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The Venice Biennale British Pavilion remains steadfastly London-centric

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According to Emily Campbell, head of design and architecture at the British Council, Britain has an ‘expanding cast of architects held in high regard internationally’ (AJ 28.08.08). They will not be represented in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which will once again grandstand a small coterie of London practices.

Back in 2005, Peter Cook, curator of 2004’s 9 Positions show at Venice, said architectural quality ‘drops like a stone’ outside London. This view appears to be shared by the British Council. A pity, for many architects outside London are held in high regard internationally.

What is bewildering is that the British Council continues to punt its efforts as representing ‘British’ architecture. Worse, their last two Venice shows were exceedingly dull.
Responding to criticism that 9 Positions was too London-centric, the British Council invited regionally based ideas for 2006. They chose Sheffield University’s Jeremy Till to curate. His ‘urban register’ however, was impenetrable. The British Council had done its bit; the regions just weren’t up to it – back to the status quo…

This year the Council will exhibit more London architects who all work within walking distance of each other and who show limited experience of building housing in Britain. Yet the British Council insists that 2008 will address the ‘national’ question of post-war reconstruction and ‘Britain’s housing challenge’. But only in London it seems…

Take Manchester, for example. The regeneration of the city – a consequence of an IRA bomb which tore away large parts of the city centre – is inspirational, with much new housing. But no Manchester architect will be represented in 2008.

According to curator Ellis Woodman, Home/Away: Five Architects Build Housing in Britain and Europe, will explore the roots of the British obsession with home ownership and the long-term domination of housing by private developers in the UK. But this is an obsession that is not general. In Scotland, and in particular Glasgow, people relied on social rather than private housing. Glasgow’s plans for the regeneration of the Clyde was held up for years as the city wrestled with the burden of its decaying stock of social housing.

Only when the city was freed from the financial overhang through the creation of the Glasgow Housing Association was it able to focus on other strategic issues. Campbell says: ‘The world would be short-changed by not seeing what Britain has learned.’ Regrettably, for Campbell and the British Council the world ends at Camden.

This year, a new debate on architecture will take place in Barcelona on 22-24 October, at the World Architecture Festival (WAF). Architects from Britain’s major cities have made it on to the international shortlists for the WAF Awards. Their work has been selected by a jury of world-renowned architects and did not involve the British Council. So, I’m off to Barcelona and not to Venice this year.

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