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Dark Satanic Orange: Biennale British Pavilion Bereft of Bite

The amusing collaboration between FAT and Crimson for the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale joyfully celebrates the heyday of British Modernism but lacks a critical voice

What do Cliff Richard and Joy Division have in common? Not a lot, besides their (very different) responses to postwar architecture, both of which are included in the British Pavilion show. In Kevin Cummins’ celebrated photography, Joy Division pose in Manchester’s Hulme, where their record label was based, and the stark spatiality of their music echoes the sublime Brutalist hulks of the Hulme Crescents. And then there’s Sir Cliff, whose 1973 film Take Me High was filmed in Birmingham’s concrete jungle. For Cliff, though, the modern city is a backdrop for a weird tale of star-crossed lovers: the forces of capital and socialism.

The pop-cultural afterlife of British Modernism is one of the main themes of A Clockwork Jerusalem, curated by Sam Jacob (of disintegrated practice FAT) and Wouter Vanstiphout of Crimson, a Dutch collective of architectural historians. Their show covers a vast time span, from prehistory – Stonehenge is a recurring image – to the present day, in the form of a dinner service printed with Brutalist buildings: the perfect gift for the gentrifier in your life.

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In this mural Stonehenge blurs into Hulme Crescent via Bath’s Royal Crescent - perhaps a riposte to the assertion of Postmodernists that Modernist architecture lacked grandeur

There are many intriguing nuggets here suggesting the possibility of an architectural avant-garde better equipped to reach out to a mass public, but on the whole the exhibition is – despite protestations to the contrary from all involved – a nostalgic celebration of Britain’s postwar Modernism, and fails to address just how such engagement might be achieved in the future. There is an unmistakable bluntness of fangs: maybe a sharper edge could have been achieved if Owen Hatherley had remained on the curatorial team, as originally billed.

Nevertheless, there are some effective if oblique moments of critique: one of the more intriguing gambits is the photomontage mural showing Stonehenge melding into the Royal Crescent in Bath, which then becomes part of Hulme Crescents in Manchester. It seems a direct rebuttal of Charles Jencks’ mystifying assertion that Brutalist estates lacked grandeur or any sense of history – and then in the centre of the room is a mound of earth, referencing the doomed landscaping of Robin Hood Gardens, but perhaps also the grave of the welfare state – which has been transformed into a climbing frame with bright pink steps. Dancing permitted, at your own risk.

Photography

Cristiano Corte for the British Council

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