Reporting from the Eastern borders
Architectures and cultural strategies of 5 new countries in Venice [Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania]
By Inês Moreira
“Because, regardless of whether the space is treated as a resource or as an existential foundation, its quality and its future bother each of us”.
Minister for Sustainable Development and Tourism, Montenegro
Responding to the general subject of the Venice Architecture Biennale – Reporting from the Front – an interesting group of pavilions by countries from (new) Eastern Europe radically explore questions that are specific to their nationalities, architecture and territory. These explorations have given them visibility, and perhaps, international determination, while they attempt a new understanding and approach to the potential of the participation of small countries in the giant international event that is Venice.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, what do these countries have in common? Just like Portugal, none of these five countries have permanent national pavilions in Venice; they are countries with poor economies where cultural policy is not a priority. Seen from Portugal, with its centenary borders that intrinsically instil the idea that notions of country, nationality, identity or even language are stable and cohesive elements, all of them – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – are confronted with their new borders and internal identities to, in the face of questions of nationality, position themselves in the international community as proponents of debate about architecture.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Sarajevo Now: The people’s Museum” is a collateral event by an informal network that embodies the first pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that does not have a pavilion since the former Yugoslavian building is now Serbian (it also does not have a Ministry of Culture). Sarajevo Now, presented within the Arsenale in a space conceded by the Venetian Municipality is the result of an effort by a 2nd generation of refugees born/raised outside of Bosnia and who aim to raise the awareness of the international community regarding reconstruction after the war and on what is still to be done. To accomplish this, along Matica of Bosnia & Herzegovina (an association of former refugees), they have called upon ETHZurich and the Urban Think Tank (which also shares the space and presents a retrospective), to attract attention and provoke international discussion through an exploration and project about “a heroic icon of resistance and resilience”, the People’s Museum created in 1945 and inaugurated in 1963 (at that time called the Museum of the Revolution), and that today still sustains the marks of front-line bombings. A utopian covering à la Christo or à la Cedric Price envelops the building of the derelict museum (presently incipiently functioning through volunteer workers lacking the means to maintain it) proposing a new modality of urbanity. The proposition of the pavilion is to discover an alternative model of urban regeneration originating in the museum, which along with the memories of the resistance will create a new urbanity, involving citizen participation in the elaboration of the programme and upkeep of the building. (curator: Haris Piplas, research and model: Sabina Biser, Mersel Bujak, Masha Aganovic, Nedzla Seferovic, Dino Jozic, Josipa Skrobo, Dzenita Dzinic, Edin Zoletic, Tea Gastan, Antonela Buzic, design: Baier Bischofberger Architects).
“Poject Solana Ulcinj” is the peculiar project that Montenegro chose to present itself at Venice, creating visionary proposals and generating international debate around the future of a vast post-industrial area that raises transnational ecological problems: a destination for mass tourism, Mediterranean ecological park or reindustrialization? Focussing on post-industrial lands that resulted from the abandonment of the great industrial salines along the Mediterranean Sea, Bart Lootsma and Katharina Weinberger invited landscape architecture ateliers from various countries (3+1 by competition) with the aim of mapping the physical, ecological and animal reality, anticipating possible prospects for the area, through the Dutch method of future projections, developed for the city of Rotterdam. Taking advantage of Venice’s broad visibility, the project has a processual nature and is structured into different moments: a symposium for reflexion in Montenegro, mapping and projecting in the field, exhibition and international symposium in Venice, symposium and summer school in Montenegro. As such, the exhibition in Venice is a phase of a larger project, which will continue in Montenegro throughout the summer.
The projects presented are by the ecologicSTUDIO, LAAC Architects, LOLA Landscape Architects ateliers, and the young Montenegrins The Trigger 50/50, and take on a diversity of approaches to the landscaping, operating between strategies and technology: the generative algorithms that seek to comprehend the migratory movements of birds, the 3D clouds that map the topographical reality and the abandoned edifices in a new material amalgamation of the terrain, the meticulous mapping of animal species and environmental behaviours, as well as the creation of new mechanical systems to maintain artificialized nature (today the salines attract flamingos and other birds that usually did not pass through the region). All four projects are utopian proposals for future speculation and debate.
The long debate (around 5 hours) that took place in the pavilion on the 29th of May demonstrated the comprehensiveness and depth of the specific conflicting issues of the terrain and the political implications of the projects and architectural ideas. The (utopian) proposals interfere with the interests of German companies dedicated to the creation of hotels/mass tourism, resulting in threats from German diplomats aimed at the curators and other agents, who view the initiative as a sabotaging of their plans, especially when added to the concerns about the ecosystem raised by Montenegrin environmentalists and ornithologists. Among other authors and agents, the debate also included a “conflict mediator”, demonstrating the significance of the theme (and the tension between the parties involved) and, as well, demonstrating the breadth of work that a pavilion can allow.
Converging for the first time into a single pavilion with the designation of that geographical European area, the Baltic pavilion takes on a geopolitical stance and delves into “transformative (efforts) to re-programme an inert region beyond the separation of nation-states”. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, brought together by a team of 9 curators who won international competitions for their respective pavilions, distance themselves from the national identity of each of the countries to “spatialize” the new ecological era of Humanity, the Anthropocene. The pavilion occupies a brutalist building by Enrichetto Capuzzo made of concrete, in front of the Arsenale, to serve as a sports pavilion and training fields (that coexist). The “brutal” scale of the pavilion surprises the visitor and the project explores its totality: both the stands and the basketball field serve as devices where content is presented (on the steps, on tables, on the floor) under a topological textile surface that unifies the stands and creates a porous effect between the underground, surface and atmosphere, drawing attention to the human scale of the bodies that gradually wander up and down the stands. Thus, the pavilion becomes a metaphorical segment of the region being analysed, presented through fragments of mining, new building materials, soviet technical documents, geological samples, and the presentation of a model of the new Estonian National Museum, which is 350 metres long and located on a soviet military airstrip, and that will open in Tartu in September of this year.
Matter, material, construction, but also fiction, subjectivity and strategy are present in this extensive exhibition presented throughout 8 sections: Transformative efforts, Inertia, Reality, Region, Anthropocene, Horizon, Atmosphere, Palasport. A book of essays published by Sternberg Press accompanies the exhibition, setting the intellectual context and positioning the question of region into international debate. One of the authors, the theorist Keller Easterling, gave a conference about her book “Extrastatecraft, The Power of Infrastructure Space”, proposing an interpretation of region and the powers behind the infrastructures that operate and manage autonomous economic areas.
“All Quiet on the Western Front”, said the entrenched Erich Maria Remarque. Yet today there are interesting goings-on in Western Europe, such as the intergenerational and non-regional dialogue about the adaptation to the real-estate crisis in Spain, involving antithetical authors such as the activists Cadelas Verdes or Jordi Bardia. However, it is a fact that there is much to see in the East, amplifying the pertinence of the national representation and the disciplinary field of architecture: from the reflexion on the collective identity encapsulated in the building of a Modern Museum and the understanding of (communist) historical memory from the perspective of resistance groups (Bosnia), to the exploration of a new ecology with a human origin and the proposal for interventions in a post-industrial landscape (Montenegro), to the mapping of territory in the context of hybrid categories such as the anthropocene, infrastructure, raw materials and energy.
These Eastern European pavilions allow for the discovery of the countries and the problems that architecture faces, and permit us to learn through these national “peculiarities”, both in terms of perspectives of nationalism, region and border, and in terms of the expansion they propose for the role of architecture and Architects as agents of broader questions. What does it mean to represent a country through a pavilion, what implications will these representations have in the future? These questions remain unanswered, but the limits of pavilions are becoming less immobile and the possibilities raised will surely produce an effect on the dimension of recovery, the debate around landscape and territory, and even on the creation of new regional identities, which is no small feat considering the ephemeral character of architecture exhibitions.