Marking the reopening of stunning central London venue Somerset House, and being the first major cultural event since the pandemic struck, the London Design Biennale (LDB) is a landmark event that has seen myriad challenges overcome in its making. Access explores the event and meets the team.

Overseen by creative director Es Devlin, and with designs inspired by the theme of resonance, some 33 countries were involved in creating installations for the LDB’s 38 pavilions that are scattered in and around the vast neoclassical Somerset House.

The most striking work at the LDB is Devlin’s Forrest Of Change, which has seen 400 trees planted in the venue’s vast Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court. As you meander along paths through the pop-up woodland, a Brian Eno-created soundscape of birdsong fills the air. It’s a remarkably calming juxtaposition to the clatter and stink of the traffic-filled Strand that runs directly outside.

It may be relaxing, but the planting of the 400 trees is a subversive statement by Devlin that counters the rules of Somerset House’s Enlightenment-era designers who banned plants from the courtyard to emphasise human dominance over nature.

The installation also carries a powerful message. In a clearing at the far end of the courtyard, 17 pillars are stood with each one adorned with a United Nations-backed global goal for sustainable development. It’s an impressive and impactful creation, and yet another remarkable and refreshing use of Somerset House’s courtyard.

Home to a large creative community, Somerset House is a much-loved public space that in pandemic-free years is used for a remarkable array of activity from exhibitions to ice skating and concerts. It is run as a charity by the Somerset House Trust, with all event hire income contributing to its cultural programme, education and outreach work.

Sat looking over The Thames on the venue’s River Terrace, Somerset House head of commercial events Jenny Freestone (pictured left) is clearly delighted to see the venue busy hosting a major event after a pandemic period that saw it lose around 50% of its annual income.

“It has been an incredible team effort across the venue and London Design Biennale teams to make sure it happened,” she says. “There have been many challenges because of the pandemic, with some interactive designs having to be completely reimagined to make them Covid-secure.

“Many health and safety measures had to be implemented, including working in bubbles. It has been challenging but it has worked, and we are all incredibly proud of helping to create a stunning event for our reopening.”

Having not hosted a major event since the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair last October, the LDB marks the start of a busy period for the venue, with back-to-back events booked up until Christmas. The packed calendar includes the return of 1-54, Photo London, ice skating, a Beano exhibition and Dodge; which will this year take the place of the Summer Series concerts in the courtyard that usually run throughout July.

Open from 15 July to 22 August, Dodge will see the venue team partner with BRIT Awards 2021 designer and creative director Yinka LLori, Mercury Prize nominee Anna Meredith and sound artist Nick Ryan to transform Somerset House’s courtyard.

“The power of cultural activities – how ideas and visions collide in a space – it’s great to see the impact on people.”

The event will consist of an interactive dodgems ride that uses wireless technology to track the swerves and bumps experienced by drivers in order to create audio-visual compositions. Activity and entertainment will include DJ sets from the likes of promoter Tom Baker from Eat Your Own Ears, while an array of street food and drink vendors will be available.

However, for the moment the focus is on the Biennale. Freestone has enjoyed watching the faces of attendees as they navigate their way around the pavilions and is clearly buoyed by having her team back in action.

“There is a lot of excitement, a real buzz, around the venue. It’s great to have the team back together and bring people off furlough. The day we opened the site it was such an exciting movement; it felt like we were back,” she says.

LDB head of content & digital Gianfranco Chicco (pictured below right) is also relieved to see the event up and running after a pandemic-induced extended planning period that involved overcoming numerous hurdles.

He says the three biggest mountains to climb were making sure it could be held on time under ever-changing Covid safety guidelines, orchestrating the delivery of designs from 33 countries experiencing differing pandemic restrictions, and uncertainty about the level of attendance and ability to accommodate a sufficient audience capacity.

“One of the things that makes London attractive to event operators is it’s a central point for visitors from all over the world, not just Europe,” says Chicco. “The level of visitors was drastically reduced during the pandemic so the concern was, would people show up?”

While current guidance allows for a maximum attendance of 1,000, or 50% of an indoor venue’s capacity, and for outdoor venues 4,000 people or 50% of capacity – the challenge for the LDB team was managing the flow of attendees in areas ranging from the huge courtyard to relatively small indoor rooms.

“We had to roughly half the attendance and have a one-way system, introduce time slots –  lots of them – so that at any given point there is not crowding because some rooms cannot have more than 100 people at any given time,” he says.

Overall Chicco is contended with the visitor levels but emphasises that having to strictly limit the number of attendees at hugely popular times such as weekday evenings means the event is unable to replicate the kind of numbers achieved in previous years.

He says the most rewarding thing has been getting the event open on 1 June and seeing everyone enjoy the experience: “After more than a year not seeing other people physically, it’s been really uplifting. There’s something that happens when you walk into a space and get hit by colours and sounds – the 3D space of things.

“We spent almost 18 months behind screens constantly, so people are re-learning how to walk around venues, how to touch, how to be with others in a room. Seeing all those things has been very rewarding. The power of cultural activities – how ideas and visions collide in a space – it’s great to see the impact on people.

“We are proud to be the first big cultural event after lockdown, play a part in the reopening of London and get behind the whole topic of resonance – everything we do has an effect, there is a responsibility to our actions. We need to take sustainability seriously and start looking at the impact of our actions beyond our own lifetimes.”

London Design Biennale suppliers:

  • Aubury & Associates – Design and installation
  • Aldworth James & Bond – Design and installation
  • Beam Lighting Design – Lighting
  • Beautiful Wonder  – Project managers for the Courtyard
  • Blue Elephant UK – AV and sound
  • Creator International Limited – Design and installation
  • EFM Global Logistics – Shipping