were to mainstream society.’ 

The fourteenth international Venice Biennale entitled ‘Fundamentals’ will feature three ‘interlocking’ exhibitions – ‘Absorbing Modernity’, ‘Elements of Architecture’ and ‘Monditalia’. These topics have been assigned to each of the participating countries as a theme for their individual exhibitions and pavilions.

Among the 65 nations, participating in this year’s Biennale are eleven countries which have not had a presence before: Azerbaijan, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, New Zealand and Turkey.

In a change to tradition, Koolhaas’ biennale will start on 7 June instead of at the end of August, making the event run at least 12 weeks longer than usual, running through until 23 November.

Previous story (AJ 19.03.2014)

British Pavilion team explains Venice Biennale plans

FAT’s Sam Jacob and Vicky Richardson of the British Council on the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale

Tell me about the ideas for the British pavilion?
Sam Jacob This year we are responding to a much stronger brief than normal – to talk about Modernism and modernity in Britain. We are most interested in a certain type of Modernism when it was at its most political and architectural – between 1955 and 1975. This period also contains the end of the movement.

It focuses on architecture as part of a gigantic process – the future of the country, society, and how we would like to live and work. It was a time of great public projects – the construction of a new kind of Britain. We are looking at Modernism not in terms of projects, but in the context of a culture which created them, and the surrounding stories. We are also interested in how these ideas and visions of architecture were communicated. So much was happening through propaganda and advertising. Interestingly, this shows how central architecture and planning were to mainstream society. 

We want to give a different spin on what the ideas of modernism are

We want to give a different spin on what the ideas of modernism are. The theme is historical but we are trying to ask a question in the present sense.

Do you have any surprises up your sleeve?
Sam Jacob The story itself is surprising. The stories we have uncovered are interesting. It is a show about architecture but doesn’t particularly focus on architects or buildings. We are featuring things from Stonehenge to Cliff Richard. The timescale is huge.

Will it be provocative?
Vicky Richardson It will generate some debate. Not everyone will agree with it.
Sam Jacob
We would like it to provoke discussion and debate about our current situation.

Are any other architects involved?
Sam Jacob Lots – but they are mainly dead. There will be William Morris, Inigo Jones, Cedric Price, Reyner Banham and many more…

We have a desire for it not to be a show about us in the particular Biennale way.

Why is the exhibition titled ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’?
Sam Jacob
It comes from the term ‘A New Jerusalem’ which was used to describe the post-war sentiment. It refers to William Blake’s poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time. Blake was visionary. His words are bananas – yet they have become central to a vision of the UK. It is a socialist poem. We are talking about the Jerusalem of Blake and the welfare state. Clockwork comes from A Clockwork Orange. The title is supposed to look back.

You’re looking back at the past, but wouldn’t it be more useful to British architecture to showcase the emerging talent we have now?
Sam Jacob
It is not a responsibility of the Biennale to do that. We hope it will be a real contribution to British Architecture. It is much more about contributing to architectural culture and debate.

It will be both challenging and joyful

How do you think people will relate to this year’s British Pavilion?
Sam Jacob
Hopefully people will disagree with parts of it and agree with other parts. It confounds the normal story of architecture. It will be both challenging and joyful.

Most of the people who visit the Biennale are not architects, how will your ideas be communicated to them? How will it engage with the non-architect?
Sam Jacob
It is not the architecture which is the important part of our show. It includes books, films and posters. It is about architecture in the wider cultural context, offering ways into architecture.

What involvement does the British Council have?
Vicky Richardson The pavilion was given to the British Council in 1934, before it was owned by the government. Since then, we have been responsible for commissioning exhibitions. The brief for this Biennale is now seen as a research project. It has come from a statement from Rem Koolhaas about moving from a national architecture to an architecture of global characteristics. The pavilions were tasked with thinking about how Modernity shaped architecture in their country. We agreed with Koolhaas that there is a lack of direction in new architecture. There is nostalgia for Modernism.

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