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British Council panelists question who benefits from public space

Dezeen promotion: the imbalance of power in the decision-making process behind the creation of public space came under scrutiny in a talk held by the British Council and Therme Art last month at the opening of the Venice Architecture Biennale.

The importance of accessible public space, which has become a more pertinent issue in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, relates directly to this year's biennale's theme, which called for a "new spatial contract" founded on a more sustainable relationship with each other and our natural world.

The talk focused on the biennale’s central question, "How will we live together?"

In response to this, Therme Art and The British Council co-hosted a panel discussion called Experiments for New Spatial Contracts.

The talk was held by the British Council and Therme Art

The discussion was presented as part of Therme Art's ongoing Wellbeing Culture Forum, a talks programme launched in May 2020 to address the onset of the global pandemic and its cultural implications.

It focused on the idea of cohabitation prompted by the biennale's guiding question along with the British Pavilion's co-curators' response in The Garden of Privatised Delights.

Commissioned by the British Council and supported by Therme Art as a platinum partner, The Garden of Privatised Delights is an exhibition that invites leading architects and designers to consider and reimagine public space.

It was curated by Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese, founding directors of experimental architecture practice Unscene Architecture, and takes its title from Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Other speakers included Madeleine Kessler and Sarah Wilson

Bosch's painting takes a triptych format; the utopia of Heaven and the Garden of Eden is presented on the left and the dystopia of hell on the right. The middle ground of life on earth is presented in the centre of the painting where complex issues around innocence and guilt unfold.

In The Garden of Privatised Delights, Verghese and Kessler reimagine the painting in the context of contemporary public space in the face of increasing privatisation. It raises questions around inclusivity and access – a sentiment that Therme Group said resonates deeply with its mission of creating urban spaces for all.

"We saw it as an opportunity for architects to work with the public to develop more inclusive programmed inhabited spaces, and that's really our goal in the pavilion," explained Verghese.

The discussion happened at the opening of the Venice Architecture Biennale

"Public and private interests are intricately linked; both motivations need the other to function," said Therme Art.

"However, in our societies today, we often see misalignments in the execution of this melding of worlds. The needs of the public are often overlooked in favour of increased profit, and private stakeholders are typically not informed enough on the demands of the communities they affect."

Addressing the imbalance of resources, wealth distribution and power in the decision-making regarding public space, David Ogunmuyiwa, architect and founder of Architecture Doing Place and Mayor of London's design advocate, questioned who should be responsible for designing public housing and public space.

The talk centred on the importance of accessible public space

"I think this is a really unspoken barrier that is circumscribed by various institutional constraints," said Ogunmuyiwa.

"It's distilled down to a simplified idea of public and private when actually public and private often work in collusion to exclude and to make sure there is redistribution but it's often regressive."

Jayden Ali, founding director of JA projects, spoke of how his practice is trying to implement change through the projects it works on and in particular the Thamesmead Waterfront project in London that includes the creation of huge swathes of public space.

The discussion was presented as part of Therme Art's ongoing Wellbeing Culture Forum

"Our ambition is to work on projects that start to trial a new future and start to test those new relationships between the different people and the different inhabitants on-site, whether they be humans or non-humans," said Ali.

Commenting on London's historical and current public space offering, Verghese added:

"One thing we really wanted to explore in the pavilion is not just the removal of physical barriers, but also those intangible barriers. I think we all need to sit with some discomfort in order to really understand who these spaces are for and who gets excluded."

The talk was prompted by the biennale's guiding question "How will we live together?"

Other speakers included Sarah Wilson, professor of modern and contemporary art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

The talk was the latest in Therme Art's Wellbeing Culture Forum talks programme. Founded in 2017, Therme Art is the "cultural incubator" of Therme Group.

Therme Art is responsible for the outreach to the creative communities, curating site-specific artistic and architectural projects that "challenge the limitations of conventional exhibition spaces and redefine contemporary art viewing".

Therme Art works in cooperation with internationally renowned artists, architects and emerging talents. To view more about Therme Art, visit their website.

Partnership content

This article was written by Dezeen for Therme Art as part of a partnership. Find out more about Dezeen partnership content here.