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A Wild Sheep Chase

Time for the London Architecture Biennale

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: June, 2006
Another vain attempt to recalibrate the concept of celebrity and audience

On more than one occasion Cedric Price cited Brendan Behan's definition of a city as a place where you would be unlikely to meet a sheep in the road. As an exception that proves the rule, celebrations for the London Architecture Biennale commenced in pastoral mode with a sheep drive from Borough Market to Smithfield Market, crossing over the Millennium Bridge. Utilizing the historic droving rights of the Freemen of the City of London, eminent architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (last-minute replacements for a delayed-in-New York Norman Foster, ultimately responsible for the infamous wobbly bridge itself and perhaps psychically unsure of the side-effects of a mass ovine intervention upon his blade of light) coaxed the unimpressed flock into action alongside several shepherds and sheep dogs, a cut-throat mob of butchers in full Worshipful Company regalia, mounted police, local workers, disgruntled joggers, emaciated beggars, bewildered tourists, and vocal animal rights protesters. Initial plans included a Salvation Army band poised to launch into 'The Lord's My Shepherd' once the flock crossed the Thames and reached the new Salvation Army HQ. But the blood-and-fire brigade became nervous about playing after receiving telephone calls from animal rights activists who characterized the sheep drive as 'the work of the devil'.

This year the Biennale's suitably adaptive motif is 'Change'. To illustrate the innovative transformations happening across the city there's a designated walk from King's Cross to Tower Bridge through sponsored nodes of exhibitions and installations, performances and parties. As such promotional shenanigans liquefy into Architecture Week, the general public are asked to vote (again) for their least favourite building. Meanwhile, digital barkers coyly murmur online about meeting the people directly responsible for designing the most dynamic projects currently mutating the built environment of the metropolis. For ten days the cultural temperature is set to rise in that circle of hell known as Clerkenwell where a cluster of architectural practices will symbolically wedge open their covert portals, awaiting the formidable complexity of that section of the general public willing to interact with a veritable network of mouse-jockeys and model-makers, method actors and machinic agents.

If you add a dash of paranoid-critical vocabulary in the form of such tentatively interrelated phenomena as the 2012 Olympics, the blockbuster 'Modernism' exhibition at the V&A, the informatively titled 'future city: experiment and utopia in architecture 1956-2006' at the Barbican, the imminent arrival of the next Serpentine Pavilion (an anti-pavilion by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond), and the rise of the inimitable architectural historian Dan Cruickshank as the most tactile of TV presenters, surely any sentient person would conclude that the business of architecture has never been so popular, promoted, or prevalent (at least not since the Festival of Britain).

Mmn. In spite of the crowds that emerged for the sheep drive, architectural-related events occur far below the collective cultural radar for most folks. It seems that if you've the time and inclination to think about contemporary architecture at all then you've probably already bought tickets (or more likely, been invited) to one or more of the multiplicity of talks on offer featuring various high-profile pundits and practitioners (plus Boris Johnson). High-profile, that is, if you've the time and inclination to think about contemporary architecture at all . . . which reminds me of a remark the sharp-witted architectural critic and theorist Jeff Kipnis made concerning the constellation of architectural stars and their various satellites: when frequently discussed as a chain of first names, his wife perceptively noted that 'never had so many been so famous to so few'. Which is presumably why the sheep looked so unimpressed when they were forced across the Thames before being slaughtered for some clandestine post-Biennale banquet.

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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