Transcript of conversations held with Freek Persyn and Galaad Van Daele in Spring 2016, based on a series of documents from 51N4E’s projects in Albania and a photo report by Stefano Graziani. This article was originally published in Accattone Issue number 4.
Order the full issue here.
The built environment can be read as a constant process of sedimentation, erosion and disruption caused by political turmoil, cultural shifts and sometimes architectural projects. After meeting Frida Escobedo in Mexico City, many parallels appeared with the work of Belgian architects 51N4E in Albania, to the point that both contributions could be read as an attempt to consider contemporary architecture in its close relation to the atavistic rituals and symbolic meanings embedded in everyday life: entrance, soil, threshold, representation of power, celebration, exclusion.
Since 2004, 51N4E have been digging in Tirana’s most sensitive sites: the main square, a central tower, the prime minister’s cabinet, tombs and memorials. Tangible histories of mock-ups, reinforced ceilings, domes and collections of stones appeal to broader architectural themes: the tensions between domesticity and display, technocracy and participation, desire and matter, design and uncertainty.
ACCATTONE. What is compelling about your projects is the way in which you seem to grasp the political, even existential aspects of a building project with the simple means of architecture. A necessary cynicism on the present state of the discipline – Koolhaas’s ‘dirty realism’ – is counterweighed by an almost heroic belief in architecture’s capacity to make things better. Your architecture is not made in isolation. Indeed you seem to find a particular impulse in approaching difficult programmes with as many stakeholders, while most architects would prefer more comfortable situations. In your case, architectural forms and materials are always invested with a lot of content. Yet they don’t spring from objective or measurable elements of the programme. Instead they appeal to something beyond, creating a disconnection, an intensity. A momentary lapse of reason. To define it as a contextual approach would be reductive, since form is specific to but also independent from the programme. Likewise your role in the building process: you strongly hold the position of the architect, but you push the boundaries to become a producer, to involve and get involved with all the actors of the process.It has been twelve years since your experience in Albania began, with the TID Tower competition in 2004. There you found – and contributed to improve – particular conditions which seem so far from countries with a longer tradition in project management. Running a project in Tirana definitely seems like a collective project made by the manual and intellectual efforts of many people. Human technology rather than material.
FREEK PERSYN. What’s striking about working there is this tension within a highly collective country which became completely individualistic. We were lucky to encounter someone like Edi Rama, first the mayor of Tirana, now the prime minister, who had the very clear agenda to bring back the idea of a collective space – although the definition of that word needs to be reconsidered, especially in Albania. And even if we cannot define the meaning of it precisely, the collective is actually something in which we have been intuitively interested for a long time, the idea that you share something with other people.Many of our projects deal with this ambiguity between public and private. Albania is a country which expresses this ambiguity most intensely. It has it culturally because of its Mediterranean tradition, where people really use the public space as a social space. Even if society is becoming more individualistic, this type of behaviour is still very strong in Albania, where people go out just to meet one another. So this transition towards individualism hasn’t broken that other tradition of sharing space. On top of this there is also the broader political tension, because of the Eastern bloc legacy, which was a very radical way of thinking about society and the relation between public and private. As Edi Rama describes it, people went “from a time when everything was ours, to a time when everything is mine”. The ambiguity and tension come from the fact that none of these absolutes is possible of course.
A. Do you mean that there was this legacy, then probably a rejection after the collapse of communism, and finally Edi Rama trying to balance the two within a liberal economy – to re-establish the values of being together?
FP. Yes. I don’t know if it was a rejection, maybe more of a contained energy... People were so smothered that once this opened up it was a bit like opening a bottle of champagne. In the first instance, the developer of the TID Tower, as a professor of economy, believes in the free market but he is also somewhat nostalgic about communism and how well organized society was back then. Today the country is in some ways less advanced than it was before: there’s more illiteracy, for instance, which is shocking.The energy that came about after communism is of course very consumption-driven, and not at all in the spirit of producing something. I think that was the alarming thing that Edi Rama saw and wanted to address: the country was just consuming itself. By repainting Tirana’s old buildings in bright colours he was trying to give a signal, a very symbolic act. This symbolism had a strong impact.
A. Then came the competitions for the TID Tower and, later, Skanderbeg Square, also symbols of this renewed attention for the city fabric. You said that your work insists on the tension between private and public. The tower is indeed a private building that contains public activities.
FP. The boundary at which the building stops being public is not at the front door. In this sense we have designed the building from an urban point of view, and we have convinced the developer that the city also flows on the inside, so that the division is not between inside and outside, but between public and private space. In the end, we didn’t get the commission to design the hotel rooms, but the developer did commission us to design the interior of the ground, first, fourth and top floors. In a way, although uncomfortable, this separation is also fitting: we designed the building to the point that outsiders could enter it.
A. So the moment you arrive in Albania, there is a kind of shared idea about the way society should work. If even the developer of the tower knows how much public space is important, it seems easy to convince him to create some inside his tower. This would probably be more difficult in Western Europe. Likewise, when you work for the government and you transform the prime minister’s cabinet into a space to communicate with the population – the COD project, or Centre for Openness and Dialogue – it is still a critical space where there is room for ambiguity, not just a demagogical representation of power, a false means to show that the government is close to its citizens.
FP. I don’t think that the developer had thought through or acknowledged the importance of public space within the tower. Therefore the discussions that we had about the fact that the building should become an urban building, and not a closed-up space, is something that we pushed as an agenda ourselves. The fact that this discussion was possible is indeed because there is a sense of urgency in Albania about what is shared, what belongs to everyone. Everyone deals with this tension. As to what it means, there is absolutely no consensus. This may be the reason why it’s exciting to work there, especially as a young office: you can step into this democratic space looking for what things mean, and you can help shape the discussion. You can have a voice, an interpretation of how the tower should be, for instance. In contexts like Brussels there is much less interest in such discussions. In Belgium, the polite neglect and disinterest of people is much bigger, the discussion is almost smothered by comfort. Any discussion about the common good seems less supported by society at large: it is more of an intellectual discussion. In Albania the topic is at the heart of the public debate. On one hand we have met people who have the most brutal interpretation of what you can do with that urgency. On the other we have evolved in a network of people who are looking for a different way of dealing with this, but they are not representative of Albania as a whole. As you say, it is an ambiguous situation, and the people we work with accept this ambiguity and try to work with it. The idea behind the COD is indeed to have an instrument to work with the ambiguity, instead of pretending it’s not there. The COD doesn’t change the openness of the prime minister’s office: it’s a new institution, housed in the premises of the prime minister’s building. These are two different legal entities, which is also why the COD can work with this ambivalence.
GALAAD VAN DAELE. The office’s experience is also the exposure to the different visions or interests which are somehow represented in Albania. It is interesting to see how it can tune into these different impulses and somehow dream along, and not just do what I think is quite intimidating these days: all these offices coming and projecting their own foreign dreams on Albania, similar to all those going to China or Dubai to design stadiums, towers or giant cities. Our contribution is more about articulating what people could need and might want. It is more a shared vision. Through the different people 51N4E works with, the distance is shortened: it makes it possible to access their direct vision of the country and how it reflects on itself. The dynamic is mutual, not unidirectional. It is built on each other.
FP. Stefano Graziani visited Tirana for the third time last April. On his first trip he went on a kind of dérive through the city. These pictures show the strong influence of the 1930s inter-vention to make a metropolis out of it. The boulevards provide a more metropolitan feel, but also have a certain emptiness, like a promise left unfulfilled. Under communism everyone was really sedentary – many people weren’t even allowed to move. This restriction of movement meant that after the fall of the regime many people migrated from rural areas to the north and south of the city. This happened in a very violent way. Sociologists observe that these informal settlements are almost villages transposed to the city centre, to the point that such areas are not a city, but rather a condensed countryside, where people live in communities where they know each other. The purpose of the photo essay is the publication of a book, How Things Meet, which shows not only the TID Tower but the city as a whole. The book exists in two versions. The first is for the hotel rooms of TID and is intended as a window on the city: a sneak preview to tune the visitor’s sensibility to the city’s peculiar beauty, with Stefano’s pictures and another dérive by Albanian writer Falma Fshazi on things that are powerful and attractive in Tirana, as a mental as well as physical condition. The same content also appears in the international edition, which is augmented with a second part: a timeline of our work in Albania since we won the TID Tower competition in 2004, like an archive presenting processes, moments and discontinuities of our involvement in this country, beyond the icon the Tower has now become. The timeline is useful to follow what we have learnt, but it also shows how things have changed. It shows how time is not linear, with moments of the design process that are completely upside down. Sometimes, as the building nears completion, parts of it are still being remodelled, torn down and rebuilt although the envelope appears finished. In these twelve years the tower has been reshaped a lot, with an adaptive reuse of the building during its construction. For instance, a fourth floor was added to the three-storey building next to the tower, the basement was gutted while the building was finished … a kind of learning-by-doing in a very extreme way. You usually plan a building through the programme, but actually they conceive it the opposite way – which, incidentally, is quite contemporary: just make a shell, the programme will follow. In the beginning the brief was a very cosmopolitan high-rise; during the competition we had compared it to the Martini Tower in Brussels, which had a public ground floor, a restaurant on top, a theatre, a hotel. The developers had just listed everything they wanted to see in a tower building, a panoramic elevator, a rotating restaurant, and so on – because they had been to Dubai and to China, and every other tower in Tirana has a panoramic elevator and a rotating restaurant (we actually proposed a rotating dance floor instead). This mixed-use programme is what they thought a competition brief should be, not at all because they were actually planning to do it.
A. So the competition brief should have rather been to design a tower, regardless of its content.
FP. We gradually found out that this was the question. We discovered it because a lot of buildings in Tirana are left empty. This is also how people build their own houses: they build the first floor and three more empty floors. Somehow it’s in their mentality to build for the future. This says a lot about this desire to make progress, but not being able to measure to what extent this progress is possible. There’s huge friction between the two, friction our project has also faced. This is also the reason why making the timeline has been so interesting: everything happens through people having a desire, a dream, and that’s what keeps everything together. Steps in the project are made by checking how these dreams are possible, then making the best out of it, which is a very different process than saying “this is how you should do it, these are procedures, the steps to follow” … This linear way doesn’t leave any margin to invent along the way or to adapt the project. The idea of making progress based on a dream is the story of the TID Tower. There were many things that we couldn’t do, but the two first moves of the project were intuitions which survived and got stronger throughout the process: the idea of capturing light through this shape that looks straight but actually is not, and the idea of making a public ground floor, which started with the dome above the monument located there. We can say that our ‘dreams’ related more to these thematic elements than to the programme. Had we tied our expectations to the programme, we would have been very frustrated by now.
A. The two-floor mock-up you built expresses and condenses many facets of your work in Tirana. You said the reasons behind this mock-up were as technological as they were human: to make people understand why you are doing things, and to learn in return the local technical skills. In this sense the mock-up is the first step of a collective learning-by-doing process; it acts more as a rite – the gathering of all stakeholders around a totemic artefact – than as a mere contractual prototype used to check, say, the wind behaviour of hanging-glass facades. Other mock-ups featured in this issue show how different the scopes and symbolic power of these performing objects can be.
FP. The reason for the mock-up was indeed to convince the developer, but also ourselves: a one-to-one model used to verify different hypotheses. In this sense we were all in the same position, somehow. What Galaad was saying about working alongside each other is very much what happened with this mock-up. There’s a picture of a person lying on the edge of the slab: neither an engineer nor the developer, but one of the actual craftsmen explaining how he would do the detailing. In our first years in Albania, we really discovered that working with local capabilities was crucial. Sometimes this implied simplifying our designs quite a bit, but we did not regard it as a failure of the project. It was more about finding out what was the right level of precision, about finding out what you can do with the means available. The mock-up enabled this learning process, also because people who are normally left out of the discussion could suddenly be included. Take the builders: for the developer, the opinions of these people are very important. If they felt comfortable building a 24 storey building the way it was done on the mock-up, he was also reassured. The mock-up made it possible to check the level of trust in that respect, by integrating the intelligence and knowledge of these people early on in the process. The same goes for family members: the mock-up was visited by the family and friends of the developers. It was looked at from close and from afar, it was discussed, considered … It was accessible to many people in a way that a plan or even a digital 3D-model never would be.The differences also become very tangible. For instance: there are many ways of handling these panels. The developer first wanted to make them out of Alucobond, very light aluminium panels with a stone pattern printed on it, as they were sceptical about the weight of panels in concrete. So the testing was about what kind of effects the different joints would produce, but also the watering, how you make the edge – in concrete, in steel – where the bolts go and how you attach them. The mock-up accumulates different tests. Some of the panels we used are plasterboards, just to test the fixings, others are in concrete, to test the real thing. We were also verifying colours. It’s a mix of things.
A. Among the different mock-ups we present in this issue, yours is the only one which was built off-site. It is curious to see how this mock-up was then absorbed by the city.
FP. The mock-up was built along the highway going from Tirana to Durrës and the airport, at the back of a plot which will some day host an industrial building. Stefano Graziani took this picture last week. The ground floor is used as a workshop, while the top floor is still empty. There is a railing and tires are used to put plants. The land probably belongs to the investors, while the workshop is used by someone else but I don’t know the details. It’s in use simply because it offers a roof, like any other Albanian building. The reason why it was not built on site is to avoid the confusion that they would build illegally. Because if we had built it on the plot, but not in the exact place of the tower, no one would have believed that it was temporary. That’s what used to happen after the collapse of the regime. People came to the city and built everywhere. They built in the riverbeds, in the parks … A very tricky issue — and a confusion the developer wanted to avoid.
RITES & CELEBRATIONS
A. Even within a materialistic perspective, your architecture seems sensitive to everyday rituals, to which it provides a space for celebration. Most of the images you publish disqualify the established codes of architectural photography: instead they convey the sense that building is a social construction – mud, bones and sweat. This is true not only with regard to the construction phase. Buildings are filled with symbolical elements that are shaped by – and shape in return – our behaviours and unconscious beliefs. In your projects these ‘space agents’, which sometimes look spectacular, are finally absorbed in the everyday life of the buildings, a quality that makes them public in a political sense. How do you interpret these formal devices that organize rituals? And how do you play with these ancient codes? In Euro Petrol you put a Roman dome on top of a gas station, while animal remains were buried in the ground…
FP. The workers roasted this sort of sacrificial lamb at the beginning of the construction works and threw the remains into the foundations. Stefano told us that in the TID Tower they hung garlic bulbs at the corners of the building. The tradition goes that if you hang something that makes your building look bad, you won’t make people jealous.Objects and buildings in Albania are invested with many symbols, neither engraved nor attached, but added as external elements. The current minister of urban development, a sociologist, once told a story about the informal settlements that she studied: when families have saved some money and can make an investment, they often choose to buy a car instead of a washing machine because the car is a status symbol of prosperity and ownership (in communist times people couldn’t even own a bicycle), even if they don’t have the money to buy the petrol to run it. She explained how perverse this mechanism is, because actually washing machines offer much more freedom than a car. A professor from Norway who studies development opportunities calls the washing machine one of Africa’s emancipating devices. The car and the petrol stations are the symbol of westernized Albania, of freedom. There are a lot of petrol stations, although many have now been abandoned.
GVD. I was once told by one of the office’s collaborators in Albania that before the fall of the regime there were around 300 cars in Tirana, and some years later that figure had reached 300,000. It is a symbol of freedom, of course, but also a curse: the petrol available there is not subject to European regulations and it’s an awful, still leaded petrol.
A. Is this veneration of the car the reason why you built a huge dome over a petrol station and put a minister in a stone cave? A kind of reverse symbolism?
FP. Intuitively yes, probably. We were testing versions of flat roofs for the petrol station, but when you drive along the boulevards or across the country you see a lot of these flat roofs. It’s a question of intuition because there’s no clear argument for it, just a feeling. The project combines the sacral aspect of the Pantheon (with the top round open) with the very mundane aspect of the petrol station. More recently it changed owner, who changed the colours of the dome. The site sits at the junction of two environments: the highway is a very wide, unregulated space; then there are informal neighbourhood settlements which are accessed through a secondary street. We set the shop along this street – like a street bar. It is a calm, narrow street with a cosy, neighbourly atmosphere. The funny thing is that we thought that sitting there drinking coffee would be much more attractive; instead, the owners organized their own terrace and even extended it on the inner side of the plot. People don’t have any problem at all sitting in front of cars. They consider it the real public space. They stay longer than to just fill up.There is another gas station that we’ve built, where we wanted to make a very big shape to mark a kind of entrance court to a market situated just behind. But this didn’t work, simply because the owner blocked the gate and put a small shop. He didn’t see the potential in making the station as a pathway to the informal market.
FP. When the COD opened there was a dinner party in the rear courtyard. All of the international artists, sponsors, high-profile locals gathered and were invited by Edi Rama to speak in turn: half the discussions that evening were about these curtains. Some people were completely opposed, others loved them … It is true that in the COD, since it was designed in such a short lapse of time, the disruption you’re talking about is quite undigested: it didn’t have the time to settle as an idea. Although it looks quite refined, content-wise the project is very raw. I also think the ambivalence of the project is necessary: it is the ambivalence of things that enables people to make an interpretation, and to appropriate the space and invest it with their own meaning.If a project like the TID had been built at the same speed as the COD, I think we would have been very uncomfortable with the result: when I see the competition design now, I dislike it. The COD, as an undigested project, will probably change a lot. It was designed and built in six months, so it is inevitable that it will evolve. The project idea was initiated by Edi Rama himself, together with Anri Sala and Falma Fshazi. That’s where we met her. During the process the idea evolved into involving her in the book How Things Meet. When we got the commission for the COD we looked for back-up, which we found with Doorzon and Chevalier-Masson. For them it was a full-on encounter with the context, for us a very enriching experience to have their intelligence feed the project. Thanks to Anri Sala’s international network, we managed to include Philippe Parreno and Carsten Holler, and we actually took up a big chunk of the production of Parreno’s piece, discussing its size and position. These discussions were frank and open, going through all the tensions and considerations in a minimum of time, including heritage issues. Thomas Demand was solicited by Anri Sala after he had seen the photomontages we made of the space. So you can see that the design was like a flow of things, the one influencing the other. The ambivalence of the spaces also comes out of this flow, this ming-ling of authors, so to speak, where things were fusing – sometimes resolved, sometimes not. It’s interesting that at the second exhibition held there, the Albanian painter Edi Hila had all the curtains removed. But in doing so he turned the space into an art gallery, and the openness of the space disappeared. Even if his work is very powerful, it was striking to see that the space was suddenly self-referential, which was not the case with the work of Demand. Elements like the curtains play an important role in creating this ambivalence. Thanks to these elements – if you see pictures of the guys with the strollers and polo shirts – for the common people it is still an impressive space, but less impressive than a white cube. The ambivalence of the space is a way to open it up. Its mixed message creates possible entry points available for everyone.
A. Building the Skanderbeg project, the main square of Tirana, meant you literally had to dig into its history: Ottoman domination, independence, the communist republic, the new democratic structure. When more recently you took on the project for the COD, you found a similar condition embedded in the floor slabs of the building. This also seems to be a question of sedimentation, of perceiving and making legible the depth of the built environment in order to display its complex identity.
FP. The ambivalence of things is obviously strongest when they are not imported, but come from redefining something that was already there. The ceiling of the state’s main formal reception hall had to be stripped bare in order to deal with a structural issue. It was then discovered that the original concrete, possibly cast by a corrupt contractor, did not have sufficient rebar. It had already been reinforced once in the past during socialist times, but yet another layer of steel was needed. In the end, this was left exposed in order to display the building’s historical layers and heighten the impact of their powerful symbolic meaning: the long-lasting impact of the initial corruption. But at the same time, this layered ceiling is also just a technical grid. With this intervention, we shift the meaning of the space – and even break its monumentality – by having something which is both narrative and pragmatic. This ambivalence creates a big openness: it is at once front and back side.
A. Like your proposal for the reception room, the decision to leave the strata legible is in agreement with the ‘critical thinking’ promoted by the prime minister, which also includes the disclosure of the archives of the former communist republic. It seems incredible to agree with a public client on such diplomatic elements in material form ... You seem to think that architecture alone can enable shifts in the way people behave, and especially alter the power relations among them. Other architects think that architecture is always the reflection of power, to the point that no architecture can be revolutionary without a real revolution in society. On these premises, maybe the specificity of your work in Albania relies on the specificity of its present condition: it could be the recent history of Albania’s current political layout which enables you to make such projects, almost in a Building-the-Nation kind of programme with an intelligent public authority. (Likewise, recent Belgian political history makes your projects there also relevant in the same light.) Would it be fair to describe your work in Albania as the result of an alignment with its political power, enhanced by your expertise in the built environment?
FP. It is true that we have encountered a lot of intelligent people in Tirana, people that confront the complexity and the ambivalence of their situation. They are able to accept the discomfort that transition brings, which requires a combination of being very ambitious but also very forgiving and very generous towards mistakes and failures. To those people – with Edi Rama the most visible of them – we are indeed an ally, in the sense that we use our ability to produce space to create a larger story together. The challenge is to do this not only with a small group of like-minded people, but to try and open this up. This becomes more important the more public the projects become. A design is in that sense as much a spatial proposal as it is an alliance of people that want to support it and contribute to it. The success of the TID Tower is the success of that alliance. For other projects, the circle of that alliance is much bigger, and much more difficult to construct. For Skanderbeg Square, the alliance was not strong enough, and the design changed after the political power shifted in 2011. The new mayor had the square redesigned by extending the original Italian shape and turning it into a vast roundabout. It looks like someone has put the plan in the copy machine and then moved it a bit. We had done all the underground work for our project, then the new municipality took over, redesigning and realizing the project within a few weeks. In 2016, as we speak, powers have shifted again, and we are being asked to undo the changes and reboot the project. Even if I think it would not be possible to avoid that dynamic, we have set ourselves the goal of not only focusing on the spatial layout, but also on building an alliance beyond the municipality. Like for the tower, it’s all about including the stakeholders for which the square is intended, already now in the production stage of the project. This is also where the simplicity of the design can help.
GVD. The square has a pretty flat shape, with slopes for watering. We made a stone model which is now used with the stakeholders involved in the project. The meeting room at the COD is used to exchange with all of them. The idea is to make the belt of the square greener and to integrate private initiatives and projects around the square. Over the years, 51N4E has acquired significant experience in designing with many people involved, and now sees such projects more as an opportunity of setting an urban strategy than as the mere redesign of a space. What is exciting about working with more people is the dynamic that you generate around the project, and all you do collectively to make this place more than an empty square. The emptiness of the square during socialist times could be regarded as a kind of control mechanism: to be seen from everywhere and to have this feeling of constantly being watched. Now the emptiness is more like the emptiness of the beach: an openness that makes it public, and also enables diversity around it.
A. This model is another implementation of stone in your projects in Albania. Stones seem important to you, beginning with the Mountain Collection project and its succession of four stones casually thrown onto the landscape. This issue of Accattone insists on the qualities of stones, as a formless material with a powerful evocative power, combining the scientific and the imaginary. For instance, Roger Caillois, a colleague of Georges Bataille in the College of Sociology, used to collect cheap and precious stones to slice them up and reveal, in their veins, mythical figures and narrations. This act of collecting is so primitive: stones were recovered with mystical meanings at the same time as they were used as building materials.
FP. While working on Skanderbeg Square we discovered that stones are very much part of Albanian identity. In 2008 my partner Johan met a geologist whose maps are extremely precise – yet more proof of the expertise under the socialist republic: everything was carefully mapped. We started to gather knowledge about stones: there are a lot of very beautiful, different, even unique stones in Albania. The panels of the TID Tower are produced using local resources. Albania has some high-quality aggregates which were cast in polished concrete. So the idea to make the panels in concrete somehow adds an extra layer to the project, while also making it economically feasible: there is black Albanian basalt and clear quartz from Tropoja. Every city has its specific stone, some even look like aggregates, or terrazzo. We used this variety in the tables of the COD library. For Skanderbeg Square we’ll use the Olivinite stone, the same used in the model. The tricky thing is to find the quarry which is professional enough to produce so many elements. So we are also investigating whether it would be possible to make the square like a collection of all available stones, like a mosaic of the country. It could be like a huge gradient, where you don’t see the diversity from far, but only from up close.It is also through topics like this one that the co-production between the Skanderbeg project and the COD plays its role. At the COD we are setting up ateliers on specific themes. The idea is to take a question out of the project, a question that needs an answer, and treat it also as part of a public debate. These workshops have a double agenda, so to speak. For instance, the question of the stones raises questions about what resources exist, what is available, what can be produced. But also, from a societal point of view, what do you want to produce? To what extent do you want to exploit this resource, given the fact that it is finite? And how do you balance the environmental with the economic value? In addition to the stone covering for the square, there is also the question of the collection of plants for all the gardens. Plants are an infinite resource if you take care of them, which is not a given, and Albania is rich in endemic species: how to use this diversity will be the topic for another atelier. So the alliance between the Skanderbeg project and the COD uses the project’s questions as examples for larger dynamics, things to consider within a broader scope and a larger public: we hope that these discussions will feed the choices for the project, make it stronger, while also creating stories in society, even a debate about urban development at large.
A. The theme of the collection seems to permeate all your work, at several scales and levels of meaning: a collection of ‘stones’, intended as found forms in Mountain Collection or as inventory for the Skanderbeg, TID and COD projects; a collection of interventions in COD (the tables, shelves, curtains, meeting room, ceiling); at a larger scale, a collection of typologies within the same project (tower, industrial building, office tower). Your whole work in Albania can be seen as a collection of programmes where projects are not indifferent to each other. The most important quality of a collection is indeed that it sketches a constellation: individual items perform mostly in the reciprocal relationships to others, and not in their autonomy.
FP. Indeed, the TID Tower was explicitly designed as a collection of three buildings: the tower, the lower, black concrete building with the dome covering the monument, and the black one with the glass facade. As you rightly put it, the idea of the constellation might be at the core of our work. What we try to do is to set up a series of relations between things. We open up our projects to be able to integrate more things. It has to do with our focus being on the urban and even social transformations that we envision. Our projects are almost always means of absorbing the context and transforming it along the way. In simple interventions, like the bronze monument, we actually just shift the materiality of the pavement. It is not about adding a monument: it indeed creates a constellation, where this simple move produces a new relation between the existing and the new. In more complex projects, like TID, the project amounts to a constellation of interventions, where the design actually consists of managing the tension between the heterogeneity of these interventions and the coherence of the whole. Successful designs are the ones in which this tension remains active. You could talk about constellations, but you could also talk about personalities. On one hand, you want a project to be singular, but on the other you want to be sensitive to what all these singularities produce as a whole. Designing these constellations actually takes this process as the tying together of many different choices, not avoiding complexity but still making it manageable. In the end, it is about dealing with the conflict between autonomy and openness. And I think a building or a space can embody that tension, can keep it alive.
A. After visiting the Swiss pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale, the one presenting archive material by Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt, you wrote a text called “New Rituals, New Ruins”. Elaborating on the informal economy of the exhibition, it stresses the importance of another actor within the collective project of the exhibition: the building itself. These observations on the performative qualities of the Swiss pavilion are close to your preoccupations as an architect, so that the whole text sounds like an agenda for your own projects. You argue that Price’s concept of a flexible building in perpetual change – one of the greatest ideas of the twentieth century, as you say – is more easily found in such quiet, humble buildings than in machine-like Fun Palaces which rely on a constantly active technology. The “domesticity and splendour” of the pavilion is achieved with the ordinary means of bricks and mortar. You write: “Giacometti’s building generates a varied set of almost dormant conditions that are awakened by the movement of human bodies or the flick of an electrical switch. Surprisingly, its greatest expression of flexibility lies in its spatial ambiguity and the way it confounds categories.” You conclude by stating that the exhibition has the freshness to reinvent our ruins and rituals, namely the Swiss pavilion as an events space, the cultural legacy of Price and Burckhardt, our deference to archives, the experience of an exhibition, and by extension the way we think architecture and the built environment. This year, the Swiss pavilion presents Incidental Space, a collective work led by Christian Kerez. In the ARCH+ issue Release Architecture, the project is presented as an experiment on pure space: the result of a design and build process developed as an internally coherent set of decisions, aiming at total autonomy. In its combination of computer-assisted technologies and manual operations on matter, the project is meant to work beyond the divide between architectural representation and built form, beyond authorship intended as the intentionality and taste of the architect, and most of all beyond culture, that is, with no reference whatsoever to precedent experiences. These two exhibitions, in 2014 and 2016, proceed from a similar theoretical basis, to entangle the figure of the architect as author (performer, artist, intellectual, historian) and to push the boundaries of architecture practice and exhibition. But the methods and results are very different. What do you think of this pavilion?
FP. At first sight I’m less attracted by Kerez’s quest for pure space, but there is a contradiction in the idea of total autonomy that I find intriguing. On one hand there is the autonomy, but on the other it is embedded – or even tied into – a cultural and institutional context which generates this kind of freedom. The Swiss capacity for financial excess produces a situation that is very close to what you could call fundamental research. I find it very valuable that they try something based on potential, and not on need. It is very generous of them to take this liberty. To me, this liberty is even more powerful in the project that Kerez did in the favela. That really blew my mind: to combine the capacity to spend time and money to see if you can learn something from the organic processes that have shaped the favela. It is a true recognition of the beauty and value these areas have. As a programme, it almost equals going to outer space. You could even say that it is more fascinating than that: in some ways it is a real journey, trying to discover uncharted territories. As an attitude, it is so much more generous than the knee-jerk reaction of trying to ‘improve’ the favela. I was lucky to join a tour during the Venice Biennale on the Saturday after the opening. It was organized by ARCH+, and they visited just a few things: Christian Kerez, Martin Rauch, Arno Brandlhuber ... Hearing these people speak about their work, and being confronted with the depth it entails, gave me the feeling that events such as the Biennale are worth having, where you can encounter this diversity in such a short time span, with so much intellectual density. ARCH+ also did a kind of tour de force. They released two (!) issues of their magazine, for the first time in English, so I could read it, and it is very inspiring. It shows that the goal that Kerez puts himself is maybe less important in its own right, but that these goals are necessary to release potential, to have a reason to follow a certain path, to discover something unknown. That’s the admirable value of the work: it shows the immense power of having a dream.
- 51N4E: The architecture practice using Brussels as a testing ground for future change2018
- About the soft and the productive museum2021
- An Interview at the WTC Brussels2019
- Architecture, Hope & COVID-192020
- B401 The city highway reinvented2019
- Barbecues on Asphalt2020
- Chapter 1 Skanderbeg Square2017
- Chapter 2 Design in Dialogue2021
- Chapter 3 How to not demolish a building2023
- Creative Exchange2019
- Double or Nothing2011
- How can conflict drive change?2020
- How Things Meet2016
- Experimental Garden Design2019
- Freek Persyn in conversation with Tibor Bielicky2017
- Labo XX2015
- Meanwhile Use as an Act of Resistance2018
- New Rituals New Ruins2016
- North District Next Step?2018
- Old Buildings, New Ideas: The Incremental Reuse of D'Ieteren Car Repair Plant2022
- Reasons for Walling a House2012
- Space Producers2004
- The Metabolism of Albania2015