The inaugural London Design Biennale debuts under the working title Utopia by Design, and celebrates the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia.
“We invited countries to interrogate the history of the utopian idea and engage with some of the fundamental issues faced by humanity, and suggest solutions to them that use design and engineering,” explains the show’s director, Christopher Turner. He wants this ambitious bi-annual project to show the ability of design to question, to provoke, to inform debate and find alternative solutions.
Sprawled across the halls of Somerset House are 37 utopian visions, each from participating nations, from China to Chile. Some countries offer tangible solutions, others more abstract ideas, a few observing a future that is more dystopia than utopia. Together they present an intriguing tapestry of possibilities for a shared utopian future.
The biennale winner, Lebanon, offers a snapshot of Beirut street life where a barber provides wet shaves, classic movies screen in a traditional cinema, fresh bread is baked and kebabs consumed. The work of AKK Architecture, Mezzing in Lebanon tells the story of a utopia that can be found in the present. It is the story of life in a volatile country where every day living takes on strong utopian longing.
Elsewhere, Germany explores utopia’s subjective roots. Designed by Konstantin Grcic, the pavilion comprises a light and dark room – the former exhibits the John Malkovich quote Utopia Means Elsewhere, whilst in the dark room viewers face a screen projecting a crackling fire as their minds drift off, for Grcic feels utopia isn’t a simple ‘fantasy of perfection’ but an open-ended concept.
Others have imagined entire utopian cities of the future. The Mexican installation Border City by architect Fernando Romero is a fully-sustainable, car-free place designed to accommodate rapid growth and encourage interaction; China’s Shenzhen is a series of self-sufficient tower/cities within one megalopolis.
National identity and migration form the basis for Italy’s 20 white flags – symbols of a utopian emblem of global truce seeking; and Turkey’s contemporary ‘wish tree’ asks visitors to send messages through the tunnel of pneumatic tubes that symbolise the country’s past and present migration paths.
Some have revisited failed utopian models. Chile rebuilds Cybersyn, the futuristic concept Socialist city envisaged in the 1970s; whilst Russia showcases previously unseen blueprints dreamt up by early Soviet designers.
Certain pavilions impress more with decoration than ideology. Chakraview, by India Design Forum, is truly beautiful – a woven installation of the country’s cultural heritage where traditional textiles and ancient mythology interact with modern design and contemporary innovations.
Lastly, the South African pavilions offer pure fantasy and optimism: Otium and Acadia by Porky Hefer are hanging nests in the form of wild animals – viewers climb into their open mouths so as to see a different universe.
- The London Design Biennale runs on from 7 to 27 September at Somerset House, London londondesignbiennale.com