Celia Romaniuk

“It’s yours to make”: Fjord’s contribution to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

House prices have long been a dominant conversational topic in England, but over the last few years there has been growing alarm at the unaffordability of housing, particularly for young people.

At Fjord London we’ve done a lot of design work on home buying and mortgages. Some of our work has been around the core mortgage experience, while some has engaged more broadly with ideas around home buying – e.g. financial constructs which might help more people to buy. Throughout, we’ve worked primarily with financial institutions, but never with architects or property developers.

So we were delighted when the opportunity arose to think about mortgages in the context of architecture – specifically, as part of the Venice Architecture Biennale, the world’s biggest architectural exhibition.

This year’s theme, chosen by this year’s Director Alejandro Aravena, is Reporting from the Front. Each country was asked to choose a pressing issue from their country. The curators of the British Pavilion – Jack Self, Shumi Bose and Finn Williams – looked at the changing and increasingly constrained models of domestic life and in an exhibition called “Home Economics”.

The Pavilion itself was arranged into a full-scale model of spaces that explore how a home is experienced over different time spans: Hours, Days, Years and Decades.

Our contribution centred on the Years room, designed by Julia King. Her proposal entered around the question of what a home might mean through the eyes of a bank. What might a “minimum viable home” might look like?

Our contribution to the project was threefold.

Firstly, we introduced the curators, Julia and her team to one of our clients, who helped to refine the commercial construct behind the building. Initially, the idea was that the building would be a kind of ‘mortgage compliant shell’, and Julia wanted to know the minimum that needed to be built in order for it to qualify for a mortgage. But through discussion, it became clear that a more effective approach would be to back the development with a commercial loan, with the user paying a rent, and consequently increasing their equity in the property, over time.

Sound esoteric?  The second part of our contribution was to introduce this idea to visitors of the exhibition in a way that was easily understandable.

We produced a letter, which visitors to the exhibition will find at the entrance to the Years room. The idea is that it is like a letter from the holding company when you move in, explaining the key ideas behind the space. The core idea was of a resident’s guide welcoming them to the building and laying out the shared sense of values and structure.

Questions of finance and home buying are incredibly complex in the UK. This joint expertise of “knowing what we don’t know” (i.e. knowing when to ask our client!) and being able to express complex ideas simply and clearly are core aspects of service design.

As the financial aspect of the concept changed from “mortgage compliant shell” to “leasehold and shell rent, rather than mortgage”, so the concept of the building itself evolved. So the owners would be given the freedom to do what they liked with the inside of their apartment. As we say in the letter – “it’s yours to make”. So the owner can put down walls, put in a kitchen, whatever they like. If they decide to sell, they can take the contents of the apartment with them or sell them to the new owner.

photo of letter

We had a third idea, which didn’t make it into the exhibition itself.

When I started to talk to my colleague Giulio about the letter, and explained the concept about it, he said, “it would be nice to have something more permanent, that they can keep for the time they live in the building – not just a letter. What about a tea towel?” And he pointed out that it had a nice cultural twist for a British exhibition in Italy – in Italian, the word for the same item is “strofinnacio”, which has nothing to do with tea.

We mentioned it to the curators and they loved the idea – and we had a lot of fun thinking of what to put on the tea towel and then photographing it in different contexts.

Even though it didn’t make it into the exhibition, we thought we’d share it here. After all, what’s a project without out-takes?

towel park 1

We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to advise and collaborate on the British Pavilion. It was great to be involved and was a refreshing change of reference for us. It was interesting to bring service design thinking into the context of an exhibition like this; and having visited the Biennale itself for the opening, we couldn’t help see further opportunities to bring service design approaches to bear on exhibitions such as these. Bringing elegant simplicity, clarity and beauty to human communication is at the core of what we do, and we were able to practice this in a small way as part of the British Pavilion.

A special thanks to Fjord team members Giulio Fagiolini, who designed the letter and tea towel, and Tom Holloway, who took the photos.

Celia Romaniuk

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