2018 Architecture Biennial | Interview with Adam Caruso

2018 Architecture Biennial: British Pavilion

Interview with Adam Caruso

22. June 2018 | Words: Jasmin Jouhar
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 20 seconds

Splendid Isolation? Quite the opposite: Great Britain is presenting itself to this year’s Architecture Biennial in Venice as an open-minded, outward-going country – thanks to the curatorial team headed by the artist Marcus Taylor and the two architects Adam Caruso and Peter St John, who have scaffolded and emptied out the Pavilion under the title “Island”. A platform on the roof is conducive to far-sightedness. We met up with Caruso in Venice and spoke with him about extreme times, the role of façades and post-Bauhaus in Germany.

Mr Caruso, why did you choose the island as the subject of your exhibition at the British Pavilion? Aren’t you tired of everything related to Brexit?

Yes, the exhibition is connected to Brexit. But there is nothing in the pavilion or even in the catalogue that explicitly refers to contemporary politics. When you approach the building in the Giardini you see it covered in scaffolding. You are not sure if the British Pavilion is about to be demolished. Is Britain perhaps opting out of the Biennale? And then you enter and find the pavilion empty. We counteract this pompous building, its national machoism. On the roof there is a completely new space that connects with Grafton’s theme “Freespace”, a “Platz” with a decorative floor. From there you look out over the lagoon and the islands. We serve tea at four o’clock. We invited all the participating countries and organisations to use the pavilion. And a lot of them are. Our pavilion is entirely generous.

team british pavilion adam caruso peter st john marcus Taylor 2018 portrait Venice biennial island

The team for the British Pavilion: architect Peter St John, artist Marcus Taylor, curatrix Sarah Mann and architect Adam Caruso (from left).
(Photo: Cristiano Corte/British Council)

Does this mean that you are trying to build an image of Great Britain as you would like it to be?

Actually, if you think about national characters, Britain has often been a voice of moderation and of tolerance. It is a country where extreme views supposedly never take hold. But now we are in the age of extremes and some very extreme things are happening.

Over the course of your career you have already built or refurbished a lot of exhibition spaces. How did this experience affect your proposal for the pavilion?
Not so much. It was really Marcus’s idea, who is an artist. It is a bit like an exhibition design, it is a provisional piece of architecture, a situation you experience. Actually, our knowledge of exhibition spaces was more important for our contribution to Grafton’s “Freespace” exhibition. How and why do you do an exhibition within a big architecture exhibition? That is the question.

Could you please explain what your contribution to “Freespace” is about?
Its title is “The Facade is the Window to the Soul of Architecture”. Facades of buildings actually have the biggest effect on people. Whether you want to or not you have to walk by certain buildings every day – for instance on your way to work. They might be just neutral. They might affect you in a bad way. Or, in the best situation – like walking around in Venice – they make you feel a little bit better at a deep, subconscious level. We put up 22 facades of our current projects. The idea is that these facades are characters in the city, they set up a certain ambience. Underneath on the wall is a series of photographs by a friend of us, Philip Heckhausen. They show normal situations from twelve different European cities. Some buildings you might recognise, a few are even by us. But there are lots of very ordinary houses, so what you see is a constellation of diverse buildings. They have something to say to each other. That is what gives the identity to the European city.

Freespace 2018 architecture biennial biennale architektur venice caruso st john giardini exhibition facades fassaden interview adam caruso

Caruso St John’s entry for the main Biennial “Freespace” exhibition by Grafton.
(Photo: Caruso St John Architects)

When your building for the Bremer Landesbank was opened nearly two years ago, it caused quite a stir in the German architecture scene. It seemed to revive old antagonisms like traditionalism vs. modernism. Did you expect that?
We were the only non-Germans to take part in the competition and we were the only ones who suggested a brick building – in the middle of Bremen! That was a bit of a surprise. Why, in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where everything is in brick – Bremen is brick –, why would you make a bank headquarters in white stucco? The one thing you can do as an architect is to make buildings that are somehow relevant to the situation that they are in. I don’t think the reactions were about historicism or modernism. But they show that in Germany – with its particular history and the role of architecture in that history – a kind of post-Bauhaus modernism is still the approved, safest way of making buildings. So the reactions did not surprise me so much. But we are happy that the bank building is very popular in the town. During the open house days, thousands of people came for a visit. The people of Bremen totally understand how it fits into their town.