Sensitive Interventions in Venice
Tüüne-Kristin Vaikla interviews Laura Linsi, Roland Reemaa and Tadeáš Říha
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara (Grafton Architects, Dublin), the curators of the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture, have chosen Freespace as this year’s theme of the biennial. The Estonian exhibition Weak Monument (Nõrk Monument) takes place at the former church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, located at the end of Via Garibaldi Street, between two main areas of the Venice Biennale – Arsenale and Giardini – and hopefully will attract visitors with both its inspirational theme and the location. We talked about the approaching Venice Biennale, Tatlin’s Tower and Lapin’s donkey stable at Kütiorg with the three, young architects of the Estonian curatorial team, Laura Linsi, Roland Reemaa and Tadeáš Říha.
Tüüne-Kristin Vaikla: What is your shared background? How did you relate to the biennial and develop the joint project Weak Monument?
Tadeáš Říha: The three of us met while we were studying architecture at Delft University of Technology. Laura and I took Tom Avermaete’s and Klaske Havik’s studio course called ‘Methods and Analysis’, where we explored the toolbox of the architect and how architects approach their tasks but also find their own way. The tool of the section, for instance. It’s something so obvious that we, as architects, use every day. I guess we learned to question the things around us which seem ordinary and not worth our interest. With the same tutor, Tom Avermaete, I then continued with my graduation project, which explored the notion of “weakness” in architecture.
Later, when we all ended up in three different architectural practices in London, we decided to participate in the competition, because we felt there was a certain kind of resonance between our interests and, as I have learned, something that is inherent to Estonian architecture and culture more broadly. Inspired by some of the works of Estonian artist and architect Leonhard Lapin, we proposed the term “weak monument”, a pair of words which have stayed with us ever since.
Roland Reemaa: Oh, how did it all begin? I had a very strange obsession: at some point I got acquainted with the
project for a ‘donkey stable’ at Kütiorg by Leonard Lapin, in 1974. It is a project that was never realised but is, nevertheless, powerful as well as very provocative even on paper. The project refers to Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International in its shape, but suggests a very different type of architectural project – not only because it is a donkey stable, but also because it embraces temporality and questions the architect’s role over their project. At first, it was purely visual to me and it seemed that it could somehow be completed. Now that has changed, and the “donkey stable” has become more of an archetype.
Laura Linsi: In Estonia, the architects of the Tallinn School1have had a significant and interesting role in general. Their vast toolbox of ways of working with space, including collages and paintings, political happenings, buildings and poetry, expanded my and, I suppose, the wider understanding of what architecture can be. We have the project Weak Monument. Tadeáš had observed weakness in architecture as something positive or creative; he thought about it before and through that also connected to Lapin’s project. The donkey stable became an example of what we mean by a weak monument, which is something of an impossible concept.
Tüüne-Kristin: Architecture Biennales in Venice have been very different; they always reflect their curators. How do you describe the current theme of the biennale, Freespace? In what way did the curatorial position touch you personally and inspire you as architects to relate to the contemporary spatial environment?
Tadeáš: To me it was always interesting how different architects, and different countries, have approached the biennale topics in the past. It has always been an invitation rather than a strict directive. It is maybe also interesting to recall that the main topic was only announced after the first round of the competition for the Estonian pavilion. But that did not really matter because the topic Freespace seems to be intentionally very open. It reflects the responsibility architecture has to that which is public and to that which is common. The way the “common” is represented in architectural form is where I feel our exhibition and Freespace most clearly intersect.
Laura: It seems that the curators, Farrell and McNamara, are particularly interested in more common phenomena of how to find meaning through everyday architecture. For me, everything that is related to the issue of public space is very interesting. Something that doesn’t necessarily include creating star architecture can be very creative and interesting, and at the same time, be beneficial for users. In London, I work with public realm projects that deal with the space between streets and houses separately from landscape architecture: it is an issue of spatial coherence, which is often difficult to explain, and to photograph. When, 10 years ago, ArchDaily, the weblog, came into existence, the importance of architectural photography and rendering peaked and the question of what the work did became arbitrary. Everything became object-centred, and everything needed to look good in images. I see Freespace as a theme where the focus shifts to the more ordinary again. There is magic in the ordinary.
Tüüne-Kristin: The Venice Architecture Biennale is also a political event, where national pavilions represent their states and quite often it seems that it’s a proud presentation of some positive phenomena. To step out there with an up-to-date critical question is not necessarily self-explanatory.
Roland: The Venice Biennale is interesting because it is very nation based. It’s a bit like a march of countries; of course, all countries want to sell themselves and show the latest trends in architecture. I think the role of architecture has changed since this biennale emerged. The role of the architect has become much broader in practice.
Laura: Tadeáš told me about when he went to the biennale 10 years ago, and Kersten Geers and David van Severen curated “After the Party” at the Belgian pavilion. The pavilion was empty, with confetti on the floors, and it felt like you had arrived when everything was already over. He experienced such architecture for the first time; he remembered that something completely different was being done in the Czech Republic at that time. It was a great inspirational experience to be able to go there and see how things were being done elsewhere.
Tüüne-Kristin: The word “weak” does not have an emotional connection for you; let’s talk about it more precisely. Please define the concept Weak Monument and describe your approach in the exhibition space.
Tadeáš: I really like the word ”‘weak”. In English and Czech. I even like the look and sound of it in Estonian. It is not a kind word and obviously suggests a negative meaning, and yet there are all kinds of completely neutral applications of it in philosophy, physics, economics and even grammar. Weakness assumes using less obvious means to achieve goals. Instead of a straightforward force it employs an intriguing complexity. I am not the first person to notice that certain qualities of our contemporary society respond to such an approach very well: the absence of the big stories of the past, East versus West, for instance, and the complexity we are faced with when we judge the relevance of information on the Internet.
The word “monument” seems to be from a completely different world. It is strong in its persistence and materiality, and clear and straightforward in depicting a historical figure or an event. It reminds us of how explicit architecture can be in representing common values. The contradictory nature of the connection between “weak” and “monument” is something that has inspired us from the very beginning.
Laura: None of these examples we have given can be really called a weak monument. In the case of Lapin’s donkey stable, he called it “an anti-monument”, which brings out the weakness, gives it a position and opposes it to another highly politicised unrealised construction, Tatlin’s Tower, formally known as the Monument to the Third International (1919–1920). Lapin’s anti-monument is the opposite in the sense that it uses simple materials, such as local wood. And he made it into a donkey stable, while Tatlin’s monument was a gathering place for the Communist Party and an entertainment centre. If you look at Lapin’s drawings, he leaves quite a lot of freedom to the builders. As an architect, he writes such small keywords on the drawing as “the size of the window is random” and “may be different”.
Roland: Some annotations were very warm, for example “the bells are blowing in the wind” and “the rod should be painted the same colour as the flag”, but the colour of the flag was not given: a very free relationship in an architectural project. The drawing of the project is weak: it’s a donkey stable that does not have very accurate instructions on how to build it; yet, at the same time, it is very powerful, the opposite of a monument to a very huge ideology Tatlin’s tower was to become the headquarters and monument to Comitern, the international communist organisation to advocate world communism. This is, however, the strongest aspect: the way Lapin uses the potential with these scarce tools, to have a little fun. He is very capable of that!
Laura: We discuss this potential in Estonia: to do something meaningful with few resources. “The Donkey Stable” is partly an art project, and quite extreme in a way. With our pavilion, we are trying to move from extreme projects to nowadays and more everyday things. Let’s look at, for example, Toomas Paaver’s latest urban interventions, in particular the Soo street project in Tallinn, which was on the front pages of newspapers and people know it. In the end, it’s just an asphalt sidewalk and a couple of lamps… The question we use in our pavilion is: where does the monument stop and the pavement begin? Often its surroundings become meaningful, and quite often the monument itself – the sculpture – disappears rather quickly, but some sort of spatial decision remains. For example, there is Rävala boulevard, which was Lenin boulevard, with a monument to Lenin. Our generation doesn’t have a direct memory of it: the sculpture is gone but there is still a boulevard and a building that embodies this background, but the material is missing.
Tüüne-Kristin: Monuments are very political interventions in terms of erection and disposal. The Bronze Soldier Monument was moved from its location in the city space of Tallinn (2007), and became a powerful art project at the 53rd Venice Biennale a few years later (Kristina Norman, “After War”, 2009). How political is your project?
Roland: Just as important, it provoked a reaction in the city. It’s a very monumental project in Estonia. As early as 1995, a competition was organised to solve the problem of this triangle in Tõnismägi: how to solve it by leaving the monument there, to domesticate it or add something so that the monument would no longer somehow be painful for Estonian society. And there were interesting solutions offered. One of the ideas was that the sculpture was too hot to touch, and financially nothing could be removed, but instead new elements should be added in and around it. Of course, none of that happened, only a diagonal road was built, but the whole strategy of addition instead of removal is an intriguing example within the topic of weak monument.
Laura: One of the main goals for our exhibition is to invite people to think about how architecture can be political. Monuments are highly politicised: very directly and understandably their aim is to be political. We are looking for a relationship between the monument and everyday space, which comes with its weaknesses, and everyday space is always more implicitly and obscurely political. We want to focus on the more indirect politicisation. At the same time, we as architects have something to say about where to put a curbstone that doesn’t interfere with someone in a wheelchair, and these things are also politicised.
Roland: I don’t want to take the didactic role, but I think that, in Estonia, the ordinary citizen should have more energy and desire to stand up for public space, to have better curbstones or better sidewalks. Simple things like that can be in people’s hands. The word “politics” has become very heavy in Estonia: when you think about politics all you think about is quarrelling. Politics comes from the word polis, the city; the public is the city: a polis. The polis should be talked about in a more unrestrained sense than just political parties.
Tüüne-Kristin: By weak action, you mean that spatial intervention is sensitive and sometimes even fragile. Is this the message to convey through your project?
Roland: It is evident that in Estonia the public space is taken very lightly; if a building is abandoned or torn down, then immediately something new is built there. It’s a very neoliberal environment. There is a desire and search for something new. At the same time, the countries where I have lived are accustomed to noticing and embracing continuity of their environments. Belgium discovered that maybe something that they know how to do well is to find charm in random spaces. There is a general sense that it’s quite normal to do architecture that way and, in the end, the resources used are very minimal.
Laura: It’s hard to define this in one way. It is, for example, using and connecting something that is already there. In my case, I’m not selecting one object; it can be fragmented, trying to connect existing things. It doesn’t have to be whole and shiny, but rather it should be somewhat useful for the urban space, making it better for the user when something new is made. And what is this “new”? The new disappears into it and is not visible or definable as an object. It doesn’t try to be an object. When the weather is sad and muddy and you have a feeling that you don’t know where to start, it’s actually as Roland put it: “then you don’t need to start; you already have everything”. We have places, places have their own stories, and not every place needs a new story, a new narrative, when there is already so much that is present. It’s more a matter of tying up and optimising, so that space becomes usable. Our project is a distancing from the classical monument and a moving towards a different kind of coherence.
Tüüne-Kristin: You have chosen a sacred space – a church – as a frame for your exhibition, which gives it a strong atmosphere and direction. What is the combined effect of the space and the exhibition?
Laura: It seems like a charged space. It is also beautifully weathered and saturated in materials and colours, so specific in that way as well. It’s a challenge for us to make this charged space function in a different way.
Tadeas Riha (b.1988) studied Architecture at CTU Prague and TU Delft. He’s worked for practices which include MVRDV Rotterdam & 6a architects in London. He is one of the curators of Weak Monument for the Estonian National Pavilion at the XVI Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018.
Laura Linsi (b.1989) studied architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts, RISD and TU Delft. In 2016 Laura founded RLOALUARNAD with Roland Reemaa to continue experimenting with architectural methods and processes. She currently lives in London, where she is working at East Architecture, Landscape, Urban Design Ltd. She is one of the curators of Weak Monument for the Estonian National Pavilion at the XVI Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018.
Roland Reemaa (b.1987) studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts and TU Delft. He worked at Domain Office and Kaan Architecten in Rotterdam and was a guest teacher at TU Delft Chair of Complex Projects. In 2016 Roland founded RLOALUARNAD with Laura Linsi to continue experimenting with architectural methods and processes. Since 2017 he is based in London, where he is working for Sanchez Benton Architects. He is one of the curators of Weak Monument for the Estonian National Pavilion at the XVI Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018.