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British Pavilion team explains Venice Biennale plans

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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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