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Sarah Mann: 'I want to talk to architects'

Sarah Mann, British Council
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Vicky Richardson’s replacement, Sarah Mann, tells the AJ what she has planned for architecture at the British Council

Tell us about where you have come from – and what skills you are bringing from the National Trust to the British Council?
I am currently working with a very interesting set of properties at the National Trust which range from a Georgian mansion designed by Robert Adam, to William Morris’ first residence, the Red House and Erno Goldfinger’s residence at 2 Willow Road; so it’s really exercising my knowledge of architectural history.

Beyond that I work with an incredibly diverse range of people when programming - from volunteers to curators and gardeners - creating strong teams across lots of different disciplines and developing creative projects in some challenging environments.

I also worked on exhibitions and events at Somerset House for five years. 

What attracted you to the post – and how do you feel filling the boots of Richardson?
Well, I am not new to the British Council: I managed a large-scale arts programme in both the UK and South Africa, called Connect ZA, between 2012 and 2015; so I know the work of the organisation well.

I was attracted to the post because it’s a very rare and special position, which allows you to build such interesting and unique projects, but also has the potential to have impact on people’s lives and careers.

I went to China in 2008 with the department and it completely changed the way I thought about my practice.

The British Council’s network is staggering and it can give the UK creative industries incredible insight and opportunity to collaborate and build their own international networks and projects.

To fill Vicky’s boots – well, she is a great talent and has managed to really build the department’s impact and presence during her time; I think she leaves behind a great legacy.

Vicky Richardson leaves behind a great legacy 

What are you hoping to achieve at the British Council?
It’s very early days – I start next month - but firstly to work with the incredible talent in the Architecture Design Fashion team to shape the programme and continue to build on showcases such as the Venice Architecture Biennale and the International Fashion Showcase.

I also think that it’s very important to support emerging and early career practitioners as an early experience of working internationally can change your perspective and challenge your perceptions.

I am very interested in how we might make more use of our global industry intelligence and how we communicate that back to the UK – as well as vice versa.

I think the British Council has incredible power to convene and I would certainly like to look at how we might use that to create a strong network and a platform for more rapid collaboration and exchange. 

How can architects help you with this?
Come and talk to me - I would very much like to find a way of meeting the industry on a regular basis. 

Do you think the Venice Biennale is still relevant to British architecture?
Yes. It is an incredibly important international platform for the UK to talk about architecture. I think the current approach is absolutely right – to use the British Pavilion as a platform for new research and as a way of exploring contemporary debates around it.

I think the real challenge is communicating the pavilion to a wider audience, to those who can’t make it to Venice. I am really interested in how we can use it as a jumping-off point for a bigger conversation and getting all of the energy and debate back to audiences in the UK and beyond. 

When did you first become interested in architecture?
I grew up in a post-war new town on the outskirts of London and it left a lasting impression on me - both its possibilities and its failures. Later on I became interested in architecture and the built environment when I was studying my BA in Design History at Brighton University where I looked at everything from new towns and memorials to the ephemeral architecture of the Los Angeles Olympics in the 1980s. 

What is your favourite building of the last ten years?
Tough question! In the spirit of my new position I will choose two: one British, one international. Assemble’s Folly for a Flyover, because it reminds me of a wonderful summer in London and it perfectly demonstrated their approach to collaboration. Looking internationally, the Makoko Floating School by Kunlé Adeyemi, of NLÉ Works in Lagos, Nigeria deftly demonstrates the power of architecture in a challenging urban environment.

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