Al Falaj: Water Systems of the Gulf’s Oases (UAE) Image Credit: Supplied

Based on the model of Venice art and architecture biennales, the first edition of the London Design Biennale, which opened earlier this month, took over Somerset House for a three-week celebration of work by world-leading architects, designers, scientists, writers and artists from 37 countries.

An inspiring exploration of the role of design in our collective futures, the theme for the biennale – Utopia by Design – marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s tome Utopia. The result is a fantastical playground that includes large-scale kinetic sculpture, immersive digital installations, culinary pop-ups, performances and virtual reality renderings of the future.

“With our inaugural theme, we hoped to engage with some of the most fundamental issues faced by humanity today,” says Dr Christopher Turner, director of the London Design Biennale. “How might the critical and optimistic imaginations of designers transform our future world, and how do perspectives differ across the globe?”

The Wishing Machine by Autoban (Turkey)

The project takes direct inspiration from the ‘wish-tree’, a cultural tradition deeply rooted in the ancient Anatolian faith and found in ancient Greek, Kabala and Persian beliefs. As an act of hope born out of hopelessness, people would affix a note or a memento to a branch of a tree. This installation designed by Autoban is an interactive pneumatic system operating in a mirrored space. Visitors walk through a tunnel made of transparent hexagonal tubes.

They are invited to share their hopes and wishes, vision of utopia, and aspirations for the future, by writing them on paper, and feeding them to the Wish Machine through a lid. Notes will then travel back through the tubes to a place out of visitors’ sight, as if their destination is a place unknown. Given Turkey’s unique position as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, and in light of the recent focus on migrant populace searching for a better life as they flee war, The Wishing Machine by Autoban is a potent symbol of hope.

Utopia from a Drawer (The Netherlands)

“In an ideal world, we think of the future without losing sight of everyday issues,” explains Jurgen Bey of Studio Makkink&Bey.” “When creating an ideal world for the Biennale we decided not to focus on the problems or the promises of utopia. We wanted to find out what role archives would play in such an ideal world.” By ‘archives’ Bey not only implies institutions that hold records and information but also our collective learning and evolution through the centuries. What lessons would make that illusive Utopian world? What do take forth with us? Hence, their presentation is a compilation of objects, each telling its own unique story, each leading to connections and contrasts, but most importantly, becoming an overlapped network of places, people, skills and memories.

Charkaview (India)

A collaboration between India Design Forum and Aadyam, the Aditya Birla Group weaver’s initiative, the installation is helmed by scenographer Sumant Jayakrishnan. The piece incorporates works of design strategist Avinash Kumar, artist Hanif Kureshi and designer Rutva Trivedi to poignantly portray the multiple ideals that India emulates. Weaving together India’s cultural heritage — using traditional textiles and ancient mythology — with modern design innovations, the work presents a unique blend of the social, political and religious climates that characterise the country.

Al Falaj: Water Systems of the Gulf’s Oases (UAE)

A vast system of planned irrigation once stretched across the Gulf, bringing water and vitality to desert communities. This ancient falaj system of irrigation is the focus of the UAE’s presentation, led by Rashid Bin Shabib, who hopes this once successful example of civil engineering might again be embraced by modern planners. “The native system channelled water to cities hundreds of miles into deserts, which in turn created these oases for Bedouins and farmers, and enable life within harsh climates,” Bin Shabib. “These were the beginnings of native settlements, which then transformed into the inland cities they are today.” With Al Falaj, the UAE hopes to inspire visitors to adapt traditional methods that can still be useful to modern society.

Mezzing in Lebanon (Lebanon)

Architect Annabel Karim Kassar brought an interpretation of Beirut’s street markets to the banks of the Thames. Towering scaffoldings that enclosed the River Terrace of Somerset House recreate the permeable facade of a Lebanese building, punctuated not by doors, but by the gentle flutter of curtains. The structure that houses a cinema and an installation of shops extol the sights, sounds and emotions of daily life in the Lebanese capital. “We are not curating the makers and traditional aesthetics of Lebanon into a distilled vision, nor are we passing a judgement on it” says Kassar. “We find joy in seeing and accepting them as they are.” The Lebanese entry was awarded the London Design Biennale Medal 2016 for the most exceptional design contribution to the Biennale.

Forecast (United Kingdom)

Built by Litestructures, with engineering by Arup, the installation designed by the award-winning design-duo Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby comprises of a group of wind masts and rotating elements, inspired by weather measuring instruments. Movement is triggered as the wind picks up or changes direction, creating a simple kinetic sculpture that responds to the elements. Forecast calls to mind a romantic image of Britain’s great maritime history, with tall ships, towering masts and fluttering sails, simultaneously evoking wind turbines and weather stations. It also nods to the country’s unique fascination with the weather. “Forecast, responds to the theme of Utopia by linking our seafaring past to a future of truly sustainable power,” say the designers. “The project also references the nation’s position as a world leader in offshore wind energy and highlights the opportunity for a more sustainable future.”

Animal Cocoon (South Africa)

Southern Guild, the gallery directed by Trevyn and Julian McGowan collaborated with the celebrated Cape Town designer Porky Hefer to showcase his suspended animal cocoon environments for this representation of South African design. Hefer’s work, all crafted by hand at Woodheads leather merchants in cape towns is a fantasyscape consisting of five animal figures, one of which is the designer’s self-portrait. A metaphor on society, the pieces appear suspended in air; on close inspection, a common thread runs through them, keeping the joyous and playful ecosystem in balance.

VRPolis (Spain)

VRPolis is an immersive virtual reality installation that allows users to explore a utopian city of the future — a habitat where technology, quality living standards and a healthy environment coexist with an economy free of fossil-fuel dependence. For this purpose, the city of Santander was studied in-depth, then, key locations were filmed in 360-degrees, shaped and reconstructed in 3D by the team at Dimelo a mi Productions. The production house worked tirelessly, transforming these films into compositions that brought to life an optimistic peek into the city’s future. More than 50 innovative strategies related to the fields of energy, mobility, connectivity, habitat, architecture, water, waste management and environment were woven into the virtual reality experience that required visitors to walk through a ‘time tunnel’ wearing a VR headset as the future unveiled itself at every gesture.