An interview with Vanessa Norwood, Head of AA Exhibitions & Curator of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
10 December 2012 AA Exhibitions, London   AArchitecture 17 interviewed Vanessa Norwood, head of AA Exhibitions and co-curator of the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, earlier this year where she discussed what was planned for the Biennale and what still needed to be done. Now that it’s over, we follow up by asking her to assess the success of the pavilion, respond to its criticism and comment on how reality matched up to her previous expectations.  With the research and ideas embodied in the exhibition en route to be installed at RIBA for an opening in February next year, we were also curious as to how this change of context would impact the projects on display.   Before the Biennale, you were worried about what the British Pavilion would contain, having no clear idea what the explorers would bring back. Now that it’s over, were the results what you expected?   I’m not sure if worried is quite the right word! It was more a state of excited anticipation. Vicky Richardson and I had asked the explorers to record through a variety of means everything and everyone they came across on their research trips. I knew we would have a wealth of material; it was just impossible to imagine how it might look. In fact none of the images I held in my mind looked at all like our finished exhibition. I had certainly hoped that visiting the pavilion would reveal 10 personal voyages of discovery and I think that was completely successful. All of the explorers returned as ‘experts’ in their field of investigation and that passion for their subject matter really comes across in the show and the book.   What was your greatest success in putting together the British Pavilion and what was the biggest challenge?   I feel very proud that we pulled off such an ambitious project. Since the show was launched in late August the topics chosen by our explorers have proved to be totally relevant to the UK architectural landscape. The issue of school building in the UK has made headline news and Aberrant’s investigation into Niemeyer’s 1980s school building programme acts as a timely reminder that standardization can mean high quality. DRMM’s study of IJburg, a floating community close to Amsterdam, has been referred to in the press as paving the way for a serious investigation into the potential use of London waterways to provide new housing. Our biggest challenge without a doubt was the timeframe in which to pull off such a huge project but we always planned the show to last beyond the biennale’s life. I think the longevity of the explorers’ research proposals and the fact they were provocations to change British Architecture is becoming apparent. Bringing the show back to London will make their relevance even clearer.
What is your response to the comment that the approach was neo-colonialist?   Most of these criticisms actually came from one discredited source. It was a misguided criticism; colonialism is about imposing a set of rules with scant regard to local context. That’s obviously the opposite of what we set out to do. The central motivating force behind Venice Takeaway is the idea that the practice of architecture is as much about observation and thinking as it is about design.  No one would dream of saying to an architecture student ‘don’t even think of taking that unit trip abroad to look at how architecture is made there, that’s so neo-colonial’. The vast majority of visitors to the show understood our ambition to make a positive contribution through the presentations of ideas not only to the biennale but also to UK architectural practice.   How do you think the research will translate out of the context of the Biennale when it moves to RIBA?    It’s a great opportunity to be able to bring the show back to the place the 10 provocations of the show refer to: both Britain and RIBA in particular. As one of the two bodies that govern architectural profession in the UK, RIBA is cited in several of the proposals. Ross Anderson and Anna Gibb looked at procurement, noting that clients opt to procure projects, particularly public contracts, on a basis of expressions of interest or pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs), which inherently favour larger and longer established firms. The pair quote RIBA who commented that the lack of a level playing field excludes some of the most competitive and innovative businesses from the market: ‘As a stark example, turnover requirements typically applied to much public sector work above the OJEU thresholds means 85% of UK architectural practices are too small to be able to tender’.
Public Works, Urban Projects Bureau and Owen Pritchard argue for a reappraisal and reassertion of the role of the architect. They note the apathy towards the governing bodies of architecture commenting that in 2012 just one candidate stood for the role of RIBA president.   We have planned a rich and provocative events programme both at RIBA and the AA to accompany the show which will allow all the themes and ideas that make up Venice Takeaway to be agreed with and argued over, with many of the key players invited to join in the debate.   How are the different strands of research continuing?    All of the ten teams are continuing the projects they started for Venice Takeaway. The scale and scope of the proposals are very different as will be the outcomes; taking in websites as forums for debate and change, to the rebuilding of Belfast and potential floating communities for the UK.   Hugh Pearman recently previewed the RIBA outing of Venice Takeaway in the Royal Academy magazine by saying of the show, “if serious, thought-provoking architecture is your thing, don’t miss it.” I couldn’t agree more!   Image credit: Valerie Bennett   For more information: Venice Takeaway Venice Takeaway at RIBA AArchitecture 17, pg 40