An initial appraisal of the recent London Design Biennale curated by Christopher Turner: from the most convincing concepts, to the fitting dimension of Somerset House.
The most all-encompassing book on utopia is probably the one by Polish historian Bronislaw Baczko. Written in 1978, it revisits the history of utopias, starting from the ambiguous name born out of the syneresis of eu-topos, the best world possible, and ou-topos, a place that does not exist, or at least not yet.
It is because of this predictive and highly imaginative nature that utopia was the theme chosen by the curator of the first London Design Biennale, Christopher Turner, who stressed a firm desire to connect “architecture, design and engineering”, addressing interdisciplinary designers for their ability to express themselves via what he calls “critical and optimistic imaginations”. Criticism and optimism, the present reality and imagination, condemnation and escape, possible and impossible: these are the poles between which the historical debate on utopia moves.
Turner offered traditional references to the invited countries, starting of course with Thomas More and the Renaissance cities before moving on to Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City and Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow but also Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes’ visions for Chrysler and General Motors and the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller. Not all the contemporary designers grasped the theoretical thought or, rather, many did not feel conditioned by it and opted to go beyond it with their own proposals. In some cases, the hypotheses were true utopian cities, places where the eu-topos had a natural continuation from a past history into the future.
This is the case of Mexico’s Fernando Romero but also of the Spanish installation that imagined virtual and augmented realities that alter our perception of urban space. Some preferred to develop their alternative to reality via interaction, creating playful environments in which to move (Pakistan, Poland), or utopia offered an opportunity to condemn the critical environmental situation and think of potential eco-friendly alternatives – Australia and Nigeria moved in this direction – but, most significantly there was the wind/sustainable solution of the icon/manifesto chosen by Barber and Osgerby to represent Britain, the country promoting and hosting the Biennale. Up to this point, there was often an impression of crossing disciplinary boundaries, as if an architecture Biennale shifted temporarily into the field of design and where the dimension of the functional object gave way to the construction of spatial perception.
The vibrant part of this Biennale was provided by those who managed to think about utopia itself, sometimes contesting its philosophical status and sometimes prompting visitors to bring their own visions. Others simply underscored the dichotomy with reality. Reality as an alter-ego of the utopian was a surprising response that, in some cases, worked better than any escape. This applies to Lebanon – awarded the first medal by the international jury – which reproduced a Beirut street on the mezzanine facing the Thames, with all its chaos and contradictions. As too Dutch duo Makkink & Bey, who created a diorama in which the everyday silhouettes almost become spectres on the evanescent line between reality and the ideal. The impact with real life was also a winning choice by Russia, which opened its design archives for the first time to reveal the cold-war world, cut off and frozen in time but of huge interest and documentary value to fill a gap in history. Choosing reality is actually surrendering in the face a utopia that is not easy to pursue. Almost like saying that not even utopia can respond as a pursuable alternative to crushing contradictions of today’s world. Next came Italy, with a refined and sophisticated concept in which a select group of Italian designers were asked to design a white flag more as a symbol of the cessation of conflict than surrender.
In the “reality versus utopia” debate the broad mesh of the theme allowed objectives that did not really seem focused: from the Scandinavian productions, shown as at any event of the contemporary London Design Festival with the pretext of portraying the best of the possible worlds, to the choice made by America’s Cooper Hewitt, a celebrated school which by adopting the ploy of an “Immersion Room” found a way to virtually show off its wallcovering collection – of undoubted merit but hardly in keeping with the theme.
The proposals that appeared the most convincing – along with the already-mentioned Russian archives – were installations in which the designers sought to prompt visitors to reflect on the utopia of utopia, sometimes criticising its very deontological essence. I am referring to Austrians mischer’traxler, who created a poetic installation that reasons and makes people think about the unstable equilibrium governing things; and Germany’s Grcic who proposed nothing except a comfortable environment – a virtual living room with a crackling digital fireplace – to indulge the reflection and have his own imaginary escape (in the sense that utopia is the other place we construct in our minds); and Japan’s Yashuiro Suzuki, who invited us to consider other points of observation with works that activated illusionary perceptions as a necessary revelation to change our paradigm. The true utopia of utopia, in short, seems to consist in any solution proposed because, as Baczko argued, utopias are actually “anachronistic” by definition. Once they have been explained in form, they have been surpassed. The only practicable solution is that of thought, its activation and of utopia as a state of mind.
One last thought on the Biennale as an event. The fitting dimension of Somerset House and its connecting rooms produced an effective, reasonable and practicable route. The exchange between themes, designers and nations – if it still makes sense to speak of “national design” – was made possible.
However, throughout my visit, I kept thinking about a suggestion put forward in Italy about ten years ago. When a National Design Council was set up in 2007 by the then Minister for Culture, one of the seeming priorities was to create a Design Biennale in Venice. The charm of the Giardini della Biennale and the pavilions was hard to forget on my London visit. Yet another missed opportunity for Italian culture? Certainly, the cultural format of the Giardini, which has made the Venice Biennale one of the most enduring and incontrovertible Italian institutions to the eyes of the world, ought to be better protected. I would rather have seen the first international design biennale centred on a national pavilion formula in Venice. But, perhaps, this too is utopia.