ReCasting Venice Biennale


In 2017 Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, curators of the 2018 Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition, invited Alison Brooks Architects to create an exhibition in response to the Biennale’s theme of ‘Freespace’, through the subject of housing. Their theme celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project. It closely related to ABA’s manifesto stated in our 2017 book Ideals then Ideas: Authenticity, Generosity, Civicness and Beauty.

Our proposal consisted of a large-scale, site-specific installation in the Corderie dell’Arsenale. We re-cast the four essential freespaces that characterise our work in housing: Threshold, Inhabited Edge, Passage, and Roofspace, as inhabitable ‘totems’. The four totems invited exploration. Each totem offered a particular spatial, emotional and sensory experience. Sharing a unifying plinth, the totems framed an amphitheatre and collective gathering space that harnessed the Arsenale’s specific qualities of light and volume. ReCasting also communicated mystery and delight: our totem’s mirrored surfaces, organic geometries and forced perspectives created a series of expansive illusions.

The Threshold totem is a huge arch representing one of the eighty-seven brick arches defining the practice’s high density urban block in London’s King’s Cross. These distinctive Bezier-curve arches act as structure, destination, shelter, and landscape frame. The arch has been ‘dematerialised’ so that it radiates light between thin sheets of plywood. Within its cross-vault, parallel mirrors create the illusion of an infinite colonnade.

The Inhabited Edge totem explores the potential to enrich the experience of housing architecture with occupiable places between interior and exterior – critical spaces that mediate between the public realm and domestic life. This totem recasts the angled facades of our Brass Building at Accordia, Cambridge to communicate its multiple spatial and light effects. Perpendicular mirrors multiply these effects to present visitors with a kaleidoscopic illusion of the building’s complete form.

Every corridor has the potential to offer an experientially rich journey; this is the totem describing Passage. This totem references our Exeter College Cohen Quad at Oxford University, where arched, glazed cloisters transform corridors into memorable places. The cloisters are part of a wider spatial choreography; a narrative route that connects the College’s public rooms, teaching and study/living spaces with their surrounding urban landscape.

The Roofspace totem explores the spatial and expressive potential of roof forms in urban housing. We are known for our faceted geometries that produce adaptable, light-filled roof spaces and distinctive roofscapes. This totem ‘recasts’ a roofspace as a space of retreat. A small windowseat carved into the space of a flared dormer is washed with zenithal light. Subtly angled mirrors reflect the simulated roofspace into an infinite curve, echoing the three crescent buildings we designed at Bath Western Riverside.

All housing architecture forms a stage for the complex project that is collective urban life. ReCasting’s four totems and small amphitheatre collectively frame an open gathering space. This arrangement echoes the massing and unifying plinth of Alison Brooks Architects’ high density urban housing in London’s Greenwich Peninsula. Conceived as four elements ‘carved’ from single block, this project’s tapered forms, informal plan geometries and loggias frame interlocking social and landscape spaces. ReCasting reflects Alison Brooks Architects’ organic approach to urban design and places of dwelling: a choreography of form, experience and landscape in support of civic life.