by Jerry ElengicalJun 07, 2021
“Can we design a better world?” That’s the question posed by this year’s London Design Biennale, currently on show within the Georgian quadrangle that is Somerset House. Reflecting on what the world has experienced over the past 18 months – a list that includes the COVID-19 pandemic, political riots, major forest fires, and growing awareness of widespread racial and gender inequality – the subject has never felt more urgent. But within this exhibition, where the spotlight is firmly on the design industry, the question takes on a slightly different meaning. Here, what’s being asked is whether designers can offer us the solutions.
Biennale curator Es Devlin, who is also one of the world’s leading stage designers, believes they can. The theme she selected, ‘Resonance’, centres around this idea of positive impact. “Design is involved in everything,” she says, “and I think what we have realised as designers is that we need to be working to the parameters of what the earth can take. I think we are recognising that, if we don’t do that, the future won't look kindly upon us”.
The scale of Devlin’s ambition is matched by the installation that she and landscape architect, Philip Jaffa, have created in the Somerset House courtyard, Forest of Change, which sees the formal plaza transformed into a woodland made up of meandering pathways and more than 400 trees. While it’s certainly not big enough to be called a forest, the visceral impact of this composition feels on par with some of the scenography Devlin has created through her career, which include the London Olympics closing ceremony and stage sets for artists including Kanye West and The Weeknd. Amidst the smells of pine needles and sounds of birdsong (a soundtrack produced by Brian Eno), you might forget for a moment that you are in London’s ever-hectic West End.
The idea for the installation came when Devlin discovered that planting trees was outlawed from Somerset House. In line with the principles of enlightenment on which the building was founded, a covenant has always prevented the addition of greenery here, as a symbol of man’s triumph over nature. Devlin’s immediate instinct was to find a way to overcome this, to restore a natural balance. “We have always considered this forest as a place of transformation,” she says. Although the trees will only be here for the duration of the biennale, they will later find permanent homes around London, as part of The Queen's Green Canopy initiative. In this way they become more than a token gesture, and instead have a long-term legacy in greening the city.
Devlin’s next intervention makes an equally grand statement. Set in a clearing within the trees, the Global Goals Pavilion spells out the 17 goals for global sustainability as set out by the United Nations, which include things like quality education, affordable and clean energy, climate action, and responsible consumption and production. Arranged in a circle, each goal has its own identity thanks to vibrant colour gradients and a graphic language developed by Project Everyone, the non-profit agency founded by filmmaker Richard Curtis. As a space, it manages to perfectly emphasise both the scale of the problem and the potential capacity for change. There’s no issue that cannot be solved by human intervention, it suggests. Standing at its centre, it’s difficult not to feel inspired by what might be possible.
With the bar set so high, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the biennale’s other offerings struggle to live up to the promise of radical, global change. However, there is still plenty to inspire. There are 38 different contributions dotted in and around the building, encompassing 20 countries, institutions such as the Royal College of Art and the University of Cambridge, and a diverse mix of creatives that include musician Beatie Wolfe, ceramicists Ruup & Form and graphic designers, Servaire&Co. Some installations offer a thought-provoking vision of the future, for instance, Germany is presenting a collection of disposable plastic cutlery, with a view to it one day becoming archaeology, while Antarctica's Cold Flux, by artist Ben Cullen Williams, is an AI-generated landscape that cleverly mimics the melting ice of the Larsen-B ice shelf. Some projects thoughtfully consider the potential of natural materials and sustainable economies, such as Argentina’s celebration of woven Simbol fibres, or Venezuela’s vision of a post-petroleum era built around the potential of avocado seeds. Others are more experiential, like Marco Perry’s immersive soundscape, or the gently moving Metronome by Alter Projects.
Walking through this sequence of rooms, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this biennale asks more questions than it answers. It seems like the process of problem-solving – the very skill that separates designers from artists, and which feels so crucial to the exhibition’s central question – has been relegated to the background. But there are still ideas to be found. A particular highlight is Design in an Age of Crisis, an open-call project that asked designers from around the world to offer their own solutions to the UN’s global goals, with ideas ranging from bio-hackable kitchens to educational robots.
There’s no question that the pandemic has played a huge role in how this London Design Biennale has taken shape. Like many exhibitions originally scheduled for 2020, it is taking place a year later than planned and with notably fewer exhibitors than the two previous editions. Of the contributors that have been able to take part, six are presenting a film rather than the physical exhibition they had previously envisioned, while Indonesia’s installation only exists in the virtual sphere.
However, there is one participant that has shown that bold ideas can emerge even when the odds are stacked against you. With his Pavilion of the African Diaspora, designer Ini Archibong hoped to create a space – one of very few in London – where people of African descent can come together, tell stories and feel a shared sense of belonging. “No matter where I go, when I see other people that look like me there's a feeling of kinship,” says Archibong. “Making something for those people became really important to me.” In a city that was once at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade, this simple shell-shaped pavilion serves as a monument to equality. In a biennale with the weight of the world on its shoulders, it shows that planting the seeds of change might be easier than we think.