Venice Biennale 2018 Curator Series: Germany
Marianne Birthler, Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeit have been selected as the curatorial team for this year’s German Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. In response to Biennale curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s call for proposals under the theme ‘Freespace’, the team have proposed the exhibition Unbuilding Walls’, which responds to the fact that this year, Germany has been reunited for 28 years, exactly as long as the Berlin Wall existed. Arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, recently sat down with Lars, Wolfram, and Thomas to find out more about the concept behind the pavilion as part of an ongoing Venice Biennale interview series.
Robert Martin: Lars, Wolfram and Thomas – First of all, I’d like to thank you for giving up your time to talk to me here at arcspace.com and also congratulate you on being selected for what must be an incredibly interesting and important role as some of the curators of the German Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018. I’d like to start by asking what was the process for you being selected as curator?
Lars Krückeberg: Becoming the curator of the German Pavilion is built up as a competition. It’s a two-stage process where anybody that is an architect or involved with the discipline of architecture can apply with an idea. Then a jury, consisting of politicians, architects, and professors from academia, select a shortlist of 5 to 10 proposals that proceed to the second stage. The process takes over half a year, so we were lucky to be selected.
RM: Can you give me a short introduction to your exhibition? What can visitors expect when they arrive there?
LK: In February this year, it was the 28th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany – exactly as long as the Berlin Wall existed. We like to think of 28 years as a generation, which is usually done following timescales, so we thought it is the perfect time to look back at what happened after the Wall came down. However, it is not going to be an exhibition about the Berlin Wall, it is an exhibition about what has happened after its fall. As a physical act, it is easy to deconstruct a wall, but how do you overcome the cultural, economic and social differences it created? How do you fill in the gaps? Not only spatially but also within society.
Wolfram Putz: We are going to focus on the space that existed in between the wall – the death strip. That’s why the exhibition is called Unbuilding Walls – From Death Strip to Freespace. We want to explore what happens if a zone, that was built to wipe out a number of connections within the city and split the country into two, is brought back together one day. How do you bring a country back together? How do you bring a city back together? How do you use architecture and urban design to remember or forget? Do you create public spaces, or do you privatize? These are questions we want to address.
Our exhibition shows built projects from 28 years, which stand for very different approaches. There will be 28 projects on display that have completely different perspectives on how this should be done. Therefore, in a way, the exhibition shows how our society has been struggling to come back together.
Thomas Willemeit: It’s also important to understand that looking at the Berlin Wall was only the starting point of the exhibition. We have so many tourists coming to Berlin and looking at the wall but not really being able to understand what the reality was for the city and how the city and its people overcame it. Therefore, the first thing that we wanted to show is that the wall was not a just line, it was a space that created an emptiness within the city and an image of difference between people from the same country.
So, to understand how the city and the country came back together again after 28 years, you get a full spectrum of how architecture and spatial decisions reflect different needs and strategies of those who want to reconnect or just forget.
RM: It seems like an appropriate exhibition in our time of populist revolutions. Is there a greater narrative that you’re trying to communicate to the world?
LK: Yes. We want to say that in a time of emboldened nation states and populist policies, with a stronger than ever will to build walls again, it’s interesting to look at the German experience of removing the wall. We’re not trying to say that this is how it’s done. We’ve just found that even when a wall is gone, it leaves a very long shadow.
TW: We are also going to be showcasing six other walls from around the world. We researched the Mexican/US border, the Peace Walls in Northern Ireland, the Israeli West Bank Barrier, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus, and the EU Border Wall in Ceuta. However, we’re not focusing on the walls themselves. We’re focusing on the people within the shadows of these walls.
RM: I’ve read that that you’ve commissioned a team of journalists to fly around and document these walls. Is that why you have commissioned this team? Rather than architects?
TW: For us, it hasn’t been about documenting the wall, but rather trying to learn about the reality of how people live on both sides of the border. Some can explore both sides of the wall, others can’t, but all of them are very affected by it. It’s just as important to understand, especially within the echo of the Berlin Wall, the deeper relationships caused by the reality of these walls. We really want to present the energetic tension between the shear reality of what it means to live close to a wall. We haven’t asked these people about the walls, but rather, what they thought about the people on the other side, or how long they think the wall will stand. What we’ve come to learn is that it’s all about the people who live there. Even if you physically get rid of the wall, you’ve still got to get rid of the thought of the wall in their head.
LK: There are pros and cons to commissioning disciplines outside of architecture. However, we’re not here to document the walls and say whether a wall is architecturally good, whether it should be larger, or whether it should be prettier – that’s just not the topic.
It’s about what a wall represents and what it does to people’s lives. In the end, as curators and Graft architects, we don’t believe in architecture as a self-referential, autonomous art form. It is not just about proportion and making a beautiful building that simply works in itself. We fundamentally believe that architecture is a practical art as it serves people and mitigates how people live together as a society. Therefore, in the end architecture is for people, so let’s ask the people what they think first.
RM: How are you planning on translating this research into an architecture exhibition? Are there any specific mediums you’re choosing to use?
TW: Yes, absolutely! Within the pavilion, we will have two rooms, each equipped with six very large format screens that show the people we interviewed, standing in front of the walls. So, on each screen you’ll see people that live their lives nearby one of these walls and you will get their statements and learn more about the realities of life over there. It gives a good spectrum of the attitudes towards the physical barriers that were erected around the world.
WP: When you hear these statements, you’ll realise that not everybody is demanding for these walls to disappear. There is much controversy over whether they need a wall or not. So, it’s important to realise your position may vary, depending on your personal experiences. We wanted to collect as many statements as possible, in order to understand where the discussions are coming from.
RM: This may seem like an obvious question, but how does your exhibition relate to the overall theme of the Biennale, Freespace? It’s a much broader theme than the one in 2016, with much more room for interpretation.
LK: You have to acknowledge that when we applied for the curatorship of the German Pavilion, Grafton hadn’t yet revealed their topic for the Biennale. The German Pavilion had to find its own way without knowing where it would eventually end up. Once Grafton announced the theme, we were so happy because we think our proposal is exactly at the core of their theme of Freespace. Basically, in a time of increasing segregation and separation, the questions raised by the theme relate to society, identity, and how we co-exist.
The Berlin Wall exemplifies this divide and difference, but then all of a sudden when the wall came down, there was space left over for interpretation of how it should be used to bring the city together. It raises the question of how we can create something that is inclusive, connecting, and that bridges differences to define overlapping identities that brings us together.
TW: I agree with your analysis that this topic is a little broader than last time. But I think that’s good, because it’s not about limiting each country to a particular intellectual territory, rather indicating an underlying intention. It’s more about asking a question, than giving an answer – that’s my interpretation.
Freespace equals creativity within free space, and calls to the limits of your freedom as an architect. What is the relationship between the architect to those that live in the buildings that we design? Is it a freedom in itself that you are allowed to create space that allows freedom or puts people in chains?
Of course, the theme could be interpreted very widely, but the intention and focus is very clear. It’s very important to focus the discussion when entering into an architectural discourse, rather than asking for the latest formal exercises, economic realities, or other obvious aspects such as growth or big urban metropolises. It’s a very clear intention to bring people together who are interested in what it means when architecture is sold within the realities of societies it is creating.
RM: Good point. Is that what you think the role of the Venice Biennale is? There seems to be an abundance of architectural events popping up all over the world, and the focus of the discussion seems to change at every one. Or what do you interpret the role is of one of the world’s oldest institutions for architecture discourse?
LK: Yes, there are many formats nowadays where architecture is expressed as national pride or endeavour. If you take the world expositions, as an example, where you also have set themes, it’s not specifically an architecture exhibition, yet it also used by every country as architectural iconic displays of national representation. I think that this format has become a bit of a zoo and a bit redundant within a globalized world that is already so connected. It might have been necessary 100 years ago when we needed to come together to show what is happening within our respective counties, but not in the connected world we have today.
The Venice Architecture Biennale is different. There are other biennales, such as the one in Chicago, that are a bit more specific and raise specific, sometimes local questions. Venice, however, is the only place that mitigates and negotiates global topics from an architectural point of view. I also like the set-up of having one main curator bringing up a certain topic because there are already so many different opinions from the different national curators, so it guides the discussion to certain territories. That’s good because otherwise you could talk about everything and everyone at the same time.
The Biennale is also growing, with more countries entering every time. It’s Paolo Baratta’s, (President of the Venice Biennale), aim to be more inclusive, which is a good thing because it’s important that everyone is heard, even though it becomes more complex and complicated with an increasing number of voices. It’s not the G8 that is running the world anymore, we need to listen to every country and that’s the same within the profession of architecture.
RM: As a final question, I’d just like to ask whether you had any ambition for what you wanted visitors to take away from your exhibition?
TW: Hope. Hope that walls can be overcome. That walls are temporary and even though they may reflect how politicians or societies are failing for a period of time, they can be overcome.
LK: If you look at what happened to Berlin you realize that a whole generation has come to see the city as a centre of freespace, mentally and physically. Freedom is created in this process – it is a precious gift, that people will continue see, use, and be fascinated with.
RM: Lars, Wolfram, and Thomas – thank you for giving up your time to speak with us here at arcspace today.
The German Pavilion has been made possible by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear
Safety. Read more about their contribution to the biennale here.
arcspace.com is run by the Danish Architecture Center, who is also the commissioner for the Danish Pavilion. Read more about the 2028 Danish Pavilion here.