Venice Biennale 2018 Curator Series: Latvia
The Latvian Pavilion during the 16th International Architecture Exhibition Biennale Architettura 2018 is curated by a multidisciplinary team consisting of architect and urbanist Evelīna Ozola, architect Matīss Groskaufmanis, scenographer Anda Skrējāne and Director of the New Theatre Institute of Latvia Gundega Laiviņa. This exhibition aims to explore the question of living together in an increasingly complex society, and architecture’s role in providing for it through the lens of apartment buildings. Arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, recently sat down with Evelīna, Matīss, and Anda to find out more about the concept behind the pavilion as part of arcspace’s ongoing Venice Biennale interview series.
Robert Martin: Evelīna, Matīss, and Anda – thank you for giving up your time to talk to arcspace today. In a biennale that is curated predominantly by architects, your team is notably multidisciplinary. How did the four of you come together to envision this exhibition?
Evelīna Ozola: We have all worked together in different capacities previously, so we all knew each other and knew what the capabilities were of each team member. Since our topic extends beyond buildings and the architectural knowledge, it makes sense that our team was not strictly made up of architects.
Matīss Groskaufmanis: I would say that the culture of architecture in Latvia is still in its formation, and therefore most of its discourse can often be conservative and risk-averse. That is why it was very important for us to try and make a proposal with a team made up of different disciplines. The different opinions we each bring is what makes the process of making an exhibition much richer than what you would find in a team consisting only of architects. In my mind, it would be limiting to work only within strictly defined borders of a single discipline in today’s world.
There has been a marked shift in the past few years away from iconic architecture and starchitects of the early 2000s to one with a more socially aware agenda. This seemed to come to a climax in 2016 with the last biennale’s theme of ‘reporting from the front’ almost being a call to arms to architects to use their skills for the greater good of society. This year’s theme seems to have lost some of this agency and returned to a more general overview of architecture. How do you feel about the ambition of architecture as a profession shifting so suddenly?
MG: That is a very complicated question, but one could say that socially-focused architecture had become the mainstream as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. On the other hand, the globalized, investment-driven, image-based, and iconic architecture is still very much alive today — maybe even more so than before 2008. Perhaps we do not see it in the headlines, at least not in the highbrow architecture discourse of the global North, but on a practical level it is still very alive, especially in the parts of the planet that are regarded as “emerging markets”.
It seems unclear at the moment what architecture should strive for, or where its ambition is shifting to. This happens at a time when the whole process of producing a building is becoming increasingly fragmented into countless layers of subcontractors, consultants, BIM managers, and so on, each with its own agenda and expertise. One might think that architecture as we know it, or at least as it is taught in most architecture schools by the older generations, is in some kind of existential crisis. This is not necessarily something to worry about.
RM: How will your exhibition relate to the overall theme of the Biennale, Freespace?
MG: This year’s theme offers an intriguing and comfortable ambiguity. There are multiple readings of what Freespace is about. For instance: in one way you could take it as a call for a romanticized view of architecture’s role in the society, but you could also read it as a plea for a more inclusive architecture. In a way the latter interpretation is the one we’ve chosen to embrace.
Anda Skrējāne: I think where we fall into place is that we are discussing the everyday choreography of life that provides the contact point between the general public and architecture. In Latvia, it’s quite clear that this place is within apartment buildings. That is the everyday meeting place – it’s where most people live, see, and feel architecture.
It’s important to note this because the population density in Latvia is one of the lowest in Europe, but at the same time over two-thirds of the population live in the densest form of housing — the highest ratio in Europe. It’s a strange paradox.
RM: Your exhibition description states that Latvia has undergone several fundamental political and economic transformation over the past 100 years. Often architecture and housing is directly used as a tool to promote new political ideologies. Can you describe some of typological changes within housing that have taken place in Latvia?
EO: It’s been interesting to look at how different ideas of housing developed in parallel to ideas about the Latvian state over this period. When Latvia was still very young in the 1920s, the construction of municipal apartment buildings was seen as something that could emancipate the people, especially the working class. Then during the Soviet state, housing was used as one of the tools to colonize the Baltic region. In the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, came the extreme privatization of the Latvian housing market. In a very short period of time, a whole generation became homeowners but didn’t know what it meant to own a property.
It is even more interesting to compare these cases with the spectrum of today’s issues—a shrinking and ageing population, affordability of housing, dependence on imported energy resources. When we look back at history we can see a variety of ways of addressing the housing question, the successes and shortcomings of different systems.
RM: I’ve read that a large percentage of the population live in microrayon housing estates, with over 65% of the population living in them in the nation’s capital, Riga. In a number of western countries, this housing typology has a certain stigma attached to it and its residents. With such a high number of the population living in these housing areas, what is the Latvian relationship to them?
MG: We will try to answer this question within the publication that will accompany our exhibition, titled The Architecture of Together and Apart: An Inquiry into Apartment Buildings. Among other materials, the book includes several essays written by a diverse range of authors—economists, historians, and philosophers, each offering his or her own take on what it means to be living together and apart, and in some instances, particularly in the Soviet-era serial housing.
From my own perspective, there is still some stigma attached to this type of housing, however it is not seen as social housing. Instead, as a built form, the microrayon evokes a certain memory of the Soviet era as a problematic period of the history. At the same time, these parts of the city also constitute the most active housing market—a middle-class family can still find by all means a decent apartment in the microrayon districts for half of the price per square meter, as in a new development. It’s a very important part of Latvia’s housing market, as well as as everyday culture.
RM: Your exhibition aims to ‘actualise socioeconomic transformation in relation to apartment building through four different categories, Distance, Promise, Warmth, and Self’. How are you hoping to communicate these themes? I imagine within a multidisciplinary team, you may go further than the traditional mediums of posters and models that are usually shown at the biennale.
AS: We will be showcasing models that are abstracted translations of certain processes interacting with buildings, and we have decided to have them commissioned to artists and designers, rather than practicing architects. So that the models would turn out more conceptual, symbolic, and perhaps even provocative representations of architecture and its transformations. We are also working with photographers to capture apartment buildings in the Latvian landscape.
RM: We’re seeing an abundance of biennales starting to pop up all over the world with what seems to be a new one every few months. What do you think is the specific role of the Venice Architecture Biennale in contemporary society?
MG: For better or worse, it seems that one of the most important parts of the Venice Architecture Biennale is the national participation. This is what sets it apart from the majority of other biennales and triennales, and that is how a large part of it is structured, both in organizational, as well as spatial terms. Even the Giardini can be seen as a miniature geopolitical sandbox that reflects certain historical events and aspirations.
Among the problems the idea of national participation might entail, it still proves that the increasingly globalized architectural culture has not entirely smoothened out the specific geographic and cultural nuances, and that there are still essentially different concerns, as well as different architectural responses to them. Hopefully, the multitude of interpretations granted by Freespace will allow us to explore those nuances this year.
RM: Thank you Evelīna, Matīss, and Anda for giving up your time to talk to arcspace today.
For more information on the Latvian Pavilion, please click 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.