Ben Derbyshire's Daily Updates Reported on AJ
Well, it’s the end of the first Biennale preview day and my wife and I have made it to Gatwick! I spent the morning in the President’s office at Portland Place on a briefing document for MHCLG setting out the quality and performance initiatives we are working on at RIBA, and which we would like them to support. Meanwhile my wife (Dr. Jane Derbyshire McNeill) spent the morning with one of the families she is supporting as a psychologist through the early stages of the Grenfell Enquiry. Meanwhile, I’m happy to see that the RIBA team already out there at the Arsenale are busy with their Instagram posts featuring the view from the platform atop the British Pavilion and images of Bjarke Engels and Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation. Misty rain here, glorious sunshine there.
Jane has already tweeted her availability for anyone who want to talk about the impact on the vulnerable of the built environment when it goes disastrously wrong. My mind is full of the ins and outs of post occupancy evaluation, procurement and the golden thread of quality accountability. Time to reset, I can see. But as a Biennale first timer, I am keen to find out whether my preconception that this glittering and seemingly glamorous event relates to the reality, and whether there is a possibility of connecting the architectural discourse there with the impact of our work on people’s lives. Will Grafton’s theme bear meaningful fruit? I’ll let you know when I get there.
Arriving at the Giardini Publica just before opening, we have time to call in at a few pavilions before heading to our own for the opening of our RIBA event – a summary ‘Super Session’ of the Europa series our team have been running over the last nine months – of which more later. Before then, we just have time to squeeze in visits to the Spanish pavilion (much like a degree show and too diverse to convey a coherent message), the Belgian (an event space, but nicely neutral and with a play on perspective),the Dutch (an orange enclosure of Alice-in-wonderland doors revealing, amongst other things, John and Yoko’s Amsterdam Hilton bedroom), the Finnish (the most informative of the four with an excellent display of their commitment to building libraries – ‘freespaces’ for cultural absorption especially during the dark winters).
Peter St.John and Marcus Taylor are lounging on the steps of the British pavilion as we arrive – in convivial spirits but anxiously awaiting Adam Caruso who has apparently tired of the longeur of being in attendance and keeps disappearing. The British Council are enlightened patrons and I hope are rewarded by their imaginative response to the Grafton theme - a viewing platform atop the pavilion for performance and spaces within for events. Then I introduce our event which brings together 32 Practices from 15 countries who have participated in the ‘Europa: Connecting Ideas Across Borders’ programme at RIBA. Sir David Chipperfield appears as a late interloper amongst this group of youthful talent and there is a tremendous scraping of chairs to accommodate him.
The discussion ebbs and flows between the similarities and the differences, European versus national character, the importance of space as against built form. Chipperfield delivers his now well-known excoriation of Brexit and manages a few digs at RIBA for not having prevented it – as if! Of course it’s my great good fortune to be given the last word, so I remind everyone that we are united by the threat (and the opportunity) that so little of the built environment benefits from the contribution of architects at all – and that we can unite to lead a way out of the deteriorating quality and sustainability of the built environment. Architecture is inevitably political and I seize the opportunity to repeat my invitation to Sir David to lunch to discuss how he might help with this! Over drinks he suggests there is not much he can do. Oh well.
At the British pavilion drinks I meet Trevor Boddy, the ebullient Canadian critic who regales me with a tale of 100 fellow scribblers who gathered to celebrate Joseph Rykwert’s Royal Gold medal. He hands me his book on the architecture of Vancouver and tells me I’m wasting my time travelling to St. John Newfoundland – next port of call on my travels for RIBA. The artist Sam Jacob is on form and happy with the reviews of his excellent show in the RIBA gallery mostly four star with an exceptional response from Edwin Heathcote in the FT. Disappointing Olly Wainwright only gave him three. Nobody quite gets why?
After lunch we head for the Arsenale for the opening of the V&A exhibition on Robin Hood Gardens. I have been to the Arsenale before (and the Museo Navali outside is a real treat for technophiles but closed today) so its spectacular interiors were not new, but I have never seen such an amazing display of really interesting architecture. So this is really the essence of the Biennale for me. There is something about the one-upmanship amongst the national pavilions in the Giardini that sometimes pushes the curators beyond relevance, or even comprehension for that matter. But here in the Arsenale is an absolute feast of work by practices from all over the wold and it is frequently inspiring and much too numerous to describe. I’ll go back tomorrow in the heat of the day.
Right at the very end of these immensely long galleries is to be found ‘Robin Hood Gardens; A Ruin in Reverse’ – the title being a reference to a phrase coined by Peter Smithson to characterise a building site. Ironic that this celebration accompanies the ruination of the Poplar housing scheme he designed with his wife Alison, only forty years after it was built. Tristram Hunt explained the long history of association of the V&A with the Biennale, and curators Christopher Turner and Olivier Horsfall Turner talked of the many earlier artefacts that the museum has plucked from beneath the demolition ball. Still, I could not help but wonder at the precast elements, originally constructed to house dockers in East London, reassembled with considerable logistical challenge in Venice for the edification of the intelligentsia. ‘It’s a provocation’, explained Catherine Burd, who appeared at my side as we listened in wonder.
Tristram Hunt, of course, looks after a good proportion of the RIBA’s collection of artifacts at the V&A and also houses many of our own curatorial team. The museum is also a sophisticated patron of the profession in its own right. I managed a few words with the man (clearly in great demand) as well as with the super talented Olivia Horsfall Turner. We agreed that we should get together to reboot architectural culture in London. The RIBA celebrates our bicentennial in 2034 so there is no time to lose if we are to get up to speed with Venice by then.
Walking home from the Dezeen house party (screening of a film about drone futures – Blade Runner is with us) we note everyone heading the other way, Paul Finch to supper with the Singapore pavilion (showing for the first time), and hoards heading for the Wallpaper bash. But its supper a deux for us, looking forward to the Arsenale again in the morning and Alan Camp’s legendary al fresco lunch on the Giudecca tomorrow.
Reflecting on my first visit to the Biennale, there is immense pleasure and stimulation to be found in the great work on display, and encouraging esprit de corps in the sense of a gathering of the architectural clan to exchange ideas, share problems and postulate solutions. Nowhere else, I should imagine, comes close to the energizing atmosphere of so much talent in one place, so much investment in creative culture for five months – and in a place which has come to represent an augury for the car-free city of the future – because it could never have been wrecked by automobile culture in the first place. And it is so encouraging that this is an exhibition that addresses the public, not only the international aesthetic elite (though there are plenty around here for the so-called ‘vernissage’). The vaporetti all have great scarlet billboards advertising the Biennale to all comers and its to be hoped that the exhibits impact public consciousness with a sense of what architecture can do for society.
I set out on the trip on behalf of RIBA to discover relevance in the themes and ideas on display. And I did find much that really matters, displayed such as to convey real meaning to a lay audience. But right there lies my unease. The language of architecture is often impenetrable. The concerns of the profession can seem esoteric. And when we are talking amongst ourselves the dialogue can come across as self-serving and exclusive. There was a certain amount of that evident in the RIBA’s event for young European practices, ‘Europa: Connecting Ideas Across Borders’. As the seasoned commentator and lay enthusiast, Pat Brown, observed, much of the discourse was of little relevance to the lives of people affected by it as ordinary citizens.
So I come away thinking that we need a truly public facing foil to this great event, the Biennale (long may it reign), something that speaks of and for the needs, aspirations and passions of ordinary folk and is set in the places where they live in order to reinforce the relevance of the design community’s contribution. Maybe the Housing Expo that I have being arguing for - to display our contribution through architecture to the human well-being – especially in the post-Brexit years might be such a thing. As I fly home tomorrow, I feel encouraged to keep up that argument.