Made entirely of leftover material from the Biennale Arte 2022—which left behind hundreds of tons of trash—the 2023 German pavilion is a productive infrastructure, promoting principles of reuse and circular construction in tandem with architecture’s social responsibility. In order to demonstrate that ecological sustainability is inextricably linked to the social question, in this interview we talk about collective learning, local and global spatial challenges addressed by the pavilion and the social and cultural histories we all can learn if we look at “spolia” with a different perspective.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
KOOZOpen for Maintenance, is dedicated to matters of care, repair and maintenance both at the site of the pavilion but also in relation to the wider context of the city of Venice. What prompted the project? How does the project respond to Lesley Lokko’s curatorial theme on The Laboratory of the Future within these two scales?
MELISSA MAKELE The Laboratory of the Future is flanked by two comprehensive terms: decolonisation and decarbonisation. At the centre of the concept stands the call for a “double consciousness,” which considers both the local challenges and global implications of spatial production, while recognising the need for intersectional thinking when dealing with questions of (spatial) justice. As Lokko herself puts it: “Racial equity and climate justice are two sides of the same coin.”
The idea is to transform the German Pavilion from a space of national representation into a place of (re)production and collective learning.
It is self-evident that the Biennale as an exhibition of this size and format cannot be disentangled from its local context and the spatial effects it has on everyday life. It is structurally involved in the depletion of resources and the economic and touristic exploitation of the city it operates in. That is where Open for Maintenance sets in. In building alliances with Venetian activist groups who already fight for more spatial justice within the realm of the Biennale, the idea is to transform the German Pavilion from a space of national representation into a place of (re)production and collective learning, an active “laboratory” that engages with architectural practices of caring, repairing and also reappropriating space. To build a better future—or ratherbuild toward a future at all.
KOOZ The project draws inspiration from the 1970s and 1980s social practice enacted by the squatters’ movement in Berlin who made an important contribution toward developing a more cautious approach to urban renewal, and thus to the conservation of urban communities and built environments. To what extent can these lessons be applied to the Venetian context, where spatial displacement processes and the loss of essential infrastructure have led to a steady depopulation? (the city’s population fell below the mark of 50,000 inhabitants last July 2023)
MM These lessons do not need to be “applied” since they are already taking place in the Venetian context, albeit on a much smaller scale than back then in Berlin. One of the activist groups we are closely collaborating with is Assemblea Sociale per la Casa, whose members squat empty public housing units left to decay by the public administration (of which there are nowadays more than 2,000 housing units in Venice). They renovate them with materials left over from previous Biennales, allocating them to people in need. Their work is more than mere self-help: it addresses social inequalities and translates them into political demands for society as a whole. Today, at a time when all over Europe and beyond we are witnessing the acceleration of processes of financialisation and the erosion of essential infrastructures in addition to an aggravation of the climate and ecological crises, these demands are nothing less than existential: maintain housing, build (and demolish) less, distribute more, change the structure of ownership, (re)orient public housing toward the public good, reinforce political participation, provide access to affordable housing for all… As architects and spatial practitioners, we can show solidarity with these demands and struggles and forge political alliances across national borders.
maintain housing, build (and demolish) less, distribute more, change the structure of ownership, (re)orient public housing toward the public good, reinforce political participation, provide access to affordable housing for all...
KOOZ “Along with the commercialisation of urban space through mass tourism, biennales, and the events industry, everyday life is disappearing, and with it go networks of social and material maintenance oriented toward the common welfare.” Inspired by Venetian urban activist Marco Baravalle’s slogan “From Exhibition to Habitation”, the project transforms a site of national representation into a place of communal everyday practice oriented toward local needs. How do you envision the workshop Maintenance 1:1 unfolding in the coming months?
MM Marco Baravalle not only coined the term “From Exhibition to Habitation” but he also makes the case for a strategy of “Decentralising/Alter-instituting” the Biennale. By this, he means that spatial practices and the arts should no longer function as an event-led activity “parasitising the collective symbolic capital of Venice but rather as a maintenance strategy in the context of the right to the city.” This is what we intend the workshop-program Maintenance 1:1 to be. It has its base camp at the German Pavilion but “decentralises” into the city from there. Every week during the six-months of the program, a group of architecture students and apprentices of the trades will work with local activist groups to support their existing material and social (infra)structures, counteracting the negative effects of Venice’s commercialisation and actively promoting the social inclusion of underprivileged groups. In this context, we also speak of Open for Maintenance as “squatting” of the German Pavilion: a form of strategic reclaiming of space to channel the resources and cultural capital that flow into such a large-scale project as the Biennale back into the important political work of the activist groups on the ground.
KOOZ By re-using the material disregarded by the Biennale Arte 2022, both in terms of the German pavilion but also of other exhibitors, the pavilion becomes a productive infrastructure where the two Biennale editions spatially and programmatically interweave for the first time. How does the project approach the notion of maintenance and resource problem presented by biennales, which leave behind hundreds of tons of trash every year as an opportunity?
MM It was important to us to develop a complex approach to maintenance, in which social, cultural, and ecological issues are always thought in close relation to one another. This is why we speak of the leftover materials collected from over 40 national pavilions and exhibitions as “spolia,” which have their own history that we’d like to tell. The social and the cultural are bound up in any material’s past. The way we deal with it, the networks the material initiates, the work processes that get connected to it: those are important questions. The newly installed bathroom in the Pavilion—with an all-gender urinal and a dry toilet—is a good example of this. From an ecological perspective, alternatives to water-based sanitary networks are increasingly non-negotiable given ever-longer droughts. The matter is an especially pressing one in Venice, where the lack of a sewer system leads to most toilets being directly emptied into the canals. On a sociopolitical level, however, such basic needs as using the toilet and personal hygiene, as well as infrastructures of maintenance and cleaning, are also linked to questions of justice in terms of gender, dis_ability, race, and class, which also need to be taken into account when dealing with the issue of spatial (sanitary) justice.
The social and the cultural are bound up in any material’s past.
KOOZ How does the project seek to create a precedent for future editions to come? What does the future look like from Germany’s national participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023?
MM One of the main challenges we faced was having to adjust to a constantly open process in which many design decisions could only be made on site. This is of course a consequence of our decision to work exclusively with reclaimed materials from the Biennale Arte 2022.
However, designing with unpredictability—be it the uncertain availability of materials or the open-ended participatory processes—can also generate new creative possibilities that offer an optimistic outlook for the discipline. We need to leave our ivory tower of purported expertise. There are no longer the “designers” on the one hand and the users on the other. Planners must understand that all those who use space have a stake in its production and therefore in its design. We have to rethink the constellation of actors in teaching and practice to advance the necessary restructuring of the architectural discipline. I think the 2023 Architecture Biennale shows only the beginning of such urgently needed rethinking, that will continue to engage us in the near future.
Melissa Angela Alemaz Makele is an editor at ARCH+. She studied architecture and art history at KIT Karlsruhe and was a guest student at HfG Karlsruhe. After her studies, she worked at firms including Atelier Bow-Wow and Studio Velocity in Japan. Her current research focuses on intersectional feminist (spatial) practice. In 2022, she was a Berlin Stipend recipient at the Academy of the Arts, Berlin.