Venice Biennale 2014: Inside the British Pavilion
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A Clockwork Jerusalem explores how a specifically British form of modernity emerged from the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. It explores how responses to the industrial city combined with traditions of the romantic, sublime and pastoral to create new visions of British society. These visions looked simultaneously backwards and forwards, combining in one sweep science fiction and historicism to form ideological and aesthetic approaches to the contemporary city.
The industrial revolution set in motion waves of rapid change across the physical, social and economic landscapes of Britain. A particularly British response developed in return: the strange text of William Blake’s Jerusalem railed against the Satanic mills merging religious visions and paganism into dreams of social reform. Jerusalem, the stirring, unofficial second English national anthem - sung by socialists, suffragettes and patriots alike - can be thought of as the founding text of British modernity. From it springs a narrative of struggle with the forces of modernity that echoes down the centuries.
These long-standing British cultural interests and obsessions were absorbed into the body of continental Modernism to create something that made it as much a product of the Picturesque, of landscape, of narrative, of Pastoralism (a tradition of Capability Brown, Ruskin, Turner, Soane) as it was a product of the industrial and technological (the tradition of Brunel, Paxton and Spitfires).
British Modernism was shaped into a unique and sometimes surreal phenomenon evoked in the New Jerusalem of post-war reconstruction. Obsessions with these interests are written into the visions of this techno-Pastoralism that span such diverse examples as the Garden Cities, Non-Plan and Milton Keynes.
A Clockwork Jerusalem describes a world where ruins become utopias, where history is written to alter the future, where archeology and futurism merge, the Picturesque is rebooted as concrete geometry, the pastoral is electrified, where pop culture, history and social ambition fuse into ways of imagining new national futures.
Taking large-scale projects of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as a point of departure, the exhibition explores the late, last flowering of radical British Modernism: the moment it was at its most socially, politically and architecturally ambitious, but also the moment that witnessed its collapse. It is a period that sees both epic ambition and complete loss of nerve. The grand utopian projects of this time were a high point for a vision of society remade through modern architecture.
In parallel, the exhibition tells the story of how these modern visions were absorbed into the popular imagination. They became the sites of new imaginative speculations in the form of novels, film and music that both documented the experience of modernity and propelled futuristic visions into the mainstream in ways that still resonate today.
From Stonehenge to council estates, from Ebenezer Howard to Cliff Richard, from ruins and destruction to back-to-the-land rural fantasies, through architecture, records, books and adverts. From William Blake’s Jerusalem to the New Jerusalem of the post-war welfare state and into the landscapes that it created, A Clockwork Jerusalem explores the culture and products of British modernity as an architectural project and as a wider cultural experience.
The attitudes and imagination that characterise the architecture and planning described by A Clockwork Jerusalem can act as starting points for new visions of Britain to face the challenges of 21st-century modernity, as we answer once again Howard’s central question: ‘The People: Where Will They Go?’
The steps to the pavilion are flanked by two concrete cows, on loan and shipped from Milton Keynes. The cows are stationed at either side of the entrance in the manner of Venetian lions, bestowing a grand significance on the 1960s new town’s most famous inhabitants, unofficial mascots and the butt of many a joke. In Venice they stand as a tribute not only to the imagination of the town’s designers, but also to its inhabitants.
A utopia of ruins
British architecture has had a long-standing affinity with ruins and rubble. Ruins, in fact, have often gone hand-in-hand with modernisation: the romantic ruination of John Soane’s Bank of England imagined by Joseph Gandy; the sculpting of slum clearance rubble into a green mound at the heart of the Boundary Estate; and the bomb sites of the Second World War, from which social reformers and architects imagined a new Britain arising. The image, idea and possibility of ruins were fused with Modernist ideals to create a new architectural language for projects such as a rusticated megastructure at the Barbican.
As much as modern architecture framed narratives of optimism, it also became the site of much darker visions. In the Hulme estate photographer Kevin Cummins found the perfect setting for his portrait of Joy Division. Saying ‘the space in the photograph was like the space in their music’, Cummins indelibly marries the band’s aesthetic with the architecture and landscape of Hulme.
In 1974, just two years after the completion of the Hulme Crescents, safety issues led the council to declare Hulme unsuitable for families. This spawned a spectacular second life as a gathering place for youth subculture. Increasingly lawless, it became a squat of gigantic proportions, housing students, artists, musicians and other bohemian lifestyles. This flyer for a new age traveller party came near the end of Hulme’s short life: by 1994, it had been demolished.
The introduction of mass automobility and American car culture to the UK didn’t wipe out the idiosyncrasies of British architecture. Rather, it enriched and intensified them. Huge concrete interchanges became the kinetic megaliths of the post-war era. In Cumbernauld town centre, Geoffrey Copcutt merged references to Minoan citadels (perhaps seen through the lens of Arthur Evans’ reinforced concrete archeological reconstructions) with Pop Art and Constructivism to create a megastructural drive-in Acropolis.
The British love of landscape (rather than architecture) merged with the gadgetry and electricity of late 20th-century consumer culture to invent new forms of habitation. Reyner Banham’s Gizmo and David Greene’s LogPlug both dreamt of techno-pastoral possibilities. In Milton Keynes, however, the idea became central to the last of the new towns. Here, chief architect Derek Walker proposed a city greener than the surrounding countryside, where cars, electronic communication and nature reinvented the idea of the town-country for the 1970s, and merged the landscape traditions of Stowe with Buckminster Fuller futurism.
After the last of the post-war new towns, the landscape of Britain altered once again. National construction as a physical act ended. The landscapes that had been created were no longer new and their status began to change: public became private, newness became nostalgic, giant scale and abrasive textures became domestic and soft. Meanwhile the forces of modernity continue to play across the landscapes of Britain, where rising inequality, a housing crisis and social tension suggest the need for new visions.
The people: where will they go?
The story of A Clockwork Jerusalem suggests trajectories that can help us face new forms of crisis in Britain’s built environment precipitated by a new globalised modernity. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city equation, Milton Keynes’ democratic consumer utopia, the anarcho-liberal ‘experiment in freedom’ of Non-Plan, the extreme localism imagined by Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution and the radical sustainability represented by Clifford Harper’s Radical Technology are not merely history, but suggestions of possible 21st‑century Jerusalems.
Inside the British Pavilion: A Clockwork Jerusalem