2016 London Design Biennale opens to the theme: Utopia By Design

Barber and Osgerby design for the British pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2016

Somerset House is staging the inaugural London Design Biennale which kicked off last week under the working title Utopia by Design. This ambitious bi-annual project joins forces with the now established annual London Design Festival to help secure the city’s position as a world-leader in the creative economy.

Whereas LDF is more about design and innovation, LDB concerns itself with ideology. ‘We invited countries to interrogate the history of the utopian idea and engage with some of the fundamental issues faced by humanity and suggest solutions to them that use design and engineering,’ explains the biennale director Christopher Turner. He wants this ambitious bi-annual project to show the power of design to question, to provoke, to inform debate and find alternative solutions.

The theme is also a celebration of Thomas More’s classic Utopia which turned 500 this year. The variety of responses from the 37 participating nations have been interesting to observe as they form an intriguing tapestry of possibilities for a shared utopian future. And some of the ideas here will certainly help inform our work at Spinach Design. Some pavilions have looked at tangible solutions for a possible utopia. Others have observed more abstract concepts. A few have envisaged a future that is more dystopia than utopia. One or two are relying purely on visual dazzle with sadly only a tenuous link to the working title.

Lebanon Pavilion by AKK at LDB 2016

The Biennale winner, Lebanon’s Mezzing in Lebanon by architect AKK, tells the story of a utopia that can be found in the present, a utopia of close-knit communities, of people enjoying food, music, street life. This is a snapshot of contemporary Beirut life – a scene from the streets of the capital where a barber provides wet shaves, a cinema shows Lebanese classics enjoyed on hand-sewn mattresses, fresh bread is backed and kebabs consumed.

Germany pavilion by Konstantin Grcic at London Design Biennale
Elsewhere, the German pavilion explores the subjective roots of utopia. Designed by Konstantin Grcic, it comprises a light and dark room – the former exhibits the poignant John Malkovich quote Utopia Means Elsewhere; in the darkroom viewers face a screen projecting a crackling fire as their minds drift off, for Grcic feels utopia isn’t a simple ‘fantasy of perfection’ but an open-ended concept.

Mexico Pavilion by Fernando Romero at LDB 2016

Others have imagined entire utopian cities of the future. The Mexican installation Border City by architect Fernando Romero, for instance, is a fully-sustainable, car-free place designed to accommodate rapid growth and encourage interaction. This binational city is built on the topical border between Mexico/US. China takes on a similar task. Here the concept comprises a series of self-sufficient towers/cities within one megalopolis, Shenzhen, currently the country’s fastest-growing urban setting.

Turkey Pavilion at LDB 2016 © Bradley Lloyd Barne

Others have looked at issues of national identity and migration. Turkey’s entry is a contemporary ‘wish tree’ by design studio Autoban. Visitors are encouraged to send messages through the tunnel of pneumatic tubes that symbolise the country’s past and present migration paths. The Italian pavilion curators see utopia as an act of deconstruction rather than construction offering a floor of twenty different takes on the white flag as the symbol for a utopian emblem of global truce seeing.

Chile Pavilion at LDB 2016 © Bradley Lloyd Barnes


Some countries have looked at historical models of failed utopias. Tunisia revisits Hungarian/French architect Yona Friedman’s fantastical utopian fantasies namely his mobile architecture. Russia showcases previously unseen blueprints dreamt up by Soviet designers, and screens a film about a utopia that never saw the light of day. Whilst Chile’s FabLab Santiago rebuilds Cybersyn, a futuristic concept city envisaged under Salvador Allende and created by the maverick cyberneticist Stafford Beer in the early 1970s.

India pavilion at London Design Biennale 2016

Some pavilions dazzle with their colours and textures. Chakraview by India Design Forum, for instance, is a woven installation of the country’s cultural heritage where traditional textiles and ancient mythology interact with modern design and contemporary innovations – the blend of the social, political and religious climates is there to represent modern India. Also worth noting is the brilliant South African pavilion which offers pure fantasy and optimism. Otium and Acadia by Porky Hefer are hanging nests in the form of wild animals – viewers climb into their open mouths so as to see a different universe.

South Africa at LDB 2016 © Bradley Lloyd Barne

The biennale director Turner wants the event to be ‘ambitious, creative and inclusive’ whilst the co-founder designer Sir John Sorrel sees it securing the city as the world’s design centre in the way the Venice Art Biennale has done so for the Italian city, saying: ‘If you believe in design you know it can make the world a better place, and I say the more international design dialogue the better.

Images: Barber and Osgerby, Lebanon Pavilion by AKK, Germany pavilion by Konstantin Grcic, Mexico Pavilion by Fernando Romero at LDB 2016, Turkey Pavilion at LDB 2016 © Bradley Lloyd Barne, Chile Pavilion at LDB 2016 © Bradley Lloyd Barnes, Indian pavilion, South Africa by Porky Hefer © Bradley Lloyd Barne

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Italy pavilion at London Design Biennale 2016
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