In June I submitted an exhibition proposal for the British pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Venice Biennale. The title of the 2014 Biennale is “Fundamentals” and overall Director Rem Koolhaas has called on national pavilions to respond to the theme “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014”. The competition to curate the British pavilion is being run by the British Council.
The brief called for a historical perspective on the past 100 years and crucially used the word Modernity with a ‘y’ rather than Modernism. The story of Modernist architecture in the British context has been well told and it is predominantly a history of an urban elite imposing artistic ideas imported from abroad on a largely unappreciative public. The interesting thing to me about the theme was the opportunity to look at Modernity not from the point of view of style but from its practical application by the wider population. This idea resonated with attempts I had been making to understand my new situation as a county dweller and as an architect how I should respond to the rural environment. A relationship to the natural landscape is accepted as a core part of the British consciousness. A theme began to emerge of how has this sensibility has been challenged by modernity and how the landscape has been adapted to the needs of a changing society.
A primary ambition of Modernism was to bring people closer to nature in a reorganised industrial society away from the pollution and disease of the traditional city. Through the re-colonisation of the countryside, new practices developed, and mass communication has increasingly enabled non-urban dwellers equal access to the global discourse. Agriculture, the armed forces and industry, all drivers of technological progress make use of the space, resources and development opportunities in the countryside. As such, far from being parochial backwaters, many rural areas have been laboratories of Modernity.
Building in the city is a self-conscious affair where context, precedent and often challenging briefs have to be intricately woven into an architectural whole to the satisfaction of strict planning authorities. In rural areas there was a much more laissez-faire attitude through much of the 20th Century and most built-structures from the period were erected without troubling an architect. Perhaps steel barns, concrete missile silos and pre-fab houses could tell a parallel story of Modern development determined by need, practicality and economy.
I submitted the proposal, entitled “Landscapes of Modernity” in collaboration with Rob Gregory, Programme Manager at the Bristol Architecture Centre. Some of the questions we raised include:
– What characterises the British landscape?
– How has its identity changed during the period 1914-2014?
– Does a conflict exist between those seeking to protect their notion of a rural idyll and those embracing modernity?
– Is the vernacular a relevant concept in architecture today?
– What is the role of nature in a country where much of the landscape is man-made?
– Why are traditional or historic features of the rural landscape more valued than modern equivalents?
– What is the appeal of functional buildings?
– Does romanticising the past or picturesque structures help or hinder the search for solutions to present-day problems such as housing provision and infrastructure?
– How has government policy affected development in rural areas during the period?
– What has been the role of planning authorities in shaping development?
Ours was one of 4 proposals short-listed and we attended an interview but we did not win. I was rather looking forward to spending the next year researching the subject and decided to start this blog as a place to gather information on rural architecture, landscape and the identity of the countryside. I hope it might also become a forum for discussion of these issues and I welcome your comments.