Ian Volner at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale
THE CROWD AT THE SMOLNY INSTITUTE The applause had barely ceased, the minority delegates reluctantly giving up the floor, when the leader of the Revolutionary Congress took hold of the edges of the dais and spoke the first words of a new era. “We will now proceed with the construction of the socialist order,” said Vladimir Lenin: In Russian the verb he used was strait (строить), literally “to build”; over time, versions of the phrase would become a rhetorical rallying cry throughout the Soviet Union and its allied states, adorning the viaduct of a dam over the Volga, for example, and the side of a building in Moscow. . From its inception, the political project of 20th century communism was combined with the idea of building things.
Exactly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet experiment, and half a continent away, the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale has become a showcase for the renewed interest of design culture in buildings of historic socialism, with a handful of installations on related themes opening last month both inside and outside the official exhibition. The Venice cluster represents only the latest development of an ongoing trend. From books (Owen Hatherley’s 2015 Landscapes of Communism, for starters) to museum exhibitions (MoMA’s most memorable 2019 “Towards a Concrete Utopia: Learning from Yugoslavia”) to a palpable influence on architectural practice (the renewed interest in brutalism in particular), the discipline has been actively rediscovering the lost landscape of post-war Eastern Europe for quite some time now. What is on display at the Biennale proves just how pervasive this influence could still become, as well as the richness and burden of the design legacy of the socialist era.
As is often the case in Venice, some of the best work is presented by national delegations. (It should be noted that the central exhibition, curated by architect Hashim Sarkis, awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award to the late Lina Bo Bardi, a designer with a long and complex relationship with Communism.) Echoes of the Soviet past can be heard in the Russian Pavilion, where an open-ended video game allows visitors to navigate a landscape of decaying Khruschevite housing blocks in a sort of post-socialist, post-capitalist, post-human dream landscape. The Croatian pavilion features industrial and military rubbish, most or all of Yugoslav origin, collected from the streets of Rijeka, transformed into objects in a gymnasium in the urban jungle. Brazil’s contribution includes a magnificent photographic study of the vast Pedregulho housing complex in São Paulo, an exceptional monument of economic planning that can be found all over the world. If none of this is quite an open call for a return to the political values and aesthetics of half a century ago, it certainly suggests a rapprochement.
Perhaps the most exciting (certainly the most imaginative) view of communist architecture after Communism comes from Hungary, where a team of curators led by Dániel Kovács designed a spectacle of rare visual and intellectual conciseness. On one side of the pavilion are photographs and models of largely vanished buildings in Budapest built under the so-called Goulash Communism of János Kádár. On the other hand, proposals from contemporary Hungarian architects attempt to reimagine the same structures for the 21st century, navigating a busy cultural and legal landscape. Under his current municipal government, says co-organizer Szabolcs Molnár, the Hungarian capital has made it extremely difficult to preserve mid-century buildings, slowly erasing the memory of the socialist period. To counter this, the pavilion’s contributors come up with playful and inventive proposals to revive a former community center and transform a former power station into an interior garden. The living room plan is particularly elegant, maintaining a precise symmetry between the two sections and inviting visitors to bounce back from the threatened past and the speculative future.
If Hungarians are looking to the future, a more thoughtful attitude is emerging in the Serbian pavilion. Entitled “8th kilometer”, his installation takes a burning look at an urban situation prior to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but closely linked to the economic program of the Tito regime. Bor, a mining community in the mountainous east of the country, was founded in 1903 on the site of a large copper deposit. In a process that accelerated after World War II, the city expanded directly south of the mine, with each new phase of development marked by distinct building types: industrial followed by commercial followed by administrative and so immediately, in successive layers. The resulting form – a “linear city,” as the curators describe it in one of the many books accompanying the exhibition – was a model of rational planning, a dream of progressive architectural thought come true. It was also, as it finally became evident, an incredibly unpleasant and quite dangerous place to live, severely polluted and too dependent on the volatile copper market. The pavilion installation consists of a suitable linear walkway covered in shiny copper with a detailed cutaway pattern on one side and an expansive information wall panel on the other. Step by step, mile after mile, the visitor sees Bor’s story unfold in all of its promise, ingenuity and tragedy.
But out of sheer nostalgic power, nothing in Venice quite matches “Skirting the Center”, a small monographic satellite exhibition at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati. Her subject, Svetlana Kana Radević, was a woman ahead of her time, conquering a domain dominated (then as now) by men, and a designer who embodied the best of her time, making beach resorts, houses and monuments in a brutalist style. idiom living with vigor and optimism. Born in Montenegro in 1937, Radević managed to become one of Yugoslavia’s most famous architects. His accomplishments have earned him international recognition, and the show documents his lively correspondence with such figures as Louis Kahn and Kisho Kurokawa; it also reveals her delightful PR talent, with archival footage of a 1980 Yugoslav TV profile in which she appears on a beach, discussing and tracing patterns in the sand, an image of understated artistic femininity. It was, of course, a bit of an act, but it was not Radevic’s belief in his country’s political mission. “Kana was deeply involved in the social policy of the Yugoslav welfare state,” said Anna Kats, who hosted the show alongside Dijana Vucinic. Radević’s masterpiece, the Zlatibor Hotel, was built in 1981 as a center not just for tourists, Kats says, but for local community life. Everything about him, from the invigorating vertical thrust of its outer shell to the elegant ballrooms and chambers inside, testifies to an enduring faith in a singular social vision, the ability of a people to live together in equality. and abundance.
Yet all of that – or most of it anyway: the upholstered interiors, the hypermodern wheelchairs, the stunning globular pendant lights on the ceiling – are now gone. The building itself is still standing, but it was recently emptied by new owners; even if they had retained what was there before, the cultural context which gave it meaning had disappeared long before, carried away by the whole apparatus of socialist self-management as it existed during Radević’s career. The architect died in 2000, and in the years that followed his work fell into relative obscurity. So what does it mean that his buildings, along with those of many of his contemporaries, are now getting a second look? And in Venice of all places?
No way, it’s a bit funny that the Biennale is the site of such a surge of Marxist melancholy. Assuming its current form in the 1990s, the Venice Salon is practically a big celebration of Orthodox neoliberal architecture, when every two years design-minded poo-bahs and assorted descriptions arrive from Rotterdam and of Baku, conjuring up castles in the digital air while admiring the yachts moored along the Grand Canal. Social responsibility has been in the air at least since the edition organized by Massimiliano Fuksas in 2000, “Less aesthetics, more ethics”, but the whole operation was largely a stage on which the elite consensus can strut and worry for a few months and then go back to business as usual. That the current participants lean a little more into alternative modes of political economy (and therefore architectural production) is certainly a good thing, although that is enough to change the overall content of the Biennale seems doubtful.
Again, that is not necessarily the subject. Obviously, this Biennale takes place against the backdrop of an extraordinary renewed enthusiasm for leftist politics in the West. But the perspective offered by the show in Venice is more subtle than any endorsement of a particular platform. There is a moment, in the Hungarian pavilion, which demonstrates the real potential for designers to explore the built environment vanished from communism: in a proposal by the Ukraine-based MNPL workshop, an impending apartment tower for years 1960 would be partially covered with some sort of sky. patterned tablecloth, with fluffy white clouds, in a way that simultaneously masks its volume and celebrates its rising ambition. As a form of love satire, this is a perfect idea, embracing the megalomania that drove the socialist builders while defending their contributions against the megalomania of modern capital. Only architecture could handle this kind of critical cannibalism: building a new world in the shell of the old, while finding a place for the old world in the shell of the new.