• Nathan Stazicker

Building Brexit

Imagine a building fit for Brexit. Is it 10 Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, or Buckingham Palace, gloriously restored as the historic home of British sovereignty? Or perhaps a mock-Tudor semi, that classic pastiche of Little England, embodying all that’s nostalgic, individualist and hard-won.

For one architectural practice, a Brexit building is something altogether different. It’s an empty shell; a once-solid structure crushed beneath the weight of its own frantic bid for survival in a 21st century globalised world.

The British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale (designed by architects Caruso St John and artist Marcus Taylor) is empty. This is no ‘blank canvas,’ but a gaping hole in the international roster of architectural projects. The interior of the historic pavilion is devoid, but for the fragmentary traces of previous installations. The whole building is shrouded in scaffolding, like a patient undergoing surgery, while the roof is all but covered by a raised platform. From here – the crow’s nest of a sinking ship – visitors can see out across the other national pavilions and Venice’s vast lagoon.

British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2018. Drone photograph by Cultureshock Media. Photo from: www.dezeen.com/2018/05/24/caruso-st-john-islands-british-pavilion-brexit-venice-architecture-biennale/

Established in 1980, the Architecture Biennale is the younger sibling of the famous Art Biennale, which has been running every other year since 1895. Both exhibitions represent a contradiction in terms, taking place in the historic national pavilions which were built in the Giardini della Biennale in the first decades of the 20th century. How can the inherent nationalism of these pavilions (following in the footsteps of the World’s Fairs with the names of their parent countries chiseled into each façade) be reconciled with the globalised creative community celebrated by today’s Biennales?

One answer is old-fashioned iconoclasm. For the 2016 edition of the Biennale, the Deutsches Architekturmuseum and architects Something Fantastic knocked gaping holes into the walls of the German Pavilion, leaving the historic structure open to the elements for the duration of the exhibition. As a deliberate response to the pan-European migration crisis and huge influx of refugees into Germany, this extreme intervention pulled no punches, standing as a ‘welcoming gesture’ on the part of Germans to arriving refugees. [1]

German Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. Photograph by Kirsten Bucher. Photo from: www.metalocus.es/en/news/making-heimat-german-pavilion-biennale-di-venezia-2016

Broken into the blank walls designed by National Socialist architect Ernst Haiger in 1938, these openings afforded views straight through the pavilion. The architects reconfigured the pavilion as a microcosm for the country and its open borders. Their intervention negated the existence of the pavilion’s boundaries – and, by extension, those of the state it represents – offering visitors multiple entrances and creating a physically and metaphorically permeable and democratic space.

The Belgian Pavilion in 2018 is similarly welcoming and even more explicitly democratic. Taking the form of an ultramarine amphitheatre, the installation by architects Traumnovelle and Roxane Le Grell fills the interior of the pavilion with circular benches and re-imagines Europe as a united, hopeful continent. ‘The idea is that the existing walls are Brussels and the benches are the meta-nation growing inside this structure, transforming it, improving it, and transforming the existing environment,’ explains Jonny Leya of the Traumnovelle firm. [2]

Belgian Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2018. Photograph by Philipe Braquenier and Camille Cooken. Photo from: www.dezeen.com/2018/07/26/belgian-pavilion-venice-architecture-biennale-eurotopie

This transnational idealism positions architecture as an inclusive common denominator. Like the act of removing the walls, it opens up an explicitly nationalistic building to a wider public, asking them to enter and investing them with collective agency once inside. This year’s German Pavilion once again sets arbitrary boundaries in its sights – titled ‘Unbuilding Walls,’ the installation creates a fragmentary history of spaces situated along the path of the Berlin Wall.

How different this vision of Europe is from the vision of Britain on the other side of the Biennale Gardens. ‘It doesn't feel like something that you could do at any other time than the year before we're leaving the European Union,’ notes architect Peter St John. [3] Indeed, rather than throwing open our doors and celebrating freedom of movement, we are resigned to our new place on the fringes of European innovation.

We can see, from a distance, the hopeful projects of our once-close neighbours but we can’t throw our hat into the ring. What Britain says to the world in 2018 is that we’re happy to be a bystander; 'you be the movers and shakers instead.' From our raised pavilion – our shaky moral high ground, our isolated island, our slowly sinking ship – we watch as Europe moves on, welcoming those who want to join in.

The inside of the British Pavilion is empty this year but it needn’t be. Why not take inspiration from the 1993 intervention of Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik in the German Pavilion? They jackhammered the building’s original marble floor into splintered rubble, leaving it lying in situ beneath a sign reading ‘GERMANIA’ copied from the building’s façade; the elemental soil in the German microcosm of the pavilion was rendered a broken and inhospitable wasteland awaiting repair.

Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik, 'Germania-Bodenlos', German Pavilion, Venice Biennale 1993.

The Biennale might just be an exhibition - just an experiment - but it serves as Britain's calling card to the world. It shouts about where we came from and where we see ourselves going. The pavilions are reinvented every year, given over to different artists and architects with different visions of the world. We should take courage from the fact that a single building, with a single nationalistic identifier, located in a foreign country, can be many things to many people. And, despite the damages inflicted upon it, can be rebuilt, reopened, and renewed in the future.


[1] www.metalocus.es/en/news/making-heimat-german-pavilion-biennale-di-venezia-2016

[2] www.dezeen.com/2018/07/26/belgian-pavilion-venice-architecture-biennale-eurotopie

[3] www.dezeen.com/2018/05/24/caruso-st-john-islands-british-pavilion-brexit-venice-architecture-biennale/