by Anmol AhujaJul 22, 2021
A pub, a garden, a playground you cannot play in unless you are on the right side of the fence, are some of the spatial narratives that make up the installation of the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. The Garden of Privatised Delights curated by Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler, brings an inherently urban situation to the island of Venice. It is especially interesting when one considers that the Biennale takes place in one of the only gardens on the Italian island. While there are numerous plazas and public squares in Venice, the largest green space is the Giardini. Entering this national pavilion is an experience of entering an indoor garden from a garden.
The pavilion itself challenges the contemporary conversation around privately owned public space in cities across the United Kingdom. Here the curators of the pavilion pose solutions on how they might work together to improve use of, access to and ownership of public spaces. They use Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights as an inspiration and a parable for achieving a middle ground between private spaces and privately owned public space. Unlike some of the other National Pavilion’s at this years Venice Architecture Biennale, the British Pavilion’s response to Hashim Sarkis’ question ‘How will we live together?’ highlights concerns within the context of Britain. While the discussion can extend beyond the geography of the UK, the starting point is the English public space.
Bosch’s triptych explored the middle ground of Earth between the extremes of Heaven and Hell. Kessler and Verghese suggest that the privatised public space also sits between two extremes, the utopia of common land and the dystopia of total privatisation. This is actualised throughout the pavilion as seven privatised public spaces reimagined as inclusive, immersive experiences. Stepping away from the use of models and drawings as a means of representing architectural ideas, the installations are designed as simulated spaces.
In a joint interview with STIR, curators Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese talk about the inspiration and the realisation of their ideas of the future of public space. The duo are the co-founders of the London-based multi-scalar design practice Unscene Architecture, while simultaneously Kessler is a director of Madeleine Kessler Architecture and Verghese is Head of Public Engagement at the Architectural Association.
Devanshi Shah (DS): The exhibition notes indicate Hieronymus Bosch’s "The Garden of Earthly Delights" as one of the reference points of ideas explored in the pavilion. Could you elaborate on the connection between the two?
Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler (MV+MK): Our exhibition in the British Pavilion takes inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, which uses the format of a triptych to show the utopia of the garden of Eden or Heaven, the dystopia of Hell, and the middle ground of earth as the subject of the painting framed in the middle. Our interpretation of the painting, The Garden of Privatised Delights, translates the three panels into the utopia of the commons before the Enclosures Act of the 18th Century, the dystopia of total privatisation, and the middle ground which addresses the issue of privatised public space as an urgent opportunity to create more inclusive programmed and inhabited spaces. In addition to the painting shaping the concept for our project as a whole, physically within the pavilion, it has informed a level of abstraction, inspiring the colours and forms of the installations across the different rooms.
DS: The perception and use of public spaces has seen a shift in the past year; how was this addressed in the design of the pavilion over the year-long delay?
MV+MK: The past year has highlighted the importance of access to public space and how this reflects the inequalities in our society. The themes explored within The Garden of Privatised Delights have become even more urgent as a result of the global pandemic, including the demise of the high street as shops close and retail moves online; how facial recognition technology is used and issues of consent in terms of how our data is captured; the closure of pubs as important social and cultural spaces; access to and the freedom to do a range of activities within green space; and the decline in dedicated social places for teenagers to spend time in. The year-long delay provided us with the opportunity to test ideas through events, workshops and interviews with different stakeholders in privatised public space, parts of which can be heard in the audio recordings throughout the exhibition.
DS: Could you talk us through the sequence of spaces within the pavilion? Is there a particular narrative, how are the spaces sequenced?
MV+MK: On entering the pavilion, you are confronted by the railings enclosing a typical garden square. Unable to access the lush green oasis within, you are forced to instead move to the next room. You then journey through the next five rooms of the pavilion, which are each transformed into immersive installations looking at the future of the pub (The Decorators); how facial recognition technology can be used more transparently for public benefit (Built Works); the role of the high street as a space of exchange (Studio Polpo); transparency around the ownership of land through the creation of citizen’s assemblies (Public Works); the provision of spaces for young people on their own terms and in their own words (vPPR); before returning to the main room, except this time you are inside the railings and it has been transformed into a Garden of Delight (Unscene Architecture), asking everyone to question how we can gain greater access to green space. There is also a surprise 7th room, the public toilet in the basement of the British Pavilion, which looks at the importance of the infrastructure which enables us to access and use public space (Unscene Architecture). The whole experience is stitched together by a continuous garden path that takes you through a typical British town or city.
DS: What does an immersive installation mean in a post-covid world?
MV+MK: Rather than represent architecture through images, models and drawings, The Garden of Privatised Delights tests physical design ideas and creates immersive experiences that encourage everyone - architects and non-architects alike - to inhabit and actively engage with. As you move through the exhibition, the installations encourage you to sit, reflect and interact to learn more about privatised public space and suggest ways in which it might become more inclusive. The exhibition is an experimental testing ground for us to learn from how visitors use and inhabit these spaces over the course of the Biennale, as a way to understand how they could be designed in the future. The British Pavilion looks at how the architect can facilitate conversations between different groups and across disciplines to better deliver an environment accessible to all. While we aren’t yet in a post-Covid world and there are still restrictions that prevent visitors from interacting with the space to the extent that we had originally hoped, the life-size scale of the installations and the ways in which you are able to experience them through sitting, listening, peering through or interacting with the various digital interfaces in different rooms hopefully allows everyone to imagine how these proposals could translate to the public spaces in their towns or cities.
DS: There are certain assumptions about the private-public partnership, especially when discussing public amenities. Could you elaborate on some of the specifics you have addressed through the pavilion?
MV+MK: In the UK, there is a nostalgia for a time when the public sector provided public spaces, which now tend to be provided as part of private developments. This has led to a problematic binary of the public always being seen as good, while the private is bad. Instead, we are interested in a wider range of privatised public spaces, from the pub as the original private living room that was opened up to the public and has become everything from a waiting room to the modern-day public toilet, to networked spaces like the high street that forms the backbone of every British town and city. The huge inequalities in society in terms of access, use and ownership are more evident than ever before, and there seems to be a renewed commitment from the public and private sectors to develop strategies to address these issues in the short and long term. We hope this is the beginning of a structural change in society to not be driven solely by profit but instead to think about new parameters to measure value and new criteria being established for what makes successful and effective cities and spaces. This has emerged as a trend over recent years, with cities developing happiness indexes, or developers moving away from looking at solely profitable programmes such as retail along the high street towards prioritising footfall and engagement.
DS: What is the most important idea or experience you would like visitors to take away from the exhibition?
MV+MK: We would like the future of our cities and public spaces to be places that everyone can use and enjoy, where diverse groups of people from different backgrounds can come together to engage in a range of activities, where conversations and debates can occur to break the silos of binary thinking, and where the ownership of tangible assets like land and intangible assets like data is more transparent and has the potential to be used for collective benefit. It is important that everyone who uses and inhabits the city feels a sense of ownership and agency over what happens within their public spaces. Our hope is that the pavilion will provide tools and strategies for visitors to take away and apply to their own public spaces to open them up, use them in a variety of exciting ways and transform them into spaces that they would like to spend more time in. Ultimately, the question that the 2021 British Pavilion asks is, why can’t all public spaces be gardens of delight?
DS: What would be the next step in terms of research or further iterations for an exhibition of this nature?
MV+MK: From when we first responded to the British Council’s Open Call, we have always imagined the pavilion as a platform for a much wider project. As a result of the pandemic, there is an even larger virtual audience than we anticipated, and we are excited to engage them through a range of social media and online content as well as through a programme of events and workshops both online and in-person where possible. Our ambition after the Biennale is to bring these ideas and installations back to the UK and test them out in public space as a series of live projects. In order to rethink these spaces and open up how we access, use and own them, architects need to work with both the public and private sectors to develop frameworks for a variety of activities and users. Our hope is to continue to bring different stakeholders around one table to have more meaningful conversations that can lead to more lasting change through the design, access and policies that govern privatised public space.
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.