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London bias of the British Council criticised

September 15 2008

London bias of the British Council criticised
With the 2008 Venice Biennial in full flow, leading Glaswegian architect Alan Dunlop, has issued a stinging rebuke to the lack of inclusivity from the British Pavilion.  Arguing that a strong London bias compromises the British Council’s ability to represent the regions...

The Venice Biennale British Pavilion remains steadfastly London-centric

By Alan Dunlop, first published in the Architects’ Journal
| 11-09-08 |

According to Emily Campbell of the British Council, Britain has an “expanding cast of architects held in high regard internationally” but sadly they will not be represented in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The British exhibition in Venice will again grandstand a small coterie of London based practices. Architectural quality “drops like a stone” outside of London, says Peter Cook, the “single charismatic guru” curator of “9 Positions”, our 2004 effort. His view appears to be shared by the British Council. A pity, for many architects outside London are held in high regard internationally and many more could be, if given the opportunity to showcase their work abroad.

What is particularly bewildering is that the British Council continues to punt their efforts as representing “British” architecture. Worse still, and perhaps less forgivable, is that their last two exhibitions in Venice were exceedingly dull affairs. Peter Cook’s, in 2004, was probably the least interesting in the Giardini and despite The Long Blondes, Echo City in 2006, was also lacklustre.

Responding to criticism that “9 Positions” was too London centric the Council set up a competition and invited regionally based ideas for 2006. They chose Sheffield University’s Jeremy Till to curate. His “urban register” however, featuring an installation of found objects and photographs of the streets of Sheffield was impenetrable. The British Council though had done its bit; the regions just weren’t up to it - back to the status quo…

This year the Council will exhibit more London architects who all work within walking distance of each other and who show limited experience of building housing in Britain, particularly outside of our capital city. Yet the Council insists that 2008 will address the “national” question of post war reconstruction and “Britain’s housing challenge”. According to the exhibition narrative, housing in the UK is a “key issue” which “architects, developers, builders and government in the UK need to address” but only in London it would appear…

Take Manchester, for example. The regeneration of the city being a consequence of an IRA bomb which tore away large parts of the city centre, is inspirational with much new housing. But no Manchester architect will be represented in 2008.
What will the exhibition “Home/Away: Five Architects Build Housing in Britain and Europe”, say about Liverpool or Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh or Glasgow? According to Ellis Woodman, the curator, his exhibition will explore the roots of the British obsession with home ownership and the long-term domination of housing by private developers in the UK. But this is an obsession that is not general.

In Scotland and in particular, Glasgow, people relied on social rather than private housing. Glasgow’s plans for the regeneration of the Clyde was held up for years as the city wrestled with the burden of its decaying stock of social housing. Only when the city was freed from the financial overhang through the creation of the Glasgow Housing Association was it able to focus on other strategic issues. Emily Campbell says “ if the point of the Biennale is to advance architecture then the world would be short changed by not seeing what Britain has learned” Regrettably, for Campbell and the British Council, the world ends at Camden.

Other countries show that a wider perspective can be taken. In 2004, the most inspiring exhibition in the Giardini was in the Spanish Pavilion. It featured the work of many regional architects and was structured, rigorous and beautifully photographed. It highlighted the range of work being undertaken throughout Spain. I contend that there is a similar body of work throughout the UK which is being consistently bypassed by the organisation which is paid to represent national architecture and design.

This year, a new debate on architecture will take place in Barcelona, at the World Architecture Festival. Architects from Britain’s other major cities have made it onto the shortlists for the WAF Awards. Presenting and in competition with other international architects there are projects from the United States, Japan, Australia and Europe. Their work has been selected by a jury of world-renowned architects and did not involve the British Council.

So, I’m off to Barcelona and not to Venice this year.

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