Review: What If…?/ Scotland

James Haynes and Michael Becker review Scotland's contribution to the 2021 Venice Biennale.

What If…?/ Scotland, at the V&A Dundee, is Scotland’s contribution to the 2021 Venice Biennale which, for it’s 17th edition, runs under the theme ‘How will we live together?’. The project was commissioned by the Scotland + Venice Partnership and produced by award winning practice 7N Architects and aspiration is to re-engage the civic role of design, asking communities from across Scotland to help shape the places they call home.

Planned as an opportunity for national engagement, What if …?/Scotland skilfully ties together the aspirations of individual people with the knowledge and expertise of architecture and design professionals. Whilst perhaps begrudgingly held in Scotland, rather than its eagerly anticipated home in Venice, the ‘pavilion’ carefully adapts to its new setting. Although initial impressions leave a lacklustre feeling, on closer inspection a rich tapestry of thoughts, research and excitement for the future can be teased out.

Whilst there is an initial sense of monotony in the walls of text, the range of mediums displayed throughout invites the viewer to consider their own, What if…? A series of short films memorably support the project and aids in creating a link between the presented information and the individuals behind it. Initially one is engrossed in the fantasy of the concept, but with the so-called ‘wish cloud’ literally out of reach there is slight loss of the initial uplifting impression. That said, the ‘wish cloud’ becomes a living thing over the course of the exhibition and gradually becomes an actuality rather than a thing of fantasy. The cloud is alive, provoking thought and debate and feels like a genuine move which may kickstart future actions.

Although the mountains of text on display are a little overwhelming, a careful reading reveals the inclusion of a rich dossier of ideas and aspirations. The most provoking being those of the individuals who, with an open heart, shared their stories and participated in this attempt to speculate over future realities. There was an impressive breadth to the range of ideas, with each reflecting local geographies, personal necessities, and inevitably underlying socioeconomics. Accompanying each personal reflection, was a proposition expertly developed by an architecture/designer/artist, often presented as a single drawing which neatly synthesises the complexities presented to them. Whilst the drawings added a real layer of interest and undoubtedly aided in formulating a well-rounded idea, at points the responses felt too comfortable and perhaps lacked the energy and excitement conveyed in the contributions of the participants. That said, this, 2-D, paper-based and speculative architecture has its place, the project a start at putting the spotlight on communities. 

What if…? on closer examination certainly poses questions, provokes debate and could be a real driver for change but the lack of a built presence was perhaps a missed opportunity. Ironically, the predominantly two-dimensional presence of What If…? was brought into sharp relief by the very tactile nature of the adjacent exhibition, Making Room, by Assemble, which leaves one speculating as to how a more immersive version of What If…? may have manifest itself. 

There is real pluralism present in the approach of What if…?/Scotland  which is embedded in the community focussed approach which strives to ask questions regarding our build environments on a multitude of scales. The exhibited outcome is in part clearly about Dundee, for Dundee and by Dundonians, yet has wider nationwide appeal due to both the breadth of the provocation and the diverse geographic domains of the participants. Whilst not in Venice, the V&A provides a perfect platform to explore these speculations and question ‘What if…?’.

What if?/Scotland  is open at the V&A Dundee until Sunday 21st November 2021.

Review by James Haynes and Michael Becker. All Rights Reserved.