What's the point of architecture and design festivals? by The Guardian

By Oliver Wainwright, 21.06.2013.

Stairs to nowhere … dRMM's proposal for the London Design Festival. Image: dRMM Architects

It's an unstoppable flood. From London to Milan, Shenzhen to Sharjah, Beijing to Bucharest, there is a raging torrent of triennials and biennales, architecture weeks and furniture salones. Every city wants its own piece of the travelling circus of trade shows and pop-up pavilions.

But what are these things for? They have grown at such a pace that there has barely been a chance to stop and interrogate who or what they are here to serve.
It is a question that will be debated on Monday at the Design Museum, in a session that brings together protagonists from a range of international architecture and design jamborees, from the long-running Venice Biennale to the younger Belgrade Design Week.

"Are festivals and biennales dynamic catalysts to discuss and celebrate the city and architectural culture?" asks the Architecture Foundation, which is putting on the event as part of London's own month-long festival of architecture. "Or are they calculated devices of tourism and industrial promotion?"

While many such initiatives may have set out with good intentions to be the former, it seems that commercial expedients are increasingly forcing them to become the latter.

"When I was more directly involved in the London Festival of Architecture in 2008, it was a completely different funding environment," says AF director, Sarah Ichioka. "A lot of the festivals that grew during the boom times are now having to look at very different models of delivery."

She says the LFA has moved to a "distributed partnership model", which might explain why this year's offerings seem a bit thin. No single organisation is taking the lead (it is jointly coordinated by the British Council, the AF, RIBA London and New London Architecture), nor is there the ready funding to produce the sponsored projects of yore. Gone are the light-headed days when Norman Foster would erect an enormous pink cone on Exhibition Road, matched only by Tonkin Liu's strange unpeeling banana.

Ben Evans, director of the 10-year-old London Design Festival, is more optimistic – with good reason. Since its inception, the LDF has grown fat off the city's burgeoning design scene, swelling from an informal alliance of around 30 events every September to a programme of over 300 projects.

"You can't possibly see them all," laughs Evans, "although some people try." Now regarded as one of the global highlights of the design calendar, how did this empire emerge?

"It began as a response to the fact that there were interesting things going on, but they were all unconnected," says Evans, who set up the festival with John Sorrell in 2003. "They didn't get the audience or voice or impact they deserved." The commercial opportunity of joining up these parts was not lost: it now costs £594 to have your event featured in the LDF's programme.

"95 percent of the festival's relationship with designers is about marketing," admits Evans, who says that about three-quarters of the programme is "a straightforward selling show" of products.

Alongside the trade-oriented content, the LDF now also organises big public commissions in partnership with the V&A. This year, dRMM architects have been commissioned to build a contorted timber staircase outside St Paul's cathedral that ties itself in elaborate knots to nowhere.

"The Escher-like game of perception and circulation in timber playfully contrasts with the religious and corporate environment of stone and glass in the city," says its architect, Alex de Rijke. Like Amanda Levete's timber wave in 2011, it will be a striking object – but could such expensive sculptures not do more than provide a brief diversion, purely framing design as spectacle? What about their impact and afterlife?

"It's never been about a legacy," says Evans. "We've thrived on the temporary. We want to make an impact at a specific time, and we feel that a lasting presence is not appropriate." Like the Serpentine pavilions, he says the installations are either sold off or end up in storage.

While we may have chortled at Foster's pink mountain, it had real impact. Along with the accompanying programme of events, which saw Exhibition Road closed for a weekend of vehicle-free fun, it had the ultimate effect of convincing the powers that be of the benefits of partial pedestrianisation – which was finally achieved four years later.

In a similar vein, the temporary installation of water and solar-powered lifts on Waterloo Steps off the Mall, part of the 2010 LFA, has helped to lodge the issue of wheelchair access for this key link firmly in the minds of the council.

It may not have been achieved yet – and Exhibition Road might not have proved quite the people-friendly riot of activity the weekend fair promised – but these projects show the power that fleeting festivities can have when they are linked to real issues in a city. And when commercial promotion is not the only goal.

Read the original article here.