The Gran Bretagna (or; The Definite Article)

The Gran Bretagna (or; The Definite Article)Here is our submitted proposal for the British Pavilion at the International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2020

Team: Hadrian Garrard, Director Create London; Nicholas Lobo Brennan, Apparata; Diana Ibáñez López, Head of Capital Projects Create London; Seb Emina, writer and editor

Proposal: This should include the concept and curatorial approach, including ideas about how this will be presented

What makes a pub a pub? Will this ever change? Is it just the booze that makes many people love pubs as buildings, inside and out? These and other tangly questions will be explored over a pint or two in a fully functioning pub occupying the British Pavilion in 2020.

Building on the contemporary British practice of transposing buildings with former lives (a cinema in Whitstable, a bank in Bishopsgate, a Methodist church in York) into pubs with an explicitly popular aesthetic, ‘The Gran Bretagna’ will explore the politics of place, space and country in a fun and immersive manner.

In 1946, George Orwell published an essay in the Evening Standard in which he describes his ideal public house, the ‘Moon Under Water’. It has all the qualities a good pub needs—in Orwell’s eyes, at least—including separate bars, no music, a beer garden, draught stout, cheap honest food, open fires and decor recalling a bygone (Victorian) Britain. Although the ‘Moon’ was fictitious (Orwell ends the essay by lamenting the lack of any such place), it had a significant impact on British life. On opening his first pub in 1979—the same year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose and the year before the inaugural Venice Architecture Biennale—the founder of Wetherspoon’s, Tim Martin, famously took his cue from Orwell’s imagined establishment. Nine hundred openings later, he is a prominent campaigner for hard Brexit.

Our intention is to borrow the ‘Moon’ back again. ‘The Gran Bretagna’ will embody Orwell’s ideal of “solid, comfortable ugliness”, exploring the role of contemporary supply chains as well as the increasing reuse of British pubs into other community-focused institutions, such as the pub in Ilford converted into a mosque, community-owned pubs and pubs in the countryside which double as libraries or post offices.

A range of commissions will create a familiar yet uncanny simulacrum of a “normal” pub. We’ll commission an artist to collaborate with Axminster Carpets to create a bespoke ‘chain pub’ carpet for ‘The Gran Bretagna’, which will respond to the pub’s setting, and we’ll work with pub sign-makers to make a gilt “The”, preceding the pavilion’s existing ‘Gran Bretagna’. For us, this definite article is a potent architectural gesture; as with the best transformations, it embraces what’s already there. Architects Apparata will source the exhibition fit-out exclusively from UK suppliers. We will loan major British paintings, the kind you find in typical British pubs, from our national galleries—offering the real thing to our punters. The dream is ‘The Hay Wain’ in the lobby, a Hogarth on the way to the toilets and a Turner in the sports saloon. The pavilion will at once become a working pub and a fabrication. In this it echoes the way in which all new pubs—how often do they feature a roaring fire on a plasma TV?—must trace out a compromise between verisimilitude and mere simulation. We are interested in fiction in architecture and notions of authenticity in design: arts and crafts elements that appear handmade but are in fact mechanically-produced, a comforting phoney-ness we happily fall for.

Like many pubs, ours will contain framed images and artefacts, except whereas some theme their decor around the history of the neighbourhood or the landlord’s collection of clocks, the motif here is pubs in general, and this pub in particular. Curatorial captions are therefore incorporated into the pub’s visual and editorial world via its atmospheric bric-a-brac. In lieu of an exhibition catalogue, a series of printed pub ‘newsletters’ will contain writing from  contributors such as Mawlana Yahya-Musa, from the educational arm of the Ilford mosque, pub-historian Pete Brown, and novelist Jeanette Winterson.

We will invite speakers such as pub landlord Ian McKellen; CEO Tim Martin; Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express on colonial food histories; HRH Prince Charles, patron of; the partially rehabilitated politician Ed Miliband and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (on how the CofE started in a pub). They will engage a vocal public in discussion on the state of Britain, architecture and the built environment, whilst pulling pints. For the launch, we will invite Asma Khan to run a curry night. A creche and outdoor playground section will be available during the vernissage which we will invite David and Samantha Cameron to staff, subject to a full DBS.

The pub’s role in contemporary British politics is well documented. Pubs are a key electoral stop-over for politicians and a national peculiarity of public life: pulling a pint for the cameras. Yet research shows that this symbol of quotidian ritual is in fact under threat, with 18 pubs closing every week last year, and rising. ‘The Gran Bretagna’ will be a platform for a range of voices from a country in transition, uncomfortable in its own skin and testing out its identity in the international eye of the Giardini. This is both a pub and an exhibition: an adventurous exploration of how design and architecture plays out in the psyche of the British public.

 Tell us why you are interested in this opportunity

Our hope is that through repurposing a pavilion into a pub, beginning in the most blunt manner by adding a definite article—a large, lit gilt The—to the façade, it will help the British Pavilion take on a more familiar, if albeit temporary, identity and character for audiences both at Venice and for those of us back in Britain.

We have recently completed ‘Panic!’, a programme of AHRC-funded research with Edinburgh University and Arts Emergency, into issues of exclusivity that increasingly characterise the British arts and creative industries. Architecture, in terms of how the gender, race and social class of its workforce reflects the British population, remains one of the worst professions in Britain.

Artists and architects seem too often to be engaged in a debate with only themselves. Perhaps this is inevitable when it comes to lofty subjects such as Whether Modernism Matters or how best to represent the nation in a pink Italian villa. But when it comes to the agency of the creative class in political dialgue—Wolfgang Tillmans’ poster in 2016 campaigning against Brexit: who is his audience for this?—it seems clear that the British Public really aren’t in the same conversation. In terms of how art and architecture can make the world a better place, perhaps this matters.

Tell us why this is the most relevant content and approach to represent Great Britain in 2020

We think that the British public house is a useful prism through which to consider the relationship between the dream a nation has about itself and the reality as played out through daily life. Because every pub is also a community of sorts, the creation of a pub here, at this particular time, offers a possibility of creating positive change through bringing people together for a difficult conversation.

The pavilion in 2020, referencing but not beholden to Wetherspoons, presents an opportunity for people who disagree with each other to come together in a familiar space, in an unfamiliar setting. In a divided nation, the partisan political views of its proprietor, inescapable thanks to the editorial take of the chain’s in-house magazine, add complexity to the customer experience—if you bitterly disagree with the views of a pub’s landlord, or if you don’t drink, can you still enjoy the curry nights?

Yet somehow, it is in these questions of daily habits and weekly decisions that clues for the way forward for a divided nation just might be found.

Tell us how you meet the stated criteria

The team behind ‘The Gran Bretagna’ has a strong track record in delivering multidisciplinary art and architectural projects, with a strong focus on community involvement. Create’s work is focused primarily in East London, home to more artists and arts organisations than anywhere in Europe, with the most diverse population in the UK and some of the lowest levels of cultural engagement. For the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad we were involved in commissioning Jeremy Deller’s ‘Sacrilege’, a full scale bouncy Stonehenge that toured the UK and was at once a comment on heritage and popular culture and a great day out.

Create and Apparata have worked together on a number of projects with significant community reach: the conversion of an 18th century farmhouse into a home for artists residencies and community led projects on Europe’s largest social housing estate; the transformation of the former Manor Park Library into artists’ studios and a community design and publishing house; and the forthcoming House for Artists, a new model for affordable artist’s rented housing.

Apparata are experienced architects and exhibition designers, for galleries in the UK and abroad; projects include the ‘Is This Now?’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Bahrain pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Create raises funding from a variety of sources and is experienced in delivering ambitious projects. All team members are strong communicators with experience in teaching at university level, and public speaking to a range of audiences.

Outline a proposal for a UK outcome for your British Pavilion exhibition, which can include a series of talks, workshops, films or exhibition. This proposal must include venues outside of London and show how this might engage the British public

We propose a pub tour of Britain as a UK outcome of the British Pavilion exhibition. An exploratory and adventurous programme of talks, walks and special events in and around pubs across the country.

We will develop a public programme of special events in collaboration with pubs that say something about architecture and the state of the British Pub. Community owned pubs, country pubs which double as post offices, pubs with extraordinary and ordinary histories will be invited to be part of this. We will invite architecture critics, historians and artists to lead tours and talks at pubs with particular design or social significance;  we’ll lead Wetherspoons walking tours in London and special lunches, quizzes and discos at pubs across the country. This programme will be developed in response to the Venice iteration of our project and the research leading up to this. We would like to explore the opportunity of a broadcast partnership documenting this process, with the dizzy aim of reaching as wide and, dare we say it, diverse an audience as possible. Inspired in some way by the Mass Observation Archive of the mid 20th Century we hope to use the lens of the pub to find out more about the state of our country through this process. We will begin discussions with contacts we have at the BBC (Radio and TV), Netflix and Channel 4 along with leading documentary producers if our Venice proposal reaches Stage 2.