Venice Biennale Curator Series: Denmark
Boris Brorman Jensen and Kristoffer Lindhardt Weiss are the appointed curators of this year’s Danish Pavilion at the International Architecture Biennale in Venice. As part of an on-going Venice Biennale series, arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, recently sat down with them to find out what exciting ideas visitors can expect from the Danish contribution.
Robert Martin: Kristoffer and Boris, thank you for both giving up your time and coming here to talk to arcspace – you must be incredibly busy with what must be a huge responsibility of curating a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The first thing I’d like to ask you is how the working relationship between you came about? You both come from very different backgrounds.
Kristoffer Lindhardt Weiss: It’s a mystery..
Boris Brorman Jensen: Yes, it’s a mystery. But on the other hand there’s a specific difference that makes the working relationship so dynamic. Kristoffer is educated as a philosopher and I’m educated as an architect and researcher. So in that way you have the analytical background of really in-depth knowledge of what’s going on right now on one hand and then a more societal approach and reflection on the other. Our appointed collaboration is a clear sign from the organizers that they want us to not only create a documentation and discussion on an architectural level but also try to define a space for a wider argument about society.
KLW: We’ve also known each other for 10 years and I was really happy to find out that we would be working together.
RM: We’ve seen an abundance of biennales starting to pop up all over the world with the most recent being held in Chicago last year. What do you think is the specific role of the Venice Architecture Biennale in contemporary society?
BBJ: I think the biennale is a very important institution and I see the necessity for providing a space for discussion on the conditions of the profession that is not burdened by too many commercial interests such as in an expo or trade fair. However, at the same time, pointing at relevant national issues that are being defined by the individual contributors while also raising more global or universal questions.
KLW: But it’s also just a question of making room in very busy people’s calendars. If you want the lord mayor of a city or the president of the UN general assembly, if you want all these people to meet at the same place then you need an institution like a biennale with the cultural legitimacy, the funding and the cultural capital to attract that much attention. A lot of people have been criticizing the biennale for being shallow and superficial. Hinting at the fact that some pavilions have no money to fund their exhibitions while other countries spend lots of money. It’s a bit of a mixed experience but I still think it’s a good thing that you bring excellence together and create a kind of competitive urge in the business to produce something that is not only interesting architectural theory but also create a nice forum to compete on who can ask the most interesting and provocative questions. There’s a lot of voices in one place so you need to be very polemic and journalistic in your approach to get your message through. That makes you sharper with where you want to go, right?
Alejandro Aravena. Image Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia
RM: The overall theme set by the biennale director and 2016 Pritzker Prize Laurette, Alejandro Arevena, is “reporting from the front”. Globally, you could describe Denmark as being a Utopia with your liberal democracy, welfare state protections…
KLW: It’s a broken utopia!
RM: But you have political commentators like Francis Fukiyama using Denmark as an aspirational benchmark! He consistently uses his catchphrase “getting to Denmark” as an encouragement of where other countries should aim. In a global context, we can see huge problems to do with mass migration, war, housing crises, megacities, etc. In this context, what do you see the “front” is in Denmark?
KLW: You’re absolutely right, we have a well developed welfare society, so we obviously don’t have the same kind of problems as they have in the South American favelas or the Middle East right now. But we still have dilemmas – we still have frontiers and battles between interests and ideas that are forming our cities and our public spaces. So we see the front in Denmark as a broad front. And in this way we decided not to focus on an individual architect and his work but to look for the front in the many. The title of our exhibition is “Art of Many ” and that means that obviously architecture is an art form but it is also about architects and city planners coming together and creating something for the many. We’ve brought in a lot of projects and they all somehow through different scales, debates, conflicts, dilemmas show what is Denmark’s front.
BBJ: But also our process has played a role in identifying the Danish “front”. Before deciding on our theme for the biennale we started with an open call for projects and many of the themes and agendas that we are now pointing to and discussing at the biennale sort of emerged out of the collective pool of projects.
However, diving into this pool was also a kind of micro-politics. Everyday decisions architects are negotiating with developers and the political system, expresses all the complexities and difficulties of promoting certain humanistic values which the Danish National Architecture Policy calls “putting people first”. So going from these big headlines to actually examining the daily operations of architects standing on the shoulders of these great ideals, which were built for decades on the Danish welfare society and seeing where the foundations are cracking. This is our front. Our exhibition will not be a catwalk of great projects that just express the fantastic 1:1 ideas of how humanism works in the welfare society. That’s not where we want to go – we want to find the cracks in everything and point to where the projects are really struggling to promote certain ideas.
RM: You’ve touched on the concept and title of your exhibition, Art of the Many. Could you elaborate a little more on what visitors can expect when they visit the Danish Pavilion?
KLW: The exhibition is composed of two rooms. The first contains a wunderkammer of over 130 projects from all parts of the country that shows the broad front of Danish architecture. It’s like an archive and gallery that only contains models. There will be no drawings or pictures allowed. It’s models as a medium. That’s one part.
The second room has been named, The Right to Space. It’s a politics, urban policies, architectural policies, economy and culture centered around the ideas of professor Jan Gehl. It’s all the stuff that the context of the wunderkammer projects are reflecting and debate. So it’s essentially two rooms that speak to and inform each other. The discussions on the political societal scale influence how architects work while the way architects produce space influences the political discussion. But it’s not just a one way street, it’s going both ways that the formal experiments of architects; how they frame a program and how they define public space, also influence politicians and city policy. So we have this duality but it’s actually a conversation, a critical conversation and that’s how I would define the exhibition.
BBJ: Maybe that’s kind of the core narrative within the exhibition, that there is an established understanding of the role of design in modern society. That the next great step forward is acknowledging that we do need design in order to constantly improve the living and working conditions for people and society. So design is the vital tool to readjust and reinvent society. The most inspiring architecture is always engaged with society and the most visionary politics is always engaged with architectural planning.
RM: How do you then respond to architects around the world advocating the victimization of the profession? Sir Norman Foster published an article last year in The Guardian stating ‘as an architect I have no power. Advocacy is the only power that I have.” Do you think maybe the influence you’re saying architects have is strictly a Danish condition?
KLW: First of all, I don’t like that victimization of the profession! Very often you hear architects saying that they have no power and that it’s all in the hands of the market but that is only to a certain extent. Maybe the authority of the profession has been diminished but that’s really just a matter of adjusting to a new (media) reality. There’s so much potential for architects to devise utopian schemes of critique and reinvent the role of the architect beyond being an aesthetic master (which may not be so important anymore). I really dislike the victimization of the profession. Norman Foster is so influential, why is he saying that he has no influence as an architect?
BBJ: Well it depends on how you frame it. I would say that we have seen the end of The Fountainhead figure – where architects were somehow aligned with government, that architectural projections were never questioned, and architects were the expertise on urban life. This status was first questioned by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s and then later by Jan Gehl so obviously the role of the profession has changed from being so authoritative to a more playful and imaginative role. That’s a very powerful position to have – the ability to turn fiction into fact. In this time of climatic and economic crisis right now, the architect has the ability to create new kinds of projections or utopian ideas. For example, re-imagining the urban, attacking the malfunctioning modernist plan, replacing it with resilient climate technologies. That may be a fiction to begin with but eventually it could become a household idea, then become a truth and before becoming policy. That’s a very powerful position to have.
KLW: Bringing Jan Gehl to this is actually a powerful way of saying that architects can actually change the mindset. Jan Gehl is definitely not a victim, and that’s what I really respect about his work – his ability and belief that you can actually change the urban environment through really strong ideas. He’s not the classical aesthetic architect but still he’s an example of a strategy of influence that we would like to highlight in our exhibition.
RM: You’ve spoken about the extensive amount of projects in your wunderkammer and how they were selected through an open call. I’ve read that this is the first time the Danish Pavilion has selected projects in this democratic way. Can you give some reasons for this? And maybe provide some examples?
BBJ: Firstly, I think the commissioner (The Danish Architecture Centre) and the sponsors wanted to offer a different perspective than last biennale where there was only one specific practitioner in focus. So it was obvious that they wanted something and widen the image of what Danish architecture is at the moment. In Denmark, there is a group of very talented young offices that have managed to gain a lot of attention through a number of outstanding projects that have been published and exhibited globally. However, there is a wider spectrum of ideas and creativity at play and we wanted to show some of the less-known and exposed practitioners and offices and give justice to the diversity of the architectural scene. We have both very big companies and we have newly founded small companies that are doing a great job and we have included them.
KLW: It was also an attempt to move beyond stylism -this exhibition is not a question of style. It would be very limiting to focus on an individual or a few offices and their specific style so it’s an attempt to show mass and the quality of mass. In this sense when you see the multitude of projects included and when you see their different takes on different issues, you understand it’s more of series of fundamental questions that architects should be better at addressing.
BBJ: Maybe I can just add one nuance here. You can always point at the break through projects that really seem novel and opened virgin ground but maybe a claim of our exhibition is that this is not always the case. Architects are always standing on the shoulders of other architects from previous generations and we’ve been encouraged to look at this idea as a reformulation and testing of old ideas. An example would be The Mountain in Ørestad by BIG which has been published widely but actually heavily references the social housing projects of the late 1960s in Northern Copenhagen. I guess all Danish architects know that and it’s not a secret so it’s not wrong to state the project as a novelty whereas it also makes sense to look at how the project is reinterpreting existing attempts to reach the same ideas.
KLW: We’ve also included less pleasing and hedonistic projects like a state prison in Norway by Erik Møller which is an interesting attempt to see how the toughest kind of punishment in our society is actually dictated by very special spatial solutions. Architecture is the central tool in that punishment and it’s a provocative question to ask how do we as a profession engage in this. The architects have carefully designed a proposal that obviously doesn’t solve the problem of punishment but really tries to imagine a more humanistic way to deal with these taboos and issues.
RM: Thank you Boris and Kristoffer for giving up your time to talk with arcspace.
Read more about the curators here
Read more about the Danish Pavilion here