The British Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale Explores How to Make Public Space More Inclusive

The British Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale Explores How to Make Public Space More Inclusive

Curated by Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler, co-founders of multi-scalar design practice Unscene Architecture, the British Pavilion exhibition entitled The Garden of Privatised Delights, at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, will be open to the public from the 22nd of May until the 21st of November 2021. Commissioned by the British Council, the exhibition “reimagines how to make public space more inclusive, countering the rapid rise of privately-owned public space with an inspiring, alternative vision that urges both sectors to work together to create better-designed spaces for all”.

As the Biennale was postponed due to the global pandemic, topics tackled within The Garden of Privatised Delights have taken on new relevance. Exploring the demise of the high street; how facial recognition technology is used; and the decline in dedicated social places for teenagers, the intervention also focuses on public spaces. Madeleine Kessler explains that "the global pandemic has highlighted the importance of accessible public spaces and made the need to address issues of inequality even more critical. The Garden of Privatised Delights proposes proactive ways in which we can work together towards a more equitable society, including widening consultation on and inclusivity in design, to ensure public spaces are truly accessible to all".

Transformed into a series of six immersive spaces, the British Pavilion will create an interactive experience of architecture. Taking inspiration from Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, the exhibition questions who owns and who uses the public space. Moreover, it highlights challenges and offers insights into how to make better use of green spaces in urban environments; can we rethink how public land is allocated and used; and how can the local pub be repurposed to serve the wider community? On that note, Manijeh Verghese adds that "the high street, the pub, even the public toilet are more under threat than ever before. Challenges around accessing these spaces are especially pertinent as isolation in communities is being felt even more acutely. How public space has traditionally been designed and used needs urgent rethinking, and The Garden of Privatised Delights intends to inspire and encourage action to support those challenges".

The British Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale Explores How to Make Public Space More Inclusive - Image 2 of 4
Design by Kellenberger-White. Image Courtesy of The British Council

On another hand, Kessler and Verghese have invited five additional teams of designers to collaborate with them on the British Council commission: The Decorators; Built Works; Studio Polpo; Public Works; and vPPR. Each room in the pavilion will critique how specific public spaces are currently designed and used. Themes explored include:

  • Publicani (The Decorators) - could the pub be more than a place for drinking and become a versatile center for civic action?
  • Ministry of Collective Data (Built Works) - could we rethink facial recognition technology and free our collective data for public benefit?
  • High Street of Exchanges (Studio Polpo) - could the high street go beyond commercial interests to become a place of diverse social exchange?
  • Ministry of Common Land (Public Works) - could we use citizen assemblies to develop new strategies for land ownership and use?
  • Play With(out) Grounds (vPPR) - can we design new spaces in the city for teenagers to occupy on their own terms?
  • Garden of Delights (Unscene Architecture) - could we open up and reprogramme exclusive garden squares to create more public outdoor space?

We continue to work with an amazing team of design collaborators to explore different types of privatised public space in The Garden of Privatised Delights. By initiating conversations around how the private and public sectors can work together, we hope to prompt the public spaces that are missing in cities, and make them accessible to all. By expanding the definition of what privatised public space can be, as well as widening the debate around who can access, own, design and use these areas, our ambition remains to inspire more welcoming and beneficial public spaces for everyone to enjoy. -- Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler.

Read below to discover more about the design team.


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Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler. Image © Cristiano Corte

Manijeh Vergheseis a co-founder of Unscene Architecture and the Head of Public Engagement at the Architectural Association (AA), where she is also a Unit Master of Diploma 12, a seminar leader for the AA Professional Practice for Fifth Year course, and a member of the Senior Management Team. Over the past nine years, she has led postgraduate and undergraduate design studios at both the AA and Oxford Brookes University and has taught workshops and courses across universities in the UK and abroad. Previously, she has worked for architecture practices including John Pawson and Foster + Partners, and has contributed to design publications, think-tanks, books, and peer-reviewed journals. She is currently an External Examiner at Cambridge University and on the curatorial panel for the 2021 London Festival of Architecture.

Madeleine Kessler is a co-founder of Unscene Architecture and director of Madeleine Kessler Architecture. Trained as an architect and structural engineer, she sits on the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group and teaches at the London School of Architecture and Architectural Association. Previously, she worked on cultural and public realm projects at Haworth Tompkins, HHF Architekten, Studio Weave, and as an Associate at Haptic Architects. She has worked on projects including Battersea Arts Centre, Kings Cross W3, St James's Market Pavilion, and Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Oslo Architecture Triennale. In 2020 she was named in the Architects’ Journal 40 under 40, and she was awarded the 2019 RIBA Rising Star Award.

Room designers

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British Pavilion © John Riddy. Image Courtesy of The British Council

Unscene Architecture was founded by Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese in 2019. It operates across disciplines and scales to reveal the unseen forces that shape our cities, working with local communities to give them greater agency over how they use and occupy their spaces. Providing a platform for design, research, curation, and realization, it aims to provoke a wider conversation about the city through action rather than just words.

The Decorators is a collective of designers with backgrounds in landscape architecture, spatial design, curation, and psychology. They curate interventions and actions to make communities and social networks visible. Putting conversation at the heart of their process, they examine the means by which they can maintain a critical and meaningful exchange between communities and the urban regeneration forces they are subjected to.

Built Works is a creative practice exploring the intersection between art and architecture. With a focus on emerging technologies and the impact of their use on citizens and the built environment, it constructs one-to-one working prototypes of concepts and systems in order to test ideas through physical experiments.

Studio Polpo is a social enterprise architecture collective based in Sheffield. Its work is undertaken through exchanges with others, including people from different and diverse disciplines and backgrounds, an approach that can lead to more critical, situated, and responsive architecture. Collaborative practices allow the studio to address wider issues relating to spatial, social, and ecological justice. It is connected to activist, community, and cultural projects, and works with them to co-construct questions, themes, and sites for action.

Public Works is a not-for-profit critical design practice set up in 2004 to occupy the terrain in between architecture, art, and performance. Together with an interdisciplinary network, the studio reworks the city’s opportunities towards citizen-driven development. It aims to create long-sustained relationships that build commonality and trust and enable co-authorship.

vPPR Architects was set up in 2009 by Tatiana von Preussen, Catherine Pease, and Jessica Reynolds. The studio believes in the continual crossover between art and architecture, seeking creative solutions that strengthen communities, no matter how large or small. The practice is working on public housing, cultural and mixed-use projects and has recently completed a multi-generational playscape in Higham Park in London.

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Cite: Christele Harrouk. "The British Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale Explores How to Make Public Space More Inclusive" 29 Mar 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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