Good Intentions

DSDHA's competition entry for the British Pavilion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale explored the heated debate surrounding publicly owned space as an enduring legacy of Modernity.

Good Intentions - A counterfactual History of South London

- Excerpts from the original submission for the British Pavilion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale.

This is the story of a plan. It was a plan created by successive governments in London from the 1940s through to the 1970s. It would have affected life in the capital in every conceivable way, changing the way London looked and functioned. It would have changed the development of the city forever. It was far-reaching and visionary; planning on a scale rarely seen in this country. It was a transport scheme to end all transport schemes. And it was utterly unacceptable to the general public.

The story of London’s Ringways – a proposal to drive a dense network of motorways through and around the capital – essentially came to an end in 1974 following the Labour Party’s victory in the General Election and their swift decision to abandon the scheme. In a very British victory, a protective nostalgia for public space had triumphed over the Modernist aspiration for efficient, networked connections. The Modernist dictum that nature and culture, public and private, are binary conditions had been rendered incoherent by the residual meme of the British picturesque, in which such polarities are charmingly compromised. The will to be Modern was lacking, and the vision for Modernity was to remain incomplete. 

Public space in London is undergoing dramatic change due to social, economic and political flux, and is often falling under private ownership. In response, an updated ‘Survey of London’ will be undertaken, with specific focus on the post-war development of public space in South London. 

It can be asserted that contemporary society’s expectation for publicly-owned space is an enduring condition of modernity. This legacy may be at odds with the thinking of the day, but suggests a particularly British absorption of modernity. Our research will evaluate and test this hypothesis, presented in four strands – the Past, the Present, Possible Futures, and a Counterfactual History, in which we imagine the consequences for the capital had its Modernist schemes been realised. 

1. Public space – The Emerging Legacy of Modernity

This is to be critical review of the development of public space from 1914 - 2014; its design, function, ownership and related local and national policy, examining the absorption of modernity.

2. Nostalgia 

The result of unrealistic projections for the future during the Modern Period. An examination of the British relationship with the picturesque and how this came into conflict with modernity and the loss of national identity. The work of ceramic artist Edmund de Waal would be used to investigate the relationship between Modern architectural conventions and British craft.  

3. The Incomplete Vision

We intend to resurrect London’s unbuilt schemes, with a particular focus on proposals for South London in the post-war period. A re-imagined London would be investigated through the work of landscape architect and horticulturalist Dan Pearson to allow a reading of modernity against the British picturesque landscape tradition.

4. Ownership and Patronage of Public Space, 1914 - 2014

A case would be established for public space as the enduring legacy of Modernity (and its relationship with the Welfare State), as the only element of the built environment that is still constructed by local authorities for the benefit of community. 

5. The ‘New Participants’ 

A look at the new groups of people who are currently bringing identity, specificity and reciprocity to public spaces – ‘Friends’ groups, community land trusts, the champions of local planning - the missing component of Modernist public space. This may be presented through an installation in the public realm around the pavilion, investigating the potential of collective action of ordinary people against the erasure of the local; the individual against the machine; the Luddite, in order to de-monumentalise the pavilion.

6. South London – A Test Bed for Modernism

With the relocation of the American Embassy (along with reportedly the Dutch, Netherlands and Chinese embassies) to the Vauxhall/ Battersea area, together with the redevelopment of the Southbank Centre and Heygate estate, the centre of London is shifting as everyone begins to look south. Through our research we intend to use South London as a case study, investigating its role as a ‘test bed’ for Modernism. 

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