When Sir William Chambers designed Somerset House as London’s first great government office complex in the 1770s, he wrote into the building’s covenant a clause forbidding any vegetation in its grand central courtyard that might distract from its rational neoclassical lines.
“It was my punk, rock and roll, rebellious instinct to say ‘fill it with a forest,’” says Es Devlin. As artistic director of the London Design Biennale, she was able to make her instinct a reality; visitors to the biennale in June will find the 39,000 sq ft cobbled space filled with 423 mature trees.
A rock and roll gesture might be expected from Devlin, whose work includes stage designs for U2 and Kanye West, but the courtyard’s temporary rewilding is intended to stimulate thoughts about the potential for greening urban centres. “I hope this is a statement that will pop up in people’s minds when they are in meetings about what to do with certain spaces in cities,” she says.
Tree planting and conservation are also important to achieving several of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals for ending global poverty and resources depletion by 2030. A pavilion dedicated to the goals sits in a clearing in Devlin’s grove.
The potential for design to promote environmental and social change is a thread that runs through the third iteration of London’s global design showcase. The exhibition is three months off being a triennale, having been postponed from last September by Covid-19 restrictions and, though its theme — resonance — is the same one that was announced in 2019, biennale director Victoria Broackes insists “It’s very much not last year’s exhibition held over.”
Most exhibitors have taken advantage of the extra time to modify their designs, she says, and some have changed tack completely. Studio Elsewhere’s New York City pavilion was intended to be an installation about migration until the designers found themselves equipping “recharge rooms” for overstretched hospital staff during the pandemic’s first wave last year.
Their new biennale exhibit is a representation of one of these “multisensory healing environments”; its artificial greenery, soothing music and landscape projections all intended to aid destressing. The NYC contribution will be shown on video screens in Somerset House; quarantine rules prevented Studio Elsewhere’s designers coming to London.
International travel curbs also limited many exhibitors to making site-specific physical installations site unseen, working from photographs and room plans. Some short-circuited the problem by responding to Somerset House’s history rather than its fabric.
For the Ghana pavilion, textile designer Chrissa Amuah and architect Alice Asafu-Adjaye look back to the Tudor mansion that stood on the site beside the Thames before Chambers’ building. In the early 17th century the house served as a cultural salon for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.
Amuah and Asafu-Adjaye have asked “what might have been?” if Queen Anne’s net had been cast wider than Europe to include artists from other continents, including what became known as the Gold Coast when the British colonised Ghana in the 1800s.
The result is a room hung with massive overlapping, gold-burnished metal discs, beaten thin by Ghanaian craftsmen and imprinted with the textures of adobe hut walls. On the river terrace outside, American designer Ini Archibong’s Pavilion of the African Diaspora takes the form of an arched shelter inspired by the shape of a cowrie shell, for centuries a currency in Africa and south and east Asia.
Some of the 19 physical country or city-sponsored installations approach their subjects obliquely. “DUCkT”, by Canada’s Revery Architecture, makes the reliance on energy-intensive artificial heating and cooling in many countries something too big to be ignored. Two elephantine tubes span a room, forcing visitors to bend double to pass underneath them; a literally uncomfortable reminder of the climate-change accelerant services we take for granted.
Other contributions are more straightforward. Dea Widya’s Indonesia pavilion places us in the 390 square feet commonly allocated as social housing to residents of Jakarta’s Penjaringan district, evicted as the area was rezoned for offices. Projections and audio loops convey the alienated existence of families decanted into tenements on the edge of town, living out of boxes because their furniture will not fit their new lodgings.
More optimistic exhibits include the India pavilion, featuring proposals for renewal projects such as Mathew and Ghosh Architects’ plans to remediate the contaminated land and build a memorial park at the site of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak in Madhya Pradesh.
Taiwan’s contribution, by the Bito design studio, is a space whose walls are hung with hundreds of glowing temple lanterns, while a cluster of black metronomes allows visitors to set the time for a “melodious concerto of goodwill, faith and compassion”.
Germany’s “Spoon Archaeology”, by Peter Eckart and Kai Linke, celebrates the EU’s recent ban on disposable plastic cutlery with a display of hundreds of variants, accompanied by a film reminding us how various cultures have managed for millennia to eat with their hands.
If the whole biennale is perfused by flux the pandemic has created — and the sense, as Broackes says, that “this is a moment when people are listening and looking for ways to improve things” — there is one section that is also a direct response to the upheaval.
“When we couldn’t do a biennale last year but could see people responding creatively to the crisis we sought to make something of that,” says Broackes. An open call to submit design ideas on the themes of environment, health, work and society drew 500 responses from around the world.
These range from a sculpture that doubles as an energy-free air conditioner to a blueprint for making your own coffin from recycled cardboard. They form an exhibition within the exhibition and an online gallery.
“It feels like a world conversation about how things could be better,” says Broackes of the collection, which will travel after the biennale ends.
The biennale’s web presence has been ramped up to compensate for the restricted numbers who will visit Somerset House under a timed-entry system. The Italian, Norwegian and Pakistani pavilions are exclusively online and all talks at the exhibition will be live-streamed for the first time, increasing the exhibition’s resonance beyond its home on the Strand.
The organisers have tried to ensure the show wastes as few resources as possible. At the end of June most exhibits will be transported back to be shown in their own countries or, at worst, have their components recycled.
“It was a first question for every exhibitor: what happens next?” says Broackes. The trees of the courtyard forest, their roots carefully protected, are earmarked for reforestation schemes in inner-London boroughs; the installation making a small contribution to the urban regreening Es Devlin hopes it will inspire.
The London Design Biennale runs at Somerset House from June 1-27
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