Within the framework of the competition of the Ministry of Culture and the UHA (Croatian Architects’ Association) architect and artist Tomislav Pavelić has been elected as the commissioner of the Croatian team in terms of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which is set to be held under the governance of David Chipperfield from August 29th to November 25th, 2012. It was a short stretch from the competition’s release to its conclusion, only two weeks time, and there were four applications, out of which Pavelić and his concept and Ivana Radenović with her experimental spatial installation of the designer group Numen /For Use made the shortlist. The panel of judges, consisting of the UHA representatives (Krešimir Rogina, Silvio Bašić and Lea Pelivan) as well as the Ministry of Culture representatives (Berislav Šipuš and Zlatko Uzelac) decided upon Pavelić’s concept. We interviewed the new commissioner Tomislav Pavelić to find out more about Croatia’s presentation at the Venetian Arsenale.
* photo: Jutarnji list
The theme of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice is ‘common ground.’ How does your concept relate to this theme?
- This topic is so broad that it can be interpreted in various ways, and I latched on to the last sentence of Chipperfield’s programmatic text where he states that he isn’t interested in the Biennale being used as a platform for introducing talent, but as a place for delving into the ambitions and responsibilities of the profession itself. Anybody who’s been following the happenings on the architectural scene knows that there’s no unison opinion on these matters. For the most part, the professional discourse is based on esthetics, as that’s the historical traditional position of architects and architecture. However, if we take Adam Caruzo’s words as fact, that such architecture, a mere continuation of its historical role, makes up a mere one percent of everything that’s developed, this in turn begs the question if that can, in effect, be our common ground. Maybe it can for architecture as a philosophical discipline that’s realized through esthetics, but the scope of architectural activity has changed significantly since democratization and the development of society brought on the realization that cities can’t build themselves and that a common spiritual context doesn’t exist. Today it would be pointless to try and find a common denominator or spiritual disposition that could stand behind everything, as that’s simply non-existent, as are idealism or social-architectural utopism that were present after the First and Second World Wars. That’s how I reached the conclusion that one must return to the initial question – for whom does architecture exist? It isn’t just for the refined sophisticated gentlemen that used to commission projects from equally refined and sophisticated architects, but it’s the citizens whom are condemned to live in the architecture and its consequences on all levels – from individual residential units to physical planning. Hence our only common ground is – the people.
In recent years, several citizens’ initiatives in terms of planning and its users have cropped up throughout Croatia. The Pula group is highlighted by the fact that it’s being run by an architect thus applying architectural knowledge in its work and activities. Is this the underlying reason for your decision to present their work?
There are many architectural practices that engage in theoretical research of society. However, most of these practices wear themselves out within that theorizing and select either professional publications or gallery spaces for their framework of activities, while discussing participation from a top-down standpoint so we still don’t know who are the masses they stand for, who these people are as individuals. If anybody knows, it’s these initiatives that work with citizens. And that’s how I decided on the Pula group. They’re not engaged in any academic topics, but are working within their environment and are stepping out of their positions as citizens who have specific architectural knowledge which they in turn offer to their fellow citizens with the purpose of jointly improving the conditions they live in. But we won’t approach this by retrospectively displaying their works, we rather consider this appearance as a platform that takes the activities of a group of architects which prove themselves through contextualization of other experiences. I’m interested to find out, on the one hand, can such initiatives contribute to finding a more solid common ground for engaging in architectural topics, and on the other hand, in which way can such practices contribute towards making what architects are doing more democratic and prone to serving public interests. The benefits of our presentation can be wider than architecture itself, but the framework of the Biennale is nevertheless architectural. If there was more time to prepare our presentation, we’d most likely include many others in the whole process, but we have a minimum amount of time as is, and in such circumstances I selected the Pula group, which covers both the architectural and social aspects. But other initiatives that cover planning in Croatia will be presented in some sort of documentary form at the Biennale. I’m still not sure in what capacity, it is something that needs serious contemplation.
* foto: Jutarnji list
In addition to the Pula group, there are a few more associates in your team, what is their role, how do they fit in?
The Croatian representative at this year’s Biennale is first and foremost the Pula group. However, that doesn’t mean that we won’t utilize the experience of others, firstly artists who know how to best “hit” hot topics and phenomena, as opposed to architects whose connection to investors conditions the format and scope of their activities. There’s neither time nor necessity for “breaking new ground.” Photographer Boris Cvjetanović is set to document the ways in which people unconditionally utilize public space – the historical, copyrighted and “anonymous” – and thus redefine it displaying its actual needs. Siniša Labrović has been systematically doing performances in and about public space for years now, so I intend to include his work as additional commentary. Filmmaker and documentarist Igor Bezinović is in charge of directing the multimedia material that will follow, document and contextualize the Pula group’s activities. I hope that such a broad platform of activities will aid us in experimenting with the possibilities of common ground. I’ll be happy if we manage to entice a discussion in Croatia. That’s the actual goal of this performance, and not the presentation of any one of us.
The discussion on public space in Croatia has been active for years now in Croatia, but it’s led outside of architectural circles for the most part, and initiated by the citizens’ discontentedness with the way the authorities are treating public space.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s actually a discussion that’s going on, more like bickering between irreconcilably different starting points of those included in those discussions. While particular interests are prioritized, there isn’t even the slightest chance of a discussion developing. There isn’t any motivation for a discussion among architects as their jobs don’t depend on it, however difficult the situation is in general. As long as we have to deal with narrow-minded investors concerned only with their own interests, there’s not even a remote possibility of a discussion. Likewise, while we don’t discern the privileged position in terms of interests and real needs, and in view of direct users for whom we’re designing spatial complexes, our independence is hypothetical, while our dependence on financiers is real. All that is highly complicated, which doesn’t make it a good basis for discussion. I’m sure that my concept will be diversely received and I certainly don’t expect universal applause, but I do hope that it won’t be overlooked as it concerns every last one of us. In Croatia, we have a culture of sweeping things under the rug, and that’s the worst kind of enemy there is.
If a discussion hasn’t been able to develop within the profession, despite all the problems that exist, isn’t that a lack of responsibility within that same profession?
That’s one way of looking at it. On the one hand, the profession has major nominal authority, while having none, and that’s a vital topic that needs to be opened. However, it’s very difficult to call anyone out because we’re all in this together, cut from the same cloth, condemned to fighting the existential fight, while at the same time it’s expected from us to act like we’re not. It’s very hard to get into a position where you can have responsibility from that point. I think that’s bound to happen, as I said, when the profession comes to its breaking point. Of course, I’d like to use the option of discussion before we hit rock bottom, but history teaches us that this rarely happens.
What’s your take on this year’s selection process for the Venice Architecture Biennale, as this year, a tender was released as opposed to prior years when a commissioner got directly appointed?
I think that was a very good decision and that such a practice should continue because that shows a democratization of the whole selection process, where the election isn’t based solely on someone’s past work, but on their submitted concept. That’s a good way of selection for any event that needs to be represented by someone or something. And for me personally it’s also good that I was chosen within the competition as that gives me the impression that a concept with a certain point of view was selected, and not myself.
Is this a matter of taking responsibility?
In times where the fundamental question is firstly responsibility, it was a rational choice of the Ministry of Culture to take away its responsibility of a one-sided election. And I don’t mean to say that it was a cowardly decision, but, on the contrary, a courageous one as it expands the integration of the general public notwithstanding the level to which the public will want to take part in it.
Do you think that the outcome of the last Croatian performance at the Architecture Biennale influenced this decision?
Certainly it did, but I don’t think our last performance at the Biennale was bad, just unlucky. And that’s a big difference. That performance narrowed down architecture as a serious discipline to a highly important segment of fundamental research, for example the type of research conducted at the Ruđer Bošković Institute. In that sense this performance was good, because architecture has a right to question its foundations, but, unfortunately, this research was neither carried out to the end nor presented to the public as research, but was on the defensive throughout the whole PR concept. Communication-wise, that’s maybe suitable in today’s time, but it didn’t bear fruit. And thus something that started out worthy all of a sudden became unworthy, an embarrassment. The curse of this moment in time in architecture, what this performance shows, is that architecture is evaluated by market and advertising standards even when it’s conducting research, instead of being evaluated by the usefulness of the overall experience acquired through any given project. For all those who are serious in their contemplation of architecture, and there are not that many individuals who are, that performance was highly useful. Not to find out that an armature net can’t carry a certain amount of weight, but to test the physical boundaries of that, which is defined as space. Anyways, the audience ripped the super-thin elements that stem from nanotechnology, in the award-winning Japanese pavilion that same year, only after a few days, but that doesn’t mean that it was the wrong direction for testing the possibilities of architecture in the future. My concept for this year belongs to the field of fundamental research, only putting emphasis on the social sphere, which I consider to be the intrinsic foundation, i.e., architecture’s raison d’etre. Anyhow, that’s the format for participating in exhibitions such as the Biennale. To show opuses in such a context today is all but distasteful. Not to say I think there aren’t opuses in Croatia that deserve to be presented abroad. Of course there are, I just thought that this particular concept was more suitable to today’s time.