Who are we building for?

Durdom. The project of the Pavilion of Latvia at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition,  La Biennale di Venezia 2020

Anna Libere

The 17th International Architecture Exhibition will take place from May 23 to November 29, 2020, at which Latvia will be represented by a team of architects from the architectural offices of NRJA (No rules, just architecture) with their project titled Durdom and its motto: ‘It’s not for you! It's for the building.’ The project will focus on the interaction between technology and the individual in the context of architecture. For the biennial, the NRJA team has chosen to explore architectural developments in an era where buildings have undergone great change: from being a product that serves the needs of a community and is an expression of the local culture and the creativity of its architect, to an ideal testing ground for technological development and energy efficiency. The individual, who should be at the focus of the architecture, becomes a background actor forced to adapt to technology-driven solutions. The project’s creators pose the following question: ‘Who are we building for? Humans or the building itself?’, thereby inviting us to change our vantage point and instead focus on the individual's experience.

‘This theme is quite dangerous, but it fits perfectly with the name of our office – "No rules, just architecture". We prefer unexplored paths and interdisciplinary forms of expression. At its core, architecture is for people – it is the set design for people's lives, and it largely determines these lives. A person is born in a building, lives in a building, and usually also dies in a building. We have already reached the breaking point at which we can say with certainty that technology has become one of the basic elements of architecture. No longer is anyone amazed at having ventilation pipes and other systems exposed on the inside. The amount of technology in our homes is continually increasing, and collision is unavoidable. There is so much of it, in fact, that people can no longer understand what all of it is for. We want to tell the story of technology in a language that can be understood’, says Uldis Lukševics, curator of the exhibition. The underlying tenet of the exposition is a warning: ‘Caution! It is not for you! It's for the building!’

Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Elīna Lībiete expands: ‘The exhibit speaks to the experience that each of us has had at least once – when we realise that technology no longer serves us, but somehow we have started to serve technology. These sorts of examples will be analysed and explained while, at the same time, we attempt to make technology-overloaded spaces understandable to people; we will also caution them as to what could happen if we forget that at the centre of architecture there is the person. Even in the 21st century.’ Igors Gubenko, author of the conceptual publication accompanying the exhibition, emphasises: ‘We are neither techno-pessimists nor prophets of a robotic apocalypse. Technology is a great thing, but when used senselessly, even the smartest of them can start behaving erratically. In this publication, we explore the human experience of coming into contact with technology. Specifically, coming into contact with what we have termed “techno absurdity”.’ Contributing authors will be both Latvian and foreign writers who will help explain this complex issue in a humorous and ironic way through short stories based on real events. The book has been designed by the award-winning graphic designer Aleksejs Muraško. ‘Our approach is to use humour and benign irony, not pessimism,’ adds Gubenko in explaining the philosophy behind the exhibit and the accompanying publication.

The title of the project, Durdom (a combination of the Russian words durak [fool] and dom [house]) can evoke various associations – the organisers of the exhibition translate it as ‘stupid home’, in opposition to the term ‘smart home’. To illustrate, Uldis Lukševics gives an example of a ‘techno absurdity’: ‘When it comes to investing in insulation and the energy efficiency of a school building, numbers dominate. It can go so far that it reaches the point where in order to attain these set “efficiency numbers” and to recoup the financial investment that has been put in, the windows can no longer be opened. A teacher who between classes used to feed the birds through an open window can no longer do so because the window must not be opened – attaining a set numbers of which a teacher has no subjective comprehension has become paramount.’

Typical of creative minds, the idea for the exhibition’s visual solution came about one night while taking apart an old coffee machine. ‘Much of the coffee machine can be seen in the plans for the layout. Our goal is to give the biennial visitor a reason to stop in their walk along the exhausting line of “exhibitions”. The project requires a visually expressive solution’, says Lukševics. ‘The issue is personally important to us – the technologies are changing so rapidly and have to be constantly updated, that at some point the link between them disappears. That is when Durdom appears – the various technologies begin to conflict with one another and you end up with more problems than benefits. Perhaps this will no longer be a relevant issue in ten years’ time. Maybe we will have successfully overcome it, but then again, maybe we will be in even more trouble’, comments Lukševics on the pertinence of the issue.

Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Latvia's participation in the International Architecture Exhibition is being organised and supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia; the commissioner of the Pavilion of Latvia is Jānis Dripe, with Uldis Lukševics, Elīna Lībiete, Ivars Veinbergs, Ieva Lāce-Lukševica, Zigmārs Jauja, Inga Dubinska, and Līga Jumburga as curators. The creative team also includes Pēteris Riekstiņš, Architxt (Olga Procevska, Igors Gubenko, Katja Firjane), Aleksejs Muraško (visual identity), Gatis Ziema (audio design), and producer Austra Bērziņa and communications specialist Linda Bērziņa. The  Pavilion of Latvia will be located in the Arsenale, one of the most visited areas of the biennial.

The 2020 Biennale is being curated by Hashim Sarkis, a Lebanese architect, lecturer, author of several publications, and principal of Hashim Sarkis Studios established in 1998 with offices in both Boston and Lebanon. The firm’s work was exhibited in the Pavilion of the USA at the 2014 Biennale Architettura, and in 2010 in the Pavilion of Albania; Sarkis was also a member of the international jury for the 2016 Biennale Architettura. The theme for the 2020 Biennale, as defined by Hashim Sarkis, is How will we live together? – a question that calls for the reassessment of current architectural and urban environment models. Emphasising the complex political context of the upcoming decade as well as the issues of increasing economic inequality and migration, Sarkis calls on architects to ‘imagine spaces in which we can generously live together as human beings who, despite our increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space.’

The International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia – the largest architectural exhibition in the world – is held every two years. Latvia has been participating with a national pavilion since 2002, and 2020 will be our country's ninth time as a participant. The architectural offices of NRJA (No rules just architecture) also represented Latvia in the 2014 biennial with the project Unwritten, which was dedicated to the country’s post-war modernist architectural heritage. In 2018 Latvia was represented at the exhibition by a team of curators with the project Together and Apart. 100 Years of Living.

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