A Clockwork Jerusalem, our installation at the Venice Biennale, presents an alternative history of British modernism that could lead to a reassessment of how we approach architecture today
As I write this article, we’re two days away from opening A Clockwork Jerusalem at the British pavilion. The installation is practically complete (apart from two models that were stuck at the airport, but we’re assured will arrive in time).
Nail-biting apart, it’s a good time to look back at the past 18 months since Biennale curator Rem Koolhaas announced the theme. Yesterday, a few important people from the Biennale office, including the president Paolo Baratta, paid an informal visit. A Clockwork Jerusalem, they said, is one of the few exhibitions in the Giardini to directly address Koolhaas’s brief: Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014.
Baratta said the show was like psychoanalysis for Britain: it puts our architecture “on the couch” and all our feelings pour out. Something about this observation is true – our curators, FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians, have come up with an alternative history of British modernism, which could lead to a reassessment of the way we approach architecture today.
In that sense, A Clockwork Jerusalem does what the Farrell review should have done: it looks at how contemporary architecture has ended up pushed into a corner, defensive and obsessed with all the wrong things. It challenges some myths about the history of modernism that underpin how we see the present – for example, the idea that modernism was a European import that Britons never embraced. In fact, as FAT and Crimson show, visionary modernist buildings permeated British culture and inspired new writing, music and art.
Leisure in Milton Keynes, Phillip Castle, 1971 (image: Professor Derek Walker)
When he launched the brief, Koolhaas said that he wanted this Biennale to be about architecture, not architects, and to look back in order to move forward. Disenchanted with contemporary architecture, his idea was to make a vast global research project about how we ended up here.
The study of history in architecture has been sidelined in many British schools of architecture in favour of cultural theory. But FAT and Crimson show that architecture from Britain’s past provided the basis for looking forward in British modernism. The architects of Manchester’s Hulme Crescents were inspired by the Royal Crescent in Bath, while Georgian architects, in turn, referenced Stonehenge.
The curators articulate this argument better than I can – and, for this, I highly recommend the book published by Vinyl Factory that accompanies the show and includes essays by Sam Jacob, Wouter Vanstiphout and Owen Hatherley.
A Clockwork Jerusalem ends with a question that echoes one of the star characters in the show, Ebenezer Howard: “Where will the people go?” An architecture biennale can pose such questions, but the answers must be revealed in practice. A good place to start would be with the curators’ call to release the imagination and “build our own new Jerusalems addressing contemporary modernity”.
Vicky Richardson is director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council