This text has been published in the publication we need it – we do it, Croatia at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition / La Biennale di Venezia 2016, published by Platforma 9.81, Split (May 28, 2016). A PDF version is available.
With “Reporting from the Front”, the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale puts urgency upfront. Still, such a title given to one of the most significant events measuring the pulse of contemporary spatial production presents an unsettling and alarming sign. For those doing architecture and construction business as usual, it might have stayed unclear how we suddenly have ended up at demarcation lines, at the heart of a major conflict. Did we miss something? And who are those involved in this event, eager to come out and tell us about the state of affairs?
by: STEALTH.unlimited (Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen)
Exactly eight years ago, as co-curators of the Dutch pavilion, we became involved, contributing to that year’s Biennale. It was actually the first time we had ever witnessed the euphoria taking over the lagoon for the months to come. The ample weeks we spent in Venice brought in to our perspective the wicked schizophrenia of the architecture profession that ignorantly wishes, on the one side, to celebrate the superiority of its production, while on the other it unconvincingly seeks to confirm its very relevance in addressing “the major challenges” still ahead. Once those challenges escape the aesthetic domain, one can question whether the mechanisms of building production are not exactly at the roots of those challenges needing to be resolved.
When we took up the task in 2008, there was not so much of an understand- ing of the magnitude of the calamities to come in September that year. Well yes, to many of us gathered at the occasion entitled “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building”, the signs were in the air – and things had to change, urgently. The entire hall of the Central Biennale Pavilion was filled with tens and tens of practices that felt the need to refocus on what spatial production should contribute. Others, however, remained deaf to the thundering coming ever closer, like the chief curator Aaron Betsky, who thought that “society’s crucial themes” were to be addressed by commissioning some of the world’s over-confident designers to provide for pieces of furniture that should “make us feel at home”. The review of our contribution in the Dutch Pavilion, a collective process to re-imagine the role of architecture and its education in predicted times of decline in construction euphoria, got ridiculed in one of the main Dutch newspapers for the dark prophesy and, instead, called upon us not to shy away any longer from showing the greatness of architectural output. Now, the ominous year of 2008 is synonymous for what is probably the largest financial (and societal) crisis known to date. During the opening days of that Biennale, Lehman Brothers defaulted, and before we left Venice, two of the banks in which we held accounts had been bailed out and subsequently nationalised. Instead of feeling at home, in that year and the years to come, an entire armada of citizens actually lost their homes, and many architects lost their jobs. It is good to recall that all of this started internationally with an unsustainable craving for real estate – the very heart of architectural production.
It would become obvious to many that the game of producing “urbanity” has little to do with the inhabitants of cities themselves, nor even much with the actual built space. It was rather one of the main fields of industry and of economic activity, unsustainable in the long run, but, with no other tangible economic production at hand, many architects continued to play the game.
To some and us, the last eight years have kept the perspective open for a different set of principles to shape our lives – in terms of finance, spatial production, and a more fair future in general. As vested actors made very little effort to break the standstill, somewhere between the expectation for a systemic change and need to search for an alternative to the collapsing neo-liberal framework, we started acting differently. Although not yet noticeable on a large scale, a significant shift has been taking place for the last few years within parts of the architectural “scene”, becoming visible also in this year’s Biennale.
In our view, the difference with 2008 is that today it is not just a call upon us as architects, but as citizens as well. That may seem a small shift at first, but it has a huge impact. Maybe the occasion of this Biennale opens the horizon to such a ( future ) position at the front, rather than reporting from it. It is exactly this potential that can arouse excitement today. It is more the longing of architecture finally to position itself on that front that is mirrored in the title of this year’s Biennale edition, that this profession – in its wider scope – still has much to report. What can be reported though are a number of specific, tangible situations, in which the contemporary production of space is exploring the demarcation lines in society. If we leave all the rest behind, we can simply focus on those established cases and try understanding what is at stake.
Work of the team members of the “we need it – we do it” contribution eloquently takes that position. It derives from more than a decade of work in Croatia on new ways of forming and governing cultural institutions, the result of a persistent “re-grouping” of civil actors to become rather self-confident collaborators. All this is underpinned with the motivation that a different set of principles upon which to operate our societies is not only necessary, but also objectively possible. It is tempting to try speculating as to why it is exactly here that we find such innovative and open – as in open source, but also open democratic forms – practices emerge, but we will leave that for another occasion. The fact is that their tangible initiatives are reinventing how crucial societal institutions and places of production can be re-started in forms of civil-public partnership.
In that partnership, the civil society takes upon itself a role in re-imagining how such novel forms of organisation are to function. This is not just a daunting task since in many cases it requires taking in tow lagging and often dysfunctional public partners, but equally because the exact models have to be invented on-the-go. In the no-man’s land of the post-socialist but not-yet-post-neoliberal economic reality of today, their only way forward is … to do.
Therefore, it is no surprise that within this context ( those that happen to be ) architects do not take the role of external practitioners, but that of equals, collectively defining what it is that architecture can respond with, and what is the most immediate way of doing so. Such a way of taking matters into common hands mobilises different capacities of all those who engage in such a process.
For this occasion, it might be relevant to revisit five questions related to the capacities and capabilities of architecture that were at the core of the Dutch pavilion in Venice eight years ago. These questions as to “what values to defend, what territories to explore and what practices to develop” were hints at that point towards the future, a practice in which we were envisioning the shift from singular into collaborative work, the move from profitable simplicity towards social sustainability, an engagement stepping beyond those in power towards empowering those in need, while not necessarily making objects, and getting beyond the paradigm of sustainability. Now that that future has “arrived” these topics seem to describe closely the approach and the three cases presented in the Croatian pavilion by the “we need it – we do it” team. Or in other words – they have been practiced!
For the first of the five questions – How we work, one might take a look at how a wide collaboration has been set up at the Split Youth Centre, and what role architects played there in transforming this unfinished building into a multimedia cultural centre that constantly engages the numerous initiatives using the space, instead of the originally planned one large-scale institution. The answer to the second question
– Why we make, can be found in the upfront statement that has been put forward as the title of this year’s contribution. There is a precise need, this need has not been fulfilled by public institutions, and instead of wait- ing for availability of proper financial re- sources or the “ideal” building a number of
organisations start acting with what is avail- able, like in the case of POGON Zagreb. We see that the third question – For whom we make, has gone through an evolution from a client customer, to a rather equally-based relationship and therefore the question became With whom we make. In all of the three buildings, relationships for which the spaces are provided play a crucial role, they are part of the fourth question – What we make, like the participative management and shared responsibility coming from co-ownership in POGON. Finally, all three projects aptly answer the fifth question – What it takes to make ( and un-make ), by re-using existing buildings, starting more or less from the state in which they have been found – and taking things onwards from there, step by step, as will be the case with the “small interventions” in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
This kind of approach requires building up expertise in fields in which one had previously not imagined becoming an ad-hoc expert, together with others who equally had not imagined doing so. It is puzzling at times, but equally exciting if such actions not only challenge, but can also surpass the current societal status quo. In entering these endeavours, one has to keep “professional distance” at bay and instead become embedded. That is not only because that professional distance will not benefit us in finding, exploring, and experimenting with the breakthrough necessary. Foremost, not at all, because it is about our own lives – as members of society. We need no distance for that. We need to be right there.
Published by: Platforma 9.81 / Co-publishers: POGON – Zagreb Centre for Independent Culture and Youth, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Rijeka / Editors: Emina Višnić, Miranda Veljačić / Translation and proofreading: Nina Antoljak, Nina Herman Jukić – Jezični laboratorij