In the central pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, an installation by Swiss architects Diener and Diener presents a deft interrogation of the lives of the much-loved national pavilions in the Giardini. Elegant photographs by Gabriele Basilico are placed beside open books with short biographical-like texts about each of the buildings.
Amongst these is an essay by Peter Cook, a national treasure himself, on the British Pavilion. He refers to its prime location on the axis at the top of a gentle hill, its colonial-era veranda overlooking the rest of the Giardini, flanked by France and Germany, and fondly imagines himself dozing on a deckchair with a cool gin and tonic. With no little affection he describes the British outpost at Venice as a lovable pet past its prime. He uses the word "fusty".
And so, to a backdrop of such damning faint praise, the British architectural presentation at Venice arrives, or rather takes away.
The title of the show, Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture, is a tricky premise. Ostensibly it's a straightforward ideas competition designed to bring together some of the most sparkling, useful, practical, productive innovations from around the world and present them under the roof of British architecture. An effort to harangue the doddery establishment into getting some good ideas again. To make the pavilion something useful and productive beyond the walls of a building in Venice.
Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) director Patrick Schumacher, writing the foreword of the catalogue, supports the approach. He complains about British architectural practice and how its surrounding infrastructure lacks vitality, that there are low horizons and that the nation is in general risk-averse. He welcomes the outward approach, the adventurous spirit proposed by the curators.
Perhaps for someone operating on the scale of ZHA, or the middle-range architecture practices fighting against narrow-minded, profit-driven developers, the approach is refreshing and with some luck, even useful. But looking out does not mean there is a lack of innovation and ideas in emerging architectural practice in the UK, it just takes some time to find it.
And, not by chance, a few of those young talented practitioners have made their way into Venice Takeaway.
London-based studio aberrant architecture spent their resources investigating Oscar Niemeyer's prolific school building programme — Centres of Public Education (CIEP) — in Rio de Janeiro. 508 schools of an almost identical design were built cheaply and effectively in the city, and there were plans for Niemeyer to construct 10,000 schools across the country. The CIEP included the radical design of a educational curriculum as well as addressing the formative role of a school in socially deprived areas. The research is thorough and potent and, given the UK government's scathing attitude towards architecture and its political need to build schools, well-timed. But it took some time and effort to appreciate its application. It would have been great to see a 10-point manifesto addressed to Education Secretary Michael Gove to understand how could the project be meaningfully applied and how other architects could take away the case studies.
Next-door, Darryl Chen's quite radical comparison of China's devolved villages and the Conservative party's social agenda was intriguing. Chen's suggestion that Britain should stop importing goods and start importing social ideas from China was wry, and with particular reference to the relationship between the British right wing government's "Localism Act" and the Chinese Communist Party's urban policies.
The exhibit is based on Caochangdi, a creative cluster and dense, dusty urban village in north Beijing, most known for being home to Ai Weiwei and for advertising itself as a "new socialist village". It also forms the heart of Beijing's forthcoming design week.
A vast amount of work and research is presented in Chen's Mao-esque pocket-sized red book, including an audacious neighbourhood five-point plan. This was the take-away, and it was witty, engaging and thought-provoking. In the exhibition, the main installation — presenting a long paper scroll visualising the unlikely blurring of boundaries between Caochangdi and a generic London village, in a cartoon collage format similar to the Chinese artist Cao Fei's RMB City — felt less relevant.
The most successful and applicable presentation came from dRMM, the most established studio in the collection, who proposed to apply the Dutch model of dynamic solutions for the most underused areas in the London: its waterways. It was a case study with a plan that resonated with the practice itself. A giant raft with all necessary applications was built on a 1:1 scale, and it seemed to be the most viable and playful of Takeaway's proposals.
The exhibition presents two distinct atmospheres: an "emporium of ideas" where the participants' research archives are displayed; and a set of polemical proposals for the UK in the form of installations and objects. The problem is that the depth of research and the potential of the research to be applied and learned from was hidden, unexposed in favour of installations which were too often oblique.
While rich in content, the pavilion as a whole seemed to resonate more with the agenda of the British Council — striving for international collaborations and connections — than with a rigorous position or comment on contemporary British architecture. The point was well taken, and the investment in young practices no doubt worthy and genuine, but the Venice Takeaway was diluted by a need for plurality over something that could practically, usefully and purposefully be taken away by the public or the architectural profession.