Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale is wowing visitors while also addressing design’s social and cultural commitments, writes Susan Mansfield
‘So, we’re standing on top of Iceland right now,” says Tom Smith, stretching a hand to indicate Scotland on the interactive, sculptural map he and colleague Graham Hogg have spent many months building. Things look different from here, not only upside-down, but very much closer to our Nordic and Arctic neighbours. The north of Scotland, Smith reminds me, is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London.
“We have been re-imagining Scotland from what people may perceive as a fringe nation to something more of a frontier,” he explains. “Scotland is positioned very differently on most global maps to what this map shows. Here it is more of a bridge between the Arctic and the rest of Europe.”
We’re standing at the heart of Prospect North, Scotland’s exhibition at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, one of the most prestigious architecture events in the world. The map in front of us is poised to come alive with augmented reality technology by Glasgow-based company Soluis, developed for the gaming industry, but used here to tell stories of architectural engagement in communities. In the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, a former church on the Via Garibaldi close to the Biennale’s epicentre, the saints in the baroque altarpiece look a little surprised at what has been installed in front of them.
Scotland has been represented in Venice during the Architecture Biennale – which takes place in the alternate years from the art show – for more than a decade, but the scale of the projects has varied. In this, Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, the country has an official presence in the Biennale programme for the opening month as one of the “collateral” exhibitions selected by the curators.
Reporting From The Front is the theme set by this year’s curator, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. “We were absolutely delighted when Aravena declared his theme, because it ties in very much with the work that we do,” says Karen Anderson, chair of Architecture & Design Scotland. “We have a cultural remit, but our social purpose is also fundamentally important in terms of empowering communities. It was lovely to bring our cultural and our social agendas together.”
The exhibition proposal put forward by Smith and Hogg, of young company Lateral North, in partnership with Dualchas Architects, quickly caught their attention. Ian Gilzean, chief architect for the Scottish Government, says: “We liked the idea of showcasing projects in Scotland in an innovative way, and also linking up and making international connections. Lateral North is a young company wanting to work in this way. The partnership with Dualchas is also strong because they work in rural areas and have helped transform the sense of confidence in Scottish architecture and design. I also liked the innovation element, the way technology is being used to engage people.”
Navigating the map, headphones in hand, visitors are watching 15 short films which use Soluis’s augmented reality technology, bringing to life projects which range from a community hall on the island of Raasay to social housing with a Nordic flavour in Shetland, from Glasgow Women’s Library to cultural tours of Dumfries and a recycling centre on the Isle of Bute.
On what the Lateral North team is cheerfully calling the “interactive altar”, visitors can use iPads to examine Scotland through a range of overlays of information and watch a painting transform into an aerial journey. And at the far end of the map, where the lines of latitude begin to converge on the North Pole, they are invited to put on three papier mâché animal heads and watch 360-degree films which explore Scotland past, present and future.
Smith and Hogg speak of the “huge privilege” of being invited to represent Scotland at the Biennale. “It’s been tough at times, but I think we’ve delivered, for the budget we were allocated, an exhibition which will compete against others with bigger budgets,” says Smith. “We’ve had people in from New Zealand, Israel, Macedonia, all saying they’ve been blown away by the different elements of the show.”
Prospect North sprang partly from their masters project, An Atlas Of Productivity, which posed questions about Scotland and its future on the eve of the independence referendum in 2014. Hogg says: “We were thinking about what the reaction is of architecture and design to that, what architecture would look like in a future Scotland if it was independent, for example.” The exhibition will tour Scotland later this year as part of the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design and the Festival of Architecture.
Alasdair Stephen, director of Dualchas Architects, wants to pose some tough questions. His company’s involvement in the Venice project includes the publication of a book, Prospect North, in which ten Scottish writers, including Kathleen Jamie and Roger Hutchinson, respond in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, to the themes of the show. Dualchas is best known for developing contemporary architecture based on the traditional Highland blackhouse, and, with part of the practice based on Skye, has an interest in the practicalities of regenerating rural communities.
“There are big issues to deal with, like land ownership and taxation,” he says. “The land situation in the Scottish Highlands is worse than it was 20 years ago. Some nice architecture is getting built, but we had to open an office in Glasgow because there wasn’t enough affordable accommodation for our staff on Skye. We wanted to make sure this project is not just a PR exercise for the Scottish Government agencies. It’s important within this Biennale that we address some of these social issues.”
He said that more infrastructure is needed and that businesses in remote areas need superfast broadband and better transport links with the rest of the world. “It only takes one or two people within a community to change things, but they shouldn’t have to fight just for the community to survive. If they had more power, more access to land, more access to finance, more things would be happening.”
Prospect North makes an interesting addition to the discussion happening across the Biennale. In Aravena’s curated exhibition, “reports from the front” come from all over the world, including developing countries and war zones, putting forward innovative solutions and creative thinking from the edges of architectural practice. Among the national pavilions, countries employ a range of approaches: the Netherlands proposes designs around UN peace-keeping, Germany explores the impact of asylum seekers, the US pushes the limits of the imagination with proposed projects for vacant sites in the deprived post-industrial city of Detroit.
The exhibitions also range widely in the ways in which they present their material, with many relying on lengthy panels of text, detailed drawings and scale models. The augmented reality technology used by Prospect North stands out for its innovation, and its accessibility.
Fergus Bruce, of Soluis, which is involved in developing “serious gaming” technology for use in architecture and design, says this is no accident. “It’s very topical that we should be using this kind of technology at the Biennale because it’s looming up on the horizon in front of architects and designers. It’s going to disrupt the whole industry. Students who are going through architecture school now are digital natives, and they expect to be able to use digital technology to their aid.”
• Prospect North at Ludoteca until June 26, Venice Biennale of Architecture until 27 November, www.labiennale.org