Amy Young's letter from Venice

Towards a New Architecture

Flying in over the lagoon, Venice revealed itself slowly. The boat weaved through the islands, and the articulation of towers, roofs and grand facades emerged on the horizon. Stepping onto the cobbled canal-side streets, there was an immediate closeness and intimacy as I wandered the back streets, meandering through clusters of tourists. The city fell into a rhythm of expansion and contraction; narrow streets opening into generous squares, then closing in again.

Moving southwards, the Giardini in Venice hosts the Biennale; the location I would spend most of my time during my month’s residency. Filled with towering trees and dappled light, different pavilions were placed throughout the garden, each with its own architectural language, a snapshot of both the time and context in which they were built. Each country’s response to the biennale’s curatorial theme of ‘Laboratory of the Future’ seemed to reflect that nation’s particular stance on the world; demonstrated through both the content presented and content absent. 

For the 2023 edition, the British pavilion was curated by Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham, and featured work from five artists; Mac Collins, Yuessef Agbo-Ola, Madhav Kidao, Sandra Poulson and Shawanda Corbett. The pavilion covered the theme of how everyday rituals of diaspora groups in the UK are a form of spatial practice and a new way of thinking about architecture and the built environment. The art chosen by the curators told a rich story of how different people, who are frequently under-represented, are agents in the spaces they occupy and the power they hold to write their futures accordingly.

Standing outside on the portico of the pavilion, I would often ask the visitors whether they had enjoyed the British pavilion. The most common response was: “But is this architecture?”

Although initially reticent, I began to come up with something to say:

What is architecture in the context we live within? Is it still just beautiful bricks and mortar? Is it still exuberant buildings for the wealthy? Is it still reserved for a professional elite? Is it still arbitrary sculpture at the expense of the climate?

As we head towards both a climate catastrophe and a humanitarian crisis, our definition of architecture must shift, and that is exactly what the curators of the British Pavilion have attempted to do. They are saying: ‘The built environment is for everybody, and we should all feel a sense of ownership over our surroundings’.

The sculptures by the five artists demonstrate just how non-architects perceive and respond to the space they occupy, emphasising that under-represented groups, like the UK’s diaspora, have as much of a right to architecture as anyone else. If we are to do what is necessary and reduce the number of buildings we build to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, the way we interrogate the everyday life of our existing buildings is paramount, and understanding the rituals that take place within them is an essential key to realising the opportunities and failings of different spaces.

The British pavilion calls for a seismic shift in how we perceive the built environment, that doesn’t rely on exploitative and extractive processes driven by capitalism and colonialism, but instead advocates for something new that engages with community, indulges in a slowness of observation and gives people agency in the space that they occupy.

Whilst in Venice, this train of thought followed me on walks through the city in search of everyday rituals and the mundane activities taking place in corners hidden away from the swathes of tourists. It took me to gardens in monasteries, dockyards, washing-lined streets, Sagra festivals, church choirs, communist bars, train stations and bus stops. I observed the way people actually use the city, as opposed to the grand palazzos and monumental landmarks usually associated with Venice. It revealed, like the pavilion, the value in the parts of the city that remember people and the planet – as opposed to increasingly irrelevant markers of what matters in architecture: style, form, ornament, and décor.

Moving through this process of redefining what architecture could be was one I had already been grappling with; but being in Venice and working at the British pavilion contextualised it, suggesting alternative ways of thinking.

Coming back to London after the summer to return to my studies (Master of Architecture RIBA 2), the ideas from Venice were still on my mind. I joined the student collective MASS: Metropolitan Architecture Student Society, which runs a lecture series each year. In an almost accidental fashion, the series became the outcome of my time in Venice. Alongside six other students – Emma, Emily, Hannah, Martha, Ollie and Matt – we came up with a series concept themed around the idea of ‘Anti-Apathetic Architecture’ which resulted in a series of recorded talks available to view on YouTube, hosted by the Architecture Foundation. As a challenge to how we think about architecture, socially, economically, environmentally, and politically, this theme offered a direct link to lessons learnt at the British Pavilion.

Having the opportunity to live and work in Venice was a life-altering experience; having time to reflect upon and question what the practice of architecture is today fundamentally changed the direction of my future and hopefully, through the influence of the lecture series, the future direction for others too.


Venice Biennale with a photo of Amy Young

London Met Student Amy Young shares her experience of the Venice Biennale 2024 as part of an inspiring collective account authored by London Met's representatives at the world-famous event.