Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson celebrates an exhibition at the V & A Dundee encouraging citizen engagement

THE ROLE OF ARTS FESTIVALS in this not yet post-Covid time is under scrutiny like never before – especially the high-profile kind that offer opportunities for global grandstanding to an international audience, such as the Venice Art or Architecture Biennales, with all the emissions involved in shipping participants, exhibits and visitors around the world not just once but often several times over the course of planning, installation and opening. This year the postponed Architecture Biennale has opened, but few people I know – other than exhibitors – are planning to visit.

Unlike the Venice Art Biennale, which offers unparalleled opportunities for artists representing their countries to raise their game and show their best and most powerful realised work to an international audience of people who might fund, collect or exhibit them, the Architecture Biennale is a showcase for ideas. The way in which these are shared – usually drawings, plans or models – is, to most non-professionals, somewhat impenetrable. Which brings us to another major difference: audience. Where the Art Biennale is, to any lover of contemporary art, a fascinating, multi-sensory and diverse smorgasbord of the world’s leading art practitioners, it is questionable whether anyone other than architects, critics, academics, cultural ambassadors or architecture students ever visits its architectural counterpart.

So in this year of questioning our less sustainable behaviours, I was particularly impressed when I heard that Scotland’s exhibit was going to be shown not in Venice but in Scotland and – more pertinently still – at the V&A Dundee, an institution that aims to celebrate and disseminate the value of good design. This chimes well with the message of the exhibit, by 7N Architects, about the role that communities can and should play in helping to shape their environments.

What if...? / Scotland is about ‘architecture unplugged’, says 7N architect Andrew Piggot. ‘It’s stripping away the layers of bureaucracy between people who make up the design community and addressing the people who inhabit the spaces. The theme of the Biennale is “how do we live together”. And we live together by talking and listening to each other more.’

This project actually predates their invitation to exhibit at the Biennale. In 2017, this medium-sized, Edinburgh-based practice wanted to reinvigorate their sense of purpose, and invited colleagues to share their thoughts about what they might like to do to their home city, if the usual limitations were cast aside. They then published their ideas in a pamphlet, which had ‘a phenomenal response’, says Piggot. So their proposal for the Biennale was to take that ‘what if?’ sensibility and apply it to five areas of Scotland in need of a refresh, pairing five people from that community with five designers to see what that collaboration might inspire.

The five places they chose were: Lerwick, Elgin, Paisley, Wester Hales and Annan, and they made sure their community participants offered genuine variety in age, ability, ethnicities and demographics with an equal variety of design professionals, including lighting and landscape designers, engineers, architects and graphic designers. Most importantly, they began each initiative with the local civilian taking their design professional on a guided tour, to show them their neighbourhood through their eyes, before sitting down together to dream up some winning solutions to the prevailing problems.

A series of workshops held in the Cloud of Dreams room invite young people to collaborate with designers
A series of workshops held in the Cloud of Dreams room invite young people to collaborate with designers

Lerwick, the UK’s most northerly and remote town, is the cultural and social hub of the Shetland Isles, home to more than 7,000 people – and the occasional cruise ship load of tourists, who rarely engage with the locals or their economy. The high cost of housing and construction make it unaffordable for many young people, who choose to live elsewhere. And these two issues – that lack of connection between visitors and locals, plus the lack of provision for that younger community – cropped up in the ensuing proposals, which ranged from visualising a piece of seafront infrastructure that would address problems of rising sea levels while creating an attractive promenade for visitors and locals, with opportunities for retail and even homes. Another was to reimagine Lerwick’s disused fish market as a meeting point for cruise passengers and locals by creating a vibrant pop-up food and event space.

In Elgin, a former county town at the heart of the Speyside whiskey region, bristling with historic buildings but lacking any high street animation, the latter issue loomed large, but triggered inspiring solutions including the use of lighting design to showcase the historic buildings and attract visitors to events and festive activities. And in Paisley, issues of access were explored through the proposal of a fully accessible bandstand, with toilet, in the city’s Fountain Park, with a palette of materials inspired by the signature Paisley print.

All proposed solutions – both in practice and in this finished exhibition – are presented as sketches and diagrams rather than highly worked renderings, and the text accompanying them is kept clear and accessible, quoting the citizens wherever possible. Piggot says: ‘The design community uses language which is quite exclusive and complicates what are often quite simple ideas. And these local citizens are better able to talk with eloquence and simplicity about their direct experience of living there.’

Next to the V&A Dundee’s first floor exhibition space where these projects are displayed is a generous screening room, where films present each interaction in their locality. The final flourish, however, is the one that might make this exhibition of enduring value to Dundonians. In the Cloud of Dreams room, a series of 25 workshops are being held until the exhibition closes in November, pairing designers with young people from different Dundee neighbourhoods. The fruits of these workshops are being printed and displayed against the area in question on a graphic of the city on the opposite wall. All visitors, in the meantime, are invited to write down their wishes for Dundee on a high bench festooned with pencils and cards, to then be cast in an elegant, elliptical ‘wishing well’ in the room’s centre, and then extracted to become part of the ‘cloud of dreams’: a sculptural assemblage of these cards suspended on wires from the ceiling. It’s a turbo-charged kind of community consultation that Dundee’s authorities would do well to respond to.

Pigott says: ‘The decision to exhibit this to a home audience is brilliant. And we will be doing our best to get to hard-to-reach communities.’ But he admits that, as the V&A’s new director Leonie Bell said at the official launch, it’s often not the communities that are hard to reach, it’s the architects and planners making the decisions. This initiative goes only a small way to redressing that but it does demonstrate the value of dialogue. And for dialogue to be meaningful the discussion must go two ways – which is why Piggot hopes that, at the very least, the citizens who participate in this project realise: ‘You have a voice. Please use it.’

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