The British pavilion at the Architecture Biennale has long had a problem with Britishness. Whether it is some kind of post-imperial hang-up or an uneasy attempt to define some sense of Britishness (or more usually Englishness: the Scots now have their own mobile pavilion), it has become a kind of defining theme – or at least a droning background noise.
Last time round, in an apparent attempt to avoid such accusations, the curators sent a bunch of young design types around the world to bring back interesting ideas. It backfired painfully, looking like some kind of patronising colonial project.
So this year’s entry, A Clockwork Jerusalem, with its implied mash-up of William Blake’s strange visionary poem and Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian version of London modern – the British picturesque and utopian influence in modernism – looks right at home. But perhaps, perhaps this year will be different. I have to suggest this because I was on the panel that selected it, so my usual sense of unease is heightened.
The pavilion confronts Biennale director Rem Koolhaas’s theme for the national pavilions – “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014” – head on. The curators are architects FAT and architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout of Dutch collective Crimson. This is to be FAT’s last project before the individual members go their own ways. For over two decades they have been the pop conscience of British architecture: irreverent, iconoclastic and enjoyable; their designs and their wit have enlivened the sometimes dour and puritanical strain of British neo-modernism. My hope is that they will bring that incisive irreverence to Venice.
I went to meet Sam Jacob of FAT (the acronym, incidentally, stands for “Fashion Architecture Taste”) and Vanstiphout at Jacob’s studio in Islington, north London. “The story we’re trying to tell”, says Jacob, “is of a modernity that begins with the industrial revolution and its founding text is Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – this slightly unformed, visceral, outsider reaction to the modern.”
“It’s almost a crusading idea,” adds Vanstiphout; “a duty to build this new world in the here and now. And then, [after] 1945, there’s the welfare state set up as a kind of new Jerusalem.”
What follows is an extraordinary gush of ideas embracing everything from druids and garden cities to William Morris and the pervasive influence of Los Angeles on British modernism. I would be getting nervous again at this point about the pavilion collapsing into its usual well-intentioned mushy incomprehensibility. But instead I am buoyed by the bombardment of ideas. Bear with me, and them, if you will.
“William Blake found the future in the past,” Jacob says, beginning to pick up speed. “He looks at druids and Stonehenge and at the Bible. There seemed to be a tendency towards an apocalyptic timescale, post-disaster, looking back to the ruins of the immediate future.” He points to William Morris’s book News from Nowhere which, like Blake’s poem, looks to the ruins of Victorian Britain accommodating a utopian socialist medievalist society. I suggest Richard Jefferies’ After London in the same vein.
“Then there’s [Charles] Booth’s poverty map [referring to the Salvation Army founder’s mapping of poverty in London] and then to its centre, the slums of the Old Nichol in east London and that’s where we start, with Arnold Circus, the first public housing scheme in the world, being built on a mound formed by the piled-up remains of the demolished slums.”
Vanstiphout picks up the theme, showing me some photos. “And there’s the rubble of the Blitz and the destruction of the cities,” he says. “We’re arguing that it was this destruction, these ruins, that made the ideas of British modernism. There’s a sense that the ruin is both a physical and an imaginative place on which things can be constructed. It’s this mix of the mythical and the historical, the metaphysical and the practical, which gives British modernity its unique context.”
I ask them to expand. “There’s this tension in British culture between the historicist and the futurist. Like the pre-Raphaelites or the Arts and Crafts movement, it’s something that is simultaneously radical and conservative, nostalgic and progressive. And at its centre is the landscape, which is seen as something natural but which is really an ideological construct.”
What they are doing here is timely. Now, more than at any time during the past generation, the intensity of the housing crisis has brought into focus Britain’s strange relationship between city and country. No politician now feels able to announce the construction of a new town or city without prefacing it with the word “garden”, as if urbanity on its own, untempered by nature, is too terrible a thing to contemplate. The long-touted Ebbsfleet is the latest contender, upgraded from new town to garden city. “The garden city idea”, says Jacob, “is a weird combination. Most of the British ideas about the future of the city somehow involve the countryside.”
At this point Jacob and Vanstiphout introduce some of the visionary modernist projects that form the centrepiece of the exhibition: Thamesmead on the eastern edge of London (which is now being slowly demolished), Cumbernauld (Glasgow’s bleak overspill new town), Manchester’s much-mythologised Hulme and Milton Keynes, among others.
As they toss around a salad of new phrases, I stop them at one in particular: “The Electric Pastoral”.
Good coinage. It reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s description of Las Vegas as “electrographic architecture” – only English, with added greenery. Now explain, I suggest.
“Well, the original architect’s drawings [by Geoffrey Copcutt] for Cumbernauld show the city seen through the windscreen of a convertible Cadillac. Copcutt talks about Minoan cities at the same time as shopping malls. Then Derek Walker [the architect behind much of Milton Keynes] looked at Times Square and the city of illuminated signs, wondering how the architecture might become invisible behind the signage, consisting of transparent, glassy buildings. The early renderings of the Milton Keynes shopping centre showed a kind of animated Eadweard Muybridge horse as the sign, an electric Uffington.
“It was all designed to be seen from cars. The 1960s were full of fantasies about Los Angeles, with Reyner Banham and the others. LA became a way to reimagine the British landscape.”
The world they are referring to, a strange cocktail of JG Ballard’s modernist parables and English sci-fi futurists Archigram, of Milton Keynes and Reyner Banham, who wrote Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. Banham’s wide-eyed, naive Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, represented a moment in British culture in which a superficial pop sensibility merged with anarchic yearnings, when sci-fi and the existential noir of Point Blank or A Clockwork Orange merged with a pastoral nostalgia, a kind of slightly paranoid post-hippy communitarianism.
“There is an idea”, says Jacob, “that planning was a rather un-British thing. But we’re trying to show that there is this very British tradition from Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities to the ideas behind Milton Keynes as a way of the government ensuring the delivery of ‘modernity for all’. It [embodies] a particular relationship between vision and practicality.”
Is that combination something they’re nostalgic for themselves? “We seem to have forgotten about planning as a thing of the collective imagination,” Jacob replies. “It has become purely technocratic and there is now a very narrow view of what planning could be. We’re essentially calling for new visions that could be collective.”
Well that, I suggest, would be a result.
As a swansong for FAT and a commitment by the British Council, this is a potent project. It recognises a welter of visible and not-so-visible undercurrents that have been both enriching and polluting British architecture and planning for two centuries. It combines the mystical madness of Blake and the subterranean stream of psychogeography, which – despite its Parisian origins – now seems such a peculiarly London phenomenon, a rich, dark vein encompassing the work of such writers as Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Will Self. It sees the idea of the “electric pastoral” smash into the bland political focus-group imaginings of the universally inoffensive garden city like a JG Ballard eroticised car crash. And it highlights a forgotten vein of radical, inventive and provocative urbanism.
This show has the potential to psychoanalyse British architecture and exorcise some of its most brilliant and its most crippling fantasies. Or at last to end the misconception that the planning of cities was never a particularly British thing to do.