Semi-Autonomy of Modern Architecture

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We featured an interview with architect Dubravka Sekulić a few days ago, where she defines the syntagm “engaged architect” through a collective action and deeper entwinement with the community’s needs. Today we’re featuring an interview with Karin Šerman, the commissioner of the team that will represent Croatia at the upcoming Venice Architecture Biennale, covering the way, shape and form her team defines social and spatial implications of architectural engagement, as well as intentions of the upcoming largest world exhibition of architecture.

Commissioner Karin Šerman and her team – Andrej Uchytil, Zrinka Barišić Marenić, Melita Čavlović, Igor Ekštajn, Nataša Jakšić, Mojca Smode Cvitanović, Marina Smokvina

Karin Šerman: The heritage of modernism and its identity potentials isn’t reduced just to issues of form

The theme of the upcoming Venice Biennale, set up by the inevitable Rem Koolhaas, requires that at this most important world exhibition architects deal with inherently architectural topics, while the commissioner cracked a joke in his opening speech that it’s actually all about “floors, walls, ceilings…”. Why does the main commissioner find the starting point of the discussion precisely here?

First and foremost, I’d like to clear up certain starting points tied to Koolhaasannouncement. Namely, when he as the main commissioner of the upcoming architecture biennale in his opening speech announces that we’ll be dealing with “floors, walls, ceilings…”, strange as it seems, he actually isn’t cracking jokes at all. In all seriousness, his intention is to deal with “floors, doors, walls, ceilings, windows, hallways…” as fundamental components of architecture which – as he states – “every architect, everywhere, in any given time and space, makes use of, and those are the precise components that represent the fundamental elements of architecture.” He also reminds us that these elements were at one time a legitimate object of study in schools of architecture, where students were given lessons on “floors, doors, ceilings, walls…”, but this line of thought was slowly abandoned, most probably due to the increasing emphasis on researching formal aspects of architecture. Koolhaas, on the contrary, holds that at this point in time, taking a closer look at these basic architectural components would aid better understanding of that which architecture is all about at its core. Hence the reason he decided to name his Biennale venture “Fundamentals” – the basics. With such a focus, Koolhaas obviously and consciously rattles the freshly repositioned discursive framework of the discipline and launches a new theoretical challenge in terms of contemplating architecture. A call towards this radical disciplinary autonomy can without a doubt – as is usual with Koolhaas – have broader implications and ambitions. However, with his declaration about “floors, doors, ceilings, walls,…”, Koolhaas most definitely was not joking.

Koolhaas proposes the answer within the announcement itself and states that globalization has largely eradicated the national element in architectural expression. You beg to differ with Koolhaas to an extent. If we understand correctly, when you talk about the “cultural” and “national” you in effect position the theme of forming architectural expression into a space of socially encoded intentions? Is your intention to deconstruct social codes through architectural elements, so to speak turn the operation around from the one where architectural elements are in focus?

Absolutely, taking into account, in defense of the complexity of Koolhaas comprehension of the layering of modernism and modernization processes, let me point out that he himself explicitly invites countries participants to register not only the formal aspects of their architectural modernisms, but to view the outside forces and events – political situations, wars, revolutions, or technological discoveries, significant cultural or epistemological movements – influenced their architectural developments and ambitions and aspirations of their architectures and accompanying social programs. The very year of the desired historical overview according to Koolhaas was selected for numerous overlapping reasons: the obviously historical ones, but likewise, the internal architectural and visual arts ones. 1914, namely, presents the beginning of the enhanced international interaction on a world level, unfortunately primary in a destructive sense, but also in terms of starting an intensive and since then unstoppable international global exchange. At the same time, in a cultural and social sphere, this year symbolically marks the beginning of modernization phenomena and processes. Koolhaas points towards Duchamp’s ready-made as an establishment of new art propositions, introducing jazz as a new form on the world music scene, while in the sphere of architecture emphasizes the phenomena of the renowned Le Corbusier diagram Maison Dom-ino, which is the starting point of a fateful transition from the former period towards a new, diagrammatic and functional comprehension and perception of architecture. In any case, 1914 thus marks moments of new architectural history.

While in 1914 – as he suggests – it was still possible to talk about Chinese, Swiss, or Indian architecture, today, by virtue of modernization techniques within the past hundred years, such differences disappeared. He thus invites that, faced with the challenge of new and multiple amplified globalization possibilities, that this process be questioned in detail so as to avoid generalizations and weakening of architectural expression, as well as architectural modus operandi, along with its social ambitions and programs.

Your team’s proposal, with you as its commissioner, elaborates the period of modernism in Croatia to that between two world wars and the post-war period. We hold that you thus indicate that the way a value system is formed has a great impact on the formation of architectural expression which in turn defines the definition of space, as well as an exchange of the primal importance of determined spatial “proceedings” in accordance with dominant social values.

When we mention the two prominent stages of our modern architecture, the interwar period, during the 1930s and the postwar period in the 1950s and 1960s, we don’t necessarily think primarily about the notion in your question, that “the way a value system is formed has a great impact on the formation of architectural expression which in turn defines the definition of space”. That is inevitable, but we are taking an almost opposite viewpoint here: as certain architectural valuables (together with their targeted social impacts) survive despite of and notwithstanding changed political framework and social value systems, and precisely influencing autonomous values of local architectural traditions. Croatian architectural modernism in the direct postwar period survived, within a namely initially averse social and cultural circumstances – as its common knowledge – thanks to autonomy and the abstract nature of this medium, through which it at the same time, paradoxically, realizes its socially engaged preferences.

You use the formation of a “cultural” or “national” identity as the origin of our modernism, however, we are interested how you deem these terms can be understood today, when, within a nominal national autonomy, we have a practical alienation of space from social control and what does that imply in terms of architectural operations?

“Cultural Heritage” would suggest the ingrained local habit of learning from history. Šegvić would, for example, figuratively speaking, present this with the following statement: “History is the only qualified method for understanding architecture”. And he would further elaborate on this logic via his own example: “And herein lies the secret that was bequeathed to me by Albini, while he obtained this nugget of wisdom via Kovačić, passed on to him from Felbinger, thus I’ll pass it on to you, and you can spread the word.” In this way, distilling only developmental coordinates from history, lines and logic of the process, and the conditioning of necessary modifications, history becomes a creative and live category that established continuity to the current moment in time and thus – only seemingly paradoxical – revealing certain avant-garde examples as the ultimate revolutionary shifts. Šegvić would dig out from history such “sustainable lines” and sets, as guarantees of continuity and quality for the benefit of the Croatian contemporary architectural scene.

For example, if we discuss preferred architectural content programs, then in today’s reign of the “super private” and indifference of the homogenized field of hyper-individual differences, Šegvić’s reminder serves us well to ponder on the profound “social and poetic meaning of architecture” and his suggestion to contemplate the spatial frame as, necessarily, a place of gatherings, interaction, social integration, awakening and raising the collective interest and reaching dosizanja supra-individual designs and goals.

In terms of preferred effects of such truly engaged architectural frameworks, the second useful bullet would be that in our concern for passion and fulfillment of the contemporary generation, condemned to the act of passive consumption due to the flood of hyper-production of popular culture and the flurry of mass cultural industry, is reminiscent of the inherited architectural attribute of selfless distribution of a fantasy.

1965. Julije De Luca, Ante Rožić, Matija Salaj, Bernardo Bernardi: Hotel Maestral, Brela

1963. Berislav Kalogjera: Business complex Bastion, Split

1964. Miro Marasović: Dormitory, Kumasi, Gana