British Pavillion – La Biennale di Venezia 2021

Clayworks is delighted to support the British Pavilion as In-Kind Partner during the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2021.

Together with five teams of architects, designers and researchers, curators Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler’s exhibition invites us to examine the threats to public space in the UK and explore the role that design and architecture can take in supporting a more inclusive future.

Taking inspiration from Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, the exhibition, curated by Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler, calls for new thinking around privately owned public space in cities across the UK. It challenges the polarisation of private and public organisations and instead poses solutions on how they might work together to improve use of, access to and ownership of public spaces.

In the spirit of Bosch’s triptych, the exhibition explores the UK’s privatised public space as a non-binary issue. As Bosch explored the middle ground of Earth between the extremes of Heaven and Hell, the curators suggest privatised public space also sits between two extremes: the utopia of common land before the Enclosures Act of the 18th century and the dystopia of total privatisation.

The rooms of the British Pavilion are transformed into seven privatised public spaces reimagined as inclusive, immersive experiences. Familiar UK public spaces which are increasingly under threat, such as the youth centre, the high street and the local pub, sit alongside the traditionally inaccessible private garden square. All are overlaid with proposals for how they can be reprogrammed and revitalised. Two proposed new ministries suggest a bottom-up approach to conversations around ownership, of land and facial recognition data, while a private toilet in the pavilion’s basement highlights issues surrounding the most basic of public services.

Within The Garden of Privatised Delights, Verghese and Kessler seek to ensure a range of voices – from young people to politicians – are heard. At once playful and provocative, familiar yet strange, each experience suggests new models for privatised public spaces, prompting visitors to question, debate, and proactively engage with each.

Unlike traditional exhibitions, with architecture represented by models and drawings, the installations within the British Pavilion are designed as simulated spaces. This aims to actively encourage everyone – architects and non-architects alike – to engage and consider how public space design can be improved to benefit the wider community. The experience, woven together by a continuous path as if through a typical British town or city, invites everyone to consider why all public spaces aren’t designed as gardens of delight?

The question is now more relevant than ever. In 2020 the Biennale Architettura – one of the most prestigious architecture exhibitions in the world – was postponed due to the impact of Covid-19. Since then, topics explored within The Garden of Privatised Delights have taken on fresh urgency, further highlighting the importance of accessible public space for all. Themes such as the demise of the high street, a decline in social spaces for teenagers, and debates around facial recognition technology, have become more pertinent, given the business closures, suspension of schools and increase in video conferencing during the pandemic.

The Garden of Privatised Delights aims to generate a much wider conversation around privatised public space, and how increased inclusivity and consultation around its design can positively reframe the vital role public spaces play in towns and cities across the nation.

Sevra Davis, Director of Architecture, Design and Fashion at the British Council and commissioner of the British Pavilion 2021, says:

“The past year has shown that the theme of the 2021 Biennale Architettura, ‘How will we live together?’, is one of the most important questions of our time. The British Council’s commission for the British Pavilion, The Garden of Privatised Delights, explores how we inhabit and share our environment, encouraging new perspectives through debate and dialogue and presenting innovative solutions for how we might interact and support each other. In order to positively navigate our shared future, Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese demonstrate how great design can improve the inclusivity, accessibility and understanding needed to achieve that.”

Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese are co-founders of multi-scalar design practice Unscene Architecture.Kessler is a director of Madeleine Kessler Architecture, and sits on the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group. She was named in the Architects’ Journal 40 under 40 and a 2019 RIBA Rising Star. Verghese is Head of Public Engagement at the Architectural Association. She is currently an external examiner at Cambridge University and is a member of the curatorial panel for the 2021 London Festival of Architecture.

Kessler and Verghese were selected to represent the UK following an open call by the British Council in 2019, responding to the challenge: ‘What is the most urgent issue facing British architecture today?’ The selection panel, made up of leading architecture professionals from across the UK, was struck by the curators’ ambition to open up the British Pavilion and the Biennale Architettura to new audiences in order to widen access to both the conversation around privatised public space, and the role of architecture in our cities.

The British Council has been commissioning the British Pavilion in Venice since 1937, confirming the British Pavilion as a leading international platform to exchange innovation and ideas around contemporary art and architecture. These commissions echo the wider work of the British Council, to showcase the best of the UK’s artists, architects, designers and curators overseas.

Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler on their British Council commission for the British Pavilion 2021:

“We are thrilled to finally be able to share The Garden of Privatised Delights at the British Pavilion in Venice. The events of the past year have further highlighted the importance of accessible public space. This has inspired us, and our amazing team of collaborators, to test collaborative processes and design strategies, in order to propose ways in which public space can become more inclusive. By encouraging everyone to be part of this complex conversation, privatised public spaces have the potential to become genuine Gardens of Delight at the heart of all our towns and cities.”

Clayworks Rasberry Finishes are seen in the seventh room, the Garden of Delights designed by Unscene Architecture, which asks the question: could we open up and reprogramme exclusive garden squares to create more public outdoor space?

This year’s British Council commission for the British Pavilion, The Garden of Privatised Delights, is at the Biennale Architettura, Venice from 22 May – 21 Nov 2021.

British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. It builds connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts and culture, education and the English language. Last year it reached over 80 million people directly and 791 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. Founded in 1934 it is a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body.


Manijeh Verghese is a co-founder of Unscene Architecture and the Head of Public Engagement at the Architectural Association (AA), where she is also a Unit Master of Diploma 12, a seminar leader for the AA Professional Practice for Fifth Year course, and a member of the Senior Management Team. Over the past nine years, she has led postgraduate and undergraduate design studios at both the AA and Oxford Brookes University and has taught workshops and courses across universities in the UK and abroad. Previously, she has worked for architecture practices including John Pawson and Foster + Partners, and has contributed to design publications, think-tanks, books and peer reviewed journals. She is currently an External Examiner at Cambridge University and a member of the Future City Curatorial Committee as well as on the curatorial panel for the 2021 London Festival of Architecture.

Madeleine Kessler is a co-founder of Unscene Architecture and director of Madeleine Kessler Architecture. Trained as an architect and structural engineer, she sits on the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group, and teaches at the London School of Architecture and Architectural Association. Previously, she worked on cultural, civic and master planning projects at Haworth Tompkins, HHF Architekten, Studio Weave, and as an Associate at Haptic Architects. She has worked on projects including Battersea Arts Centre, Kings Cross W3, St James’s Market Pavilion, and Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Oslo Architecture Triennale. In 2020 she was named in the Architects’ Journal 40 under 40, and she was awarded the 2019 RIBA Rising Star Award.

Room designers

Unscene Architecture was founded by Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese in 2019. It operates across disciplines and scales to reveal the unseen forces that shape our cities, working with local communities to give them greater agency over how they use and occupy their spaces. Providing a platform for design, research, curation, and realisation, it aims to provoke a wider conversation about the city through action rather than just words.

Photographs by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights.