The British Pavilion: The home front
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In my early twenties, I shared a flat in north London with two friends. To afford the rent, we turned the sitting room into a bedroom; and since this room could not accommodate both a bed and a sofa, we would get into bed to watch television. This seemed, at the time, perfectly normal — and so it was.
Over- and under-occupancy are common symptoms of the housing crisis. While my flatmates and I fought over the remote and the duvet, our parents kept empty nests with spare rooms.
The three young curators of the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale are interested in things like bedroom occupancy. They are the youngest to have held the post, winning the open call for entries by the British Council. Their exhibition, Home Economics, is a response to the Biennale’s overarching theme, “Reporting from the Front”.
“Our first thought was, ‘What is the frontline in Britain?’ and it seemed pretty obviously to be the housing crisis,” says the architect and writer Jack Self, 29. He is curating the exhibition with Finn Williams, 33, an architect-turned-planner, and Shumi Bose, 32, a lecturer in architecture.
“We felt that this is more than an economic condition,” Self continues. “It really is a crisis in architecture not responding fast enough to the changes in our lives.”
Technology, leisure, family make-up and gender roles have changed dramatically, even since the 1960s when the London housing estate in which we meet was built. “This kitchen” — Self indicates a small side-room — “has been optimised for one person, probably a housewife.” But nowadays cooking is often a shared activity. Social norms have evolved faster than our homes have adapted.
Architects have traditionally designed homes around an idea of their occupants: the single professional, affluent family or social tenant, for instance. But the Home Economics curators asked architects and artists to design a space according the length of its occupancy, from an overnight crash pad to an intergenerational home. The result is an exhibition of five discrete sections: Hours, Days, Months, Years and Decades. Each features a full-scale model of the proposed structure with small signs of life, like two toothbrushes in a glass — “clues that allow you to place yourself within these ideological propositions”, as Bose puts it.
The exhibition proposes an alternative way of thinking about how and where we live. If you’re on the go, Self explains, “Facebook, your Spotify playlists or your Amazon wishlist — these become a virtual home that you carry with you.” The art collective Ayr were tasked with a design for “Days”. The result will be unveiled at the opening next weekend; all the curators can tell me is that Ayr were inspired by the history of inflatables. “In 1960s, the inflatable was seen as a utopian possibility for dissolving architecture and giving us this hyper-mobile life,” Self enthuses. Today they’re associated with bouncy castles and blow-up beds, not utopian dreams. But Ayr’s “home” is not only portable but customisable, “a physical representation of your virtual life”.
While it’s hard to imagine inflatable WiFi-enabled cocoons popping up anywhere other than art galleries or perhaps music festivals, purpose-built “co-living” blocks — aimed at tenants staying for months rather than years — are already a reality. WeLive, an offshoot of the shared office space provider WeWork, has launched its first development. Old Oak Common in north-west London has 550 (small) bedrooms, spacious communal kitchens and living areas, a launderette and even a spa.
Co-living is nothing new: single-sex boarding houses were common in Europe and America in the 19th century. The boarding house was the inspiration for the architects Dogma and publisher Black Square, who have designed the “Months” section of the Venice exhibition. “Basically, Dogma and Black Square come from a really long line of punk and communist ideology. They are very interested in communitarian models of life,” Self explains, admitting that they are “pretty ideologically opposed” to companies such as WeLive.
When the curators and their architects began thinking longer term, questions of home ownership and affordability arose. Last year, the average age of a first-time buyer in London was 33; for many young people, the possibility of ever owning a home feels remote.
The architect Julia King and her industry partner, the housing association Naked House, worked on the “Years” proposition. According to Naked House, about 20 per cent of developers’ profits come from the value added by interior furnishings. Naked House are therefore interested in the possibility of lowering the cost of a property by issuing the mortgage on the “shell construction” — basic plumbing included but no fittings or even interior walls. They are in discussion with the London borough of Enfield and Royal Bank of Scotland — which advised on the overall exhibition — and there’s a “high likelihood” of homes being built.
It’s a nice idea, not having to pay for a hideous bathroom you will later rip out. But more importantly, King and Naked House hope that turning the exterior and interior into separate assets will discourage speculation. The discount is “locked into” the shell because, although its value will rise and fall with the market, when it comes to be resold, it can’t be marked up on account of expensive fittings. (This solution could be compromised, however, by the fact that the owners have the option to sell the interior, too, if their buyers like it.)
King and Naked House’s model gives buyers more options, but deducting the equivalent of 20 per cent of the developer’s profit from the property price (a £12,000 saving on a £300,000 flat, if the profit margin is 20 per cent) is not a radical solution to affordable housing.
The curators’ ideas about domestic space feel better thought through. The flexibility written into King’s designs — namely, the lack of interior walls — chimes with those for the final section, “Decades”, by architects Hesselbrand. “It’s about how little can we determine about the use of this space, how open can it be,” says Williams. Hesselbrand’s design, instead of having a designated bathroom and kitchen, has wet and dry, dark and light, enclosed and open areas, the better to adapt to changing domestic life. Williams cites the Georgian terraced house as a model that has adapted to different uses and subdivisions over the centuries. “It can accommodate that by having very generous proportions and a simplicity to its space and form. It’s not particularly didactic or specific.”
Their conversation ranges from faux Georgian fireplaces to the French economist Thomas Piketty, and the scope of their ambition is clear. The curators and their partners have ventured into territory architects don’t usually tread.
“The architect’s role is being compressed — between politics and policy on one side and the budget and finance on the other side — to reskinning the block and moving a few chairs around inside,” Williams says. “We were keen to see that role expanding out again, to get a grip of the political and financial aspects, the driving forces of how our homes end up today.”
‘Home Economics’ is commissioned by the British Council, May 28-November 27, design.britishcouncil.org
Photographs: Jack Self; Hugo McCloud; Anna Huix
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