Opening this week, the first ever London Design Biennale launches at London’s Somerset House. 37 countries spanning 6 continents have pitched their pavilions, representing the foremost design by architects, scientists, artists and writers. Spread throughout the building, each pavilion offers visitors the chance to interact with brand new works, examining the theme of utopia. The theme celebrates the 500th anniversary of Thomas Moore’s landmark work on utopia, with explorations of what it means in the past, present and future, offering solutions to improve humanity in the 21st century.
Highlights include Turkey’s room, in which a large-scale dream machine has been installed. Visitors are encouraged to write a wish on a piece of paper which is then inserted in to a capsule that flies through the air in a series of clear plastic pipes, before circling the building and ending in a mysterious “wish room”. The walk-through installation re-examines the idea of a wishing tree – a fixture seen throughout Turkey where people can tie a wish to a branch. As a response to the current migrant crisis, the designers Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Ça?lar have created a piece that highlights Turkey’s position as a bridge between the war-torn Middle East, and what migrants view as the utopia of Europe.
The Lebanese Pavilion brings a slice of Beirut street culture to the Thames embankment – a mock up of tented structures, old vehicles and plastic furniture makes it possible for visitors to interact with a hive of activity as if in the city itself. You can have a wet shave while drinking freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, followed by a game of backgammon and a shisha pipe. The furniture is upcycled plastic forms and the music and aromas transport you right to the Paris of the Middle East. The architect Annabel Karim Kassar saw the brief as a chance to depict her own utopia as already existing within her current community. The piece reassess what we already have, rather than desiring for more – helping boost cultural understanding and appreciation.
Greece’s area highlights the current migrant crisis that has greatly affected the country, in comparison to the ancient trade of marble from its famous quarries. Mapping the routes taken by the stone 2,000 plus years ago, compared with the routes taken by migrants coming from the Middle East and spreading throughout the continent, it re-examines the flow of goods versus the flow of people and highlights a history of migration. The word utopia comes from the Ancient Greek for “No-place”, and here is set amid the context of a borderless vision of feeling both lost, and a global citizen. A piece of Marble form the same quarry that birthed the Parthenon presents a landscape in which heritage is shared and cultures merge, offering a bridge between disparate communities.
Each of the Pavilions offers a unique take on the brief – from walk through large scale installations to graphic mood boards and virtual reality experiences. Designers have clearly made a conscious effort to represent their cultural identity, sometimes with caricature results – China’s section is incredibly high-tech and speaks of mass populations living in a corporate and political ideal, Russia’s offering is starkly uniform and soviet-esque, Australia tackles issues of ocean pollution and the Scandinavian countries are strongly furniture design led. The Biennale’s reach is far and wide, with a variety of offerings that excites at each turn – it’s successful in its ambitions at engaging the audience, making every person stop and reassess what their personal utopia is, and how through clever design, a brighter future is achievable for all.
London Design Biennale 2016, Somerset House, London. 7–27 September, open daily from 11am. Tickets £15/£10. For more information visit www.londondesignbiennale.com