On Hold

Reconstruction project for the Russian pavilion in the Giardini, Venice. An open call application

1. Public buildings

4. Exhibition design

Concepts

2020

  • 2020 — Open call for the Open! project for the Russian Federation pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale renovation. Short list.

Yes, we are living in interesting times and no, we don’t like it. Global transformations — climate change, social unrest, constant expectation of the new economic collapse — have turned anxiety into the default mode. The crisis, that now seems to be perpetual, was born out of the notion of the eternal growth, so the most obvious response is to stop growing. We gradually internalise the idea of restraint and maybe even austerity.

But what if degrowth is not necessarily the end game. It might be just a moment to slow down so that we can question everything every step of the way.

What is left for the architect to do? To question the brief. To question the aims, the means and relations.

The first question concerns the most rigid condition of an otherwise loosely formulated open call: all applicants must be under the age of 40. But why 40? Globally, the younger generation of architects is repeatedly exercising a critical approach and resistance, mainly through conceptual projects and writings. However, in Russia, the younger generation of architects has an unprecedentedly vast portfolio of built projects. Many young Russian architects are seasoned players in the national architecture, construction and development market because many have already established their own practice within the initial years of their degree. Developing several projects at once, often at an extraordinary pace, young Russian architects, unlike their European counterparts, are simply lacking the time to reflect on the problematic conditions of their profession.

It is clear that we, ’the young Russian architects’, need to temporarily suspend the hectic activity, catch our breath, look around and ask ourselves and each other: What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Is this important?

The complete corpus of applications sent in response to the open call shall comprise a compendium of all the questions that young Russian architects are to ask themselves. We don’t want to be the lone voice of the generation — we suggest incorporating all these questions into the space of the pavilion.

We suggest opening up the process of questioning to colleagues and the public by opening up the process of transformation of the pavilion. Through its potential to accommodate insight, this open process will allow us to discover an appreciation in moments of transition rather than harbouring a fear of them.

There is a pressing need to repair the leaking roof, which is to be dismantled and restored. This gives us an opportunity to savour the moment of its absence during the course of the exhibition and question its role in a broader sense.

The same approach is being exercised for the doors and windows as an opportunity to meditate on the value of openness. Throughout the period of the exhibition we question the necessity of physical connectivity by replacing the ladder with openings that ensure visual connections.

Connections make the world go round. Connections also got us in trouble. There is a tendency towards reducing global exchange and mobility in favour of sustainable, autonomous systems. This is made possible by the constant increase of communicational connectivity and by replacing physical connections with virtual ones.

Isolation and sovereignty discourse is big in Russia. This can give architects an opportunity to question their obligation to make walls, which essentially means borders, and make connections instead.

The very appearance of the pavilion showcases a curious entanglement of Russian and Italian architecture. In creating the pavilion, Schusev appealed to the national identity through applying the Russian Revival architectural style. This is based on Russian architecture of the 15th-17th centuries, which was born out of cross-breeding an Italian artistic tradition with the local one. The form of the pavilion, despite being placed on Venetian soil, stems from Russia’s particular climate, which brought about the use of blind walls, small windows and a high platform with a side entrance. Temporary transformations of the space will reunite the building’s architecture with its Italian roots, even though this is more of a side effect than an initial intention. Pivotal to this idea is the opened roof, which turns the central space into an atrium and harking back to architecture of a different age and place.

Dismantling the roof, together with the opening of all the doors and windows, will allow us to observe how the building’s form can coexist with the local climate without any additional means of indoor climate control like AC. In summer, multiple openings will let the wind aerate the interior, and later, in November, the ground floor will be flooded with water as a testament to the ultimate acceptance of the present conditions. The pavilion is an archetypal shelter and, through stripping the building of its protective function, we call into question the ultimate task of architecture — separation from the environment.

The opportunity to question the very necessity of the roof repair prompts us to question the necessity of the pavilion itself. Some countries, for instance China, are not allotted one. The whole spatial form of Giardini — the complex of national pavilions — is a monument to an epoch that is long gone. This condition is being constantly replicated by retaining the original spatial layout through the maintenance of the pavilions, which holds us back.

What if the Biennale itself is a thing of the past? It is a sad irony, that Venice, a city that is suffering dramatically from the consequences of climate change, has to try hard to attract an additional influx of air-travelers with its annual high profile cultural events.

The value of meetings, dialogues and exchange is hard to question in the context of requisite collective meditations on the future. But do they require a physical presence in a physical space?

The famous Biennial openings are bright but fleeting moments if compared to the low-intensity use for the next six months and complete shutdown for the other six. These will recur until the beginning of the installation works for the new Biennale. The common cure for under-use is to diversify the user pool and, fortunately for the Russian pavilion, it enjoys the advantage of standing close to the Lagoon. But since making an additional Lagoon-oriented opening is something that requires careful consideration, the period of exhibition can be used to test the feasibility of this step by installing an imitation of the opening on the ground floor of the pavilion.

The pavilion is to accommodate an office that will work on its future. However, the only reason to incorporate a physical office space into the interior of the pavilion would be to allow its staff to observe the building in its transitional state. So, it is ultimately not an office that is needed but an observatory — a space to put everything on hold, watch and start asking questions.

Follow this link to read our competition entry

All elements of the installation highlight the transitional state of the pavilion. The openings that were sealed and are now uncovered and augmented with life-size photos of their previous state. This allows us to access the changes and grasp their necessity.

There are large mirrors placed next to the openings that provide new entrances to the pavilion, so that the observers don’t get in the way or become disturbed by the circulation of visitors.

The openings that are still to be uncovered are replaced by images depicting future vistas.

The primary function of the pavilion space is to allow a visitor to slow down, have some rest and get into the questioning mode. The space also allows for collective questioning: for example, a room can host a discussion for up 15 people to take part in.

Letting the ground floor be flooded with water is an act of total acceptance regarding the present conditions. The high probability of flooding in November prompts the urgent waterproofing of the ground floor — in the pavilion as well as in the city. This measure will also prevent the rainfall from damaging the building.

Since the pavilion office is there to let its staff observe and exchange, the table loses its practical application and turns into a barrier. It disappears to be replaced by a volume of air constituting shared space. The new staple of the office space is now the screen that allows for the exchange of ideas and communication with the vast number of contributors.

The paneuropean word ‘school’, when traced back to its original greek form (scholē), discloses its original meaning — ’leisure’. To the Greeks, leisure afforded a man time to spend in thinking and learning. The Russian pavilion space allows for leisure and rest as a prerequisite for the possibility of a questioning process to begin. The school chair is there to take its user through all the stages: from sitting down to rest, while comfortably placing a bag underneath the seat, to observing the space and letting the mind wander until it stumbles upon a question that is inscribed on the attached table. Each chair offers a different question referring to matters that concern the participants of the open call.