The curators of the British pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale are Home Economics, a group who are taking on the current housing crisis through readdressing and redefining the very notion of the home.
We spoke to Shumi Bose, one of its three members and Senior Lecturer co-ordinating Contextual Studies for BA Architecture, about the project, how it will be presented, and its overarching aims for the future of housing.
Tell us a bit about Home Economics. How did the idea first come about?
Well, Jack, Finn and I have long been interested in relationships between ‘home’ or housing and the relationships of larger systemic conditions, like economic and political frameworks. Jack and I produced a book called Real Estates: Life Without Debt (Bedford Press, 2014) and Finn was one of the contributors, so we’d been thinking around the topic together for a while, as well as in our individual practices. We never expected to get the Pavilion commission, but we approached the Open Call for proposals as an exciting chance to consolidate and sharpen our thoughts on these shared interests over a few weeks last summer.
The theme for the Venice Biennale 2016 is ‘Reporting From The Front’. What does that statement mean to you?
We understood Aravena’s brief as one that asked practitioners to think about societal issues facing all of us, rather than strictly professional or vocational concerns. This chimes very much with our premise that architectural thinking is about more than the production of buildings; it’s about addressing and framing forms of life, for everyone.
Indeed none of us are actually fully-fledged architects, but we’re all interested in opening architectural and urban conversations to a broader public. The ‘frontline’ also suggests choosing the most urgent problems faced by British society today, and we thought that our present housing crisis was the obvious and only thing to address.
What do you and your colleagues hope to achieve with Home Economics?
The unchecked ambition of Home Economics is really quite high. We basically want to effect real, applicable change in the way we conceive, use and build and live in our homes in the future. We tried to build a degree of reality in from the beginning by inviting a broad panel of industry professionals to advise our five participating design teams: from high street banks and mortgage providers, to planners and developers; even Fergus Henderson, the (architecturally trained) chef-patron of St John restaurant, who advised us on British hospitality! But in all seriousness, the reason we did this was to ground all radical, speculative thinking the possibility of real application, real viability – and there is now a very high chance that some of the ideas we have fostered will actually develop into real built outcomes, which is very exciting.
Grand aims aside, we also want to challenge specific notions of status, ownership and community – and last but not least, we’d like people (not just architects) to enjoy the physical experience of being in the exhibition.
How will you present this project within the British Pavilion?
Architecture exhibitions are often tough for a general audience; ideas are often communicated through specialist terms or technical drawings. Because we want to engage the widest audience, we decided to revive the 1:1 exhibition format, as in to create an immersive space where visitors actually step ‘into’ an idea, fully modelled. They used to be popular in the early and mid-twentieth century (Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1956 House Of The Future exhibition was a precedent), but it seems to have been relegated to commercial showrooms now.
Secondly, we decided to use a fairly universal lens to approach the (actually very complex) topic of the British home: we figured that the greatest pressures and changes within contemporary life can be understood through time. What is a home for a day, as opposed to a week or a lifetime? We have arranged our exhibition to explore proposals for homes in incremental units of time: hours, days, months, years and decades. This unusual lens has pushed our participants to challenge their own preconceptions about how we live today.
What have been, or perhaps will be, the main challenges faced in doing this project?
I think it was quite hard for our invited participants to get their heads around the idea of time as the main parameter for housing; we’re used to thinking about typology, or site conditions, things like that. As far as we know, there has never been an architectural exhibition arranged through temporal duration, so we’ve been working out how to do that as we go along! But really the challenge has been balancing this huge commission against our existing work commitments, with a very strapped budget and an even tighter schedule.
We also decided to have lots of people involved, from artists and architects to various advisers, technicians, writers and more – which makes communications lengthier and more complex, but we think it’s worth it. It must be said, everyone we’ve approached to contribute to this project has responded with incredible enthusiasm and insight, which makes us feel we’ve hit on something interesting.
What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
As I said, we’d like to give visitors to the pavilion a pleasurable and thought provoking experience while they are in there. But if we can challenge people to rethink their own relationships to the idea of home and the larger problems of housing, that would be a real triumph. If we could get people to question their aspirations for ownership, for example, or the possibility of sharing space – that would be amazing.
Britain has so many embedded and archaic ideas about domestic space and we’re not pretending to have brand-new solutions – but we would like to believe that we can think again, in line with how we actually want to live. Oh, and if people would like to buy our catalogue, that would be great! We’re really proud of it, there are some great contributions in there, and it’s been beautifully designed by London-based studio OK-RM.
You’re currently teaching on BA Architecture, does Home Economics relate to anything you’ve been teaching at CSM?
Absolutely yes; Home Economics touches on everything that I care about, and that my students care about, in the Spatial Practices Programme. We’re not always talking about houses (although this year’s theme across the undergraduate course is Dwelling), but we do talk about how architecture relates to larger structures and contexts: the economic, cultural, social, political and moral realities affect and shape how we practice architecture, and how we live.
In BA Architecture, we don’t restrict architecture to buildings; it’s really a rich remit, and we encourage our students to think about the architect as a figure with all sorts of agency. Home Economics echoes this attitude: it’s not about clever formal experimentation, but rather evolving forms of life, which demand evolving forms of shelter. Plus, there’s a big issue about how you communicate critical spatial ideas, which are shared whether you’re making a portfolio or planning an international exhibition.
Finally, what are your own thoughts on the future of housing?
Oh that’s a tough one. Having immersed myself in thinking about it for these last months, I have tons of thoughts but no real answers! I’m intrigued by Britons’ long-standing, even problematic relationship with property ownership. In France, it’s perfectly respectable to rent well into adult life; here you’re not a proper grown-up until you have a mortgage. I wonder if it’s really necessary, or just the result of houses being read as assets, rather than places to live. In my position, ownership is looking less and less likely for me, so I’m interested in alternative models which offer the security of finding a ‘home’ without it seeming like an impossible goal financially.
I’m also interested in finding ways to allow younger architects, with innovative ideas about how we actually spend our lives, to build more housing. This country is so risk-averse, the vast majority of housing is built to a traditional, out-of-date model – and most of it by about a dozen volume housebuilders! I want to believe that my students, with all of their talent and idealism, will actually be able to find meaningful work housing the people of this country in humane, pleasant and affordable homes, which is what we need.
Home Economics will be on show to the public at the British Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale from May 28 – November 27. Stay tuned on the CSM blog for reports from some of our students who are heading out there.