British pavilion is "a call to arms
for contemporary architecture"


Venice Architecture Biennale 2014: British pavilion curator and Dezeen columnist Sam Jacob says his exhibition aims to revive the "imaginative visions and entrepreneurial spirit" of postwar public housing projects in Britain (+ movie).

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
British pavilion

Called A Clockwork Jerusalem, the British pavilion charts the rise of innovative public housing and planning projects in the UK throughout the twentieth century, encompassing the New Towns created by British planners after the Second World War and huge housing developments erected in places such as Hulme in Manchester and Thamesmead in London.

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
British pavilion

"The ambition that we have for the British pavilion is twofold," Jacob says. "One is to tell an historical story - to describe what happened and why. But it's also a call to arms for contemporary British architecture, for it to reengage with the imaginative visions and the entrepreneurial spirit of actually being able to effect change."

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
British pavilion

The central installation in the exhibition is a large mound of earth, which visitors can climb via two sets of fluorescent pink stairs. Jacob says the exhibit is intended to evoke an early public housing scheme, London's Boundary Estate, which was completed in 1900.

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
Boundary Estate, London

"The Boundary Estate is one of the first social housing projects in Britain, if not the world," Jacob says. "The ruins of the slum before were piled up to create the park in the centre of this new reformist development."

He continues: "It's a provocation, it's a question back to British architecture: is there a way we can revive the kind of thinking of the last century of really inventive, imaginative architecture and planning?"

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
Model of the Hulme estate

The exhibition also features three large models of public housing developments in Hulme, Manchester, Thamesmead, London, and Cumbernauld, Glasgow.

"We look at the formal product of this period of architecture and planning, which are really incredible megastructures - things of incredible scale, but also incredible complexity," Jacob explains. "We have a model of the Hulme estate, which was the largest public housing project in Europe built in the early 70s in Manchester."

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
Hulme estate, Manchester

Jacob chose to represent Thamesmead largely through the lens of pop culture.

"We show Thamesmead through the eye of Stanley Kubrick with location scouting shots from A Clockwork Orange," he says. "We show the visual appreciation of a filmmaker of the work of local authority architects."

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
Scouting shot of Thamesmead  for A Clockwork Orange

The exhibition also features a diverse selection of artefacts from Arts and Crafts wallpaper to contemporary crockery.

"We tried to make links that jump across categories and eras," Jacob says. "We show a piece of William Morris's willow-patterned wallpaper, but we also show a much later example of the decorative: the Trellick Tower-patterned plates and mugs by People Will Always Need Plates."

British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
People Will Always Need Plates mugs

Jacob believes that, recalling some of the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, there is a social message embodied in the use of iconic social housing projects as decoration.

"I think there's a hope embodied in these nostalgic products," he says. "Once we could plan, once we could imagine that architecture and planning could be part of making a new world."

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Sam Jacob
Sam Jacob
  • DJ

    Thamesmead… I lived adjacent to it for two years in the 1970s. Ghastly, and seemingly designed to promote crime.

  • Colonel Pancake

    The lack of self-awareness in this exhibition is either frightening or hilarious.

    For the love of God, leave massive development out of public residential architecture. Its abominable record in every corner of the world speaks for itself. Effective public housing is small, contextually-embracing, and most importantly, indistinguishable from its privatised developments next door.

    We need to stop detrimentally patronising the poor by giving them visually intrusive mega-complexes that easily distinguish them as public housing residents. Good intentions aside (and I’m starting to even question the intentions by these money-grabbing fools seeking public funds to design), all large public housing projects seem to do in their practical application is alert the rest of society where not to go, all while quarantining the public housing residents from those of means in heterogeneous communities whose proximity to them would be most beneficial to their social and economic progress.

  • dimitri

    They tell a slightly different story in here regarding the Hulme Estate:

  • Concerned Citizen

    I suppose in the UK they never heard of Cabrini Green in Chicago, the black hole of humanity.