Architecture As an Agent

An interview with Jonas Žukauskas, one of the curators of the Baltic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition


Today, the Venice Biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition will open. In the beginning, the architecture exhibitions were like a separate branch of the Venice Art Biennale, but since 1980 onward they have been two separate entities. At each Biennale the head curator chooses a theme to which the potential participants must adhere; this year’s head curator, the award-winning Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, has given the Exhibition the conceptual title of “Reporting From the Front”.

For the first time in the Biennale’s history, the Baltic countries will be participating with one unified exposition – the Baltic Pavilion – an experimental and non-governmental initiative undertaken by nine curators from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In the exposition, the curatorial team (members: Kārlis Bērziņš, Niklāvs Paegle, Dagnija Smilga, Laila Zariņa, Jurga Daubaraitė, Petras Išora, Ona Lozuraitytė, Johan Tali, and Jonas Žukauskas) will look at the Baltic region as a space of unified ideas, one in which architecture is not defined only with structures, but which makes one think about the concept of architecture as a much broader assemblage of disciplines. Infrastructural aspects important to the region will be studied (such as the international Rail Baltica railway line, for instance), as well as concrete objects and natural resources – the countries’ interpersonal relationships regarding the Baltic Sea, energy grids, and possible future scenarios for the region as a whole. Located in the 1600-square-meter  Palasport Arsenale sports venue right in the center of the Venetian commune, the Baltic Pavilion’s exhibition will have more than one hundred exhibits on display: photographs, sketches, samples of various materials, collages, maps, videos, models, diagrams, installations and other items sourced from the Baltics and the surrounding environs. Supplementing the Baltic Pavilion will be a special publication, “The Baltic Atlas”, which contains essays penned by more than three hundred local and international authors, all focusing on the theme of the human-created environment in the Baltics and surrounding regions. The authors have attempted to answer questions such as – What is possible? and What kinds of things can we imagine? – thereby formulating theoretical and speculative future outcomes for the region.

In order to gain a better understanding of the concept behind the Baltic Pavilion and what will be on view – as well as find out how the Baltic curators themselves define the term “architecture” – met up in Vilnius with Jonas Žukauskas, one of the Lithuanian curators of the Baltic Pavilion.

Beta version of the Baltic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition exhibited at the XII Baltic Triennial. Photo: David Grandorge

This is the first time that Lithuania is participating in the Venice Architecture Biennale. Why is that? And how did you decide to participate together with the other two Baltic States?

The Lithuanian State’s decision to support the representation of Lithuanian architecture at the International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, as an important cultural process, coincides with our proposition to see architecture communicating to the public the complexity of change in the built space. The Baltic Pavilion is a project that we, the whole curatorial team, developed as a concept to enable seeing the changes extend broader – beyond the definition of nation states. The Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian states were not actually involved in plotting the exhibition as a joint pavilion; they kindly trusted the project team in each of the three separate competitions that had separate and distinct briefs for their own respective national representation. In our proposals, we managed to shift the importance from highlighting national distinctions to a proposition that views the Baltics as a very interrelated and shared space.

I think it was a brave decision to trust us during the first competition organized by the Lithuanian Council for Culture – the competition was in March, more than a year ago, and quite a long time before the Latvian and Estonian competitions. We worked on each of them as one team, adapting the same proposal to different briefs; it was a great pleasure that our Estonian-, Latvian- and Lithuanian-project team managed to persuade all three countries to be represented by one joint project. I should add that, with every challenge faced, the project grew and became more complex with an increasingly rigid structure; and thinking about the outcome – it all will be visible in the exhibition in Venice.

Is there any reason why they shouldn't have trusted your competence in the beginning?

The first Lithuanian competition was structured in such a way that the producing institution, the Architecture Fund (, was also assessed in the point system along with the Baltic Pavilion proposal – each entity gathered 50% of the points. The Lithuanian producer of the project, the Architecture Fund (an NGO based in Vilnius), has already shown themselves as having the capacity to facilitate numerous smaller projects, educational initiatives, series of talks, tours, exhibitions, and publishing initiatives, to mention a few. The organization, relying on voluntary initiatives, has contributed significantly to enhancing the architecture scene in Lithuania, and is largely responsible for the growing Lithuanian public interest in architecture.

Beta version of the Baltic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition exhibited at the XII Baltic Triennial. Photo: David Grandorge

How does the Architecture Fund work? Are you from AF?

The Architecture Fund works in this way: if you're doing a project through them, then you are the Architecture Fund. Such an open structure has quite a few benefits, and AF is open to new projects. In addition, if you have gained everyone's trust there for doing your own project – such as the Architecture Biennale's pavilion, for example – then they leave it up to you how you go about doing it. It's a good platform to work on various kinds of things since you rely on the projects which have come before you – it is a sedimentary process. At the same time, there is a sense of freedom in the contents of the project.

What was the concept of the project which you submitted to the competition a year ago? What, if anything, has changed during this year?

I don’t think we’ve really changed anything in a major sense. Even the execution, or how the exhibition is laid out, is still very similar to the initial concept. Of course, we have improved and enriched everything in the process of formulating many things, but the main concept has remained.

Which is?

The main idea is to look at the territory of the Baltics as an interrelated one, one with shared transformative efforts. The proposal always was to look into the ways that the three Baltic States are able to enhance and contribute towards shared processes, instead of highlighting distinct and national special features. And it is an experiment to reassess the capacity of architecture to be a part of these processes – becoming a tool to enhance the already ongoing processes, as well as making them more visible and more open to being understood by the public. There are also thoughts on how architecture could help encourage public involvement in influencing the ongoing transformation of the built space.

Beta version of the Baltic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition exhibited at the XII Baltic Triennial. Photo: David Grandorge

Do you really think that the Baltic States are deeply connected in more ways than just by having common borders? Everyone talks about us as the Baltic States – three countries – but what actually connects us in “real life”?

We are actually very connected, and this became increasingly evident during the project; we discovered that ideas, or the mind space, has direct projections into material space. In the Baltics, we all have this popular and quite abstract idea of unity. But if we look now, a long time after the Baltic Way (the peaceful demonstration of unity back in 1989), we can see that the idealism from that time has materialized.

The Baltic Pavilion project is an attempt to look beyond symbolic gestures; we have realized that the most important developments are interventions that surpass any delineation, be it a nation-state or a profession. The exhibition does not focus on moments of closure, but it is rather an attempt to see where things intensify and overlap; and I should say that during the research leading up to the exhibition, we discovered many unexpected and new connections between processes. The exhibits selected or created for the Venice exhibition will not present a final master plan on how things will unfold and what form they will take in our three countries; it is rather an attempt to see the processes and developments in relation to each other, and imagining what impact they will have on our shared future.

The Baltics may seem like just a group of small countries that all act individually. Indeed, we are always presented as one region of three countries on the international stage; but on the inside, there is a sense that we could, and should be, more related.

On the other hand, the infrastructures we all use are much more interrelated than we usually think; for example, electricity lines and gas pipelines in the Baltics were planned and built to serve the whole region, and in order to consciously use them, we should address them in a synchronized process. This relates to many more things, not only the usual infrastructure space; these interrelations are cultural, immaterial, and also on the level of ideas. We are trying to look at our capacities from a practical point of view; it is interesting not to make distinctions, to see things connected, and this is reflected in the exhibition – we have a long list of things to show.

When I attended the press conference in Riga, I didn't get a sense of what exactly is going to be in the Baltic Pavilion. There are a lot of philosophical thoughts and ideas around it, but what exactly is going to be inside Palasport Arsenale? Right now it's just a big mystery. Could you please give us at least a little hint on the layout of the exhibition?

We cannot yet say or show anything about how things are going to look visually, since all will be revealed at the time of the opening. But I can say that the concept and the physical space will be pretty much connected. As the philosopher Wittgenstein said – The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. So what cannot be put into words is not possible, but if you are able to imagine and say things – it becomes possible. So what is possible to us is an actual spatial definition that allows us to see transformative efforts at changing the space of the Baltics as one unified space, and leaving it as an open question – as a glimpse of larger things at work.

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. Photo: Jonathan Lovekin

But where is architecture in all this?

We don't think about architecture as a building, an aesthetic act, or as a material ideology – we are trying to see further than these traditional definitions usually prescribed to architecture.

Architecture deals not only with form. It is about data and material flows, the organization of resources, the mobilization of capacities; it organizes not only static things, but it is also a design of processes. It would be great to understand architecture as an agent with which to communicate processes of material space for the public in a coherent way. Architecture has great tools to present and explain assemblies in sections – plans, maps; architects are capable of processing quite complex flows of information.

By including Rail Baltica as part of the exhibition, in some way you are doing that as well.

Yes, of course, and we should understand that such a region as the Baltics is not defined by boundaries, and it's not detached from other countries. We are just a part of a wider network. Of course, many, many things have overlapped in the Baltic States over time, but also, I think that our ability to adapt to situations is amazing. We were occupied by the Soviet Union, and now we are absolutely integrated into the European Union. We are equal to other countries now; we aren't even segregated by a different currency anymore. We shouldn't think of ourselves as separate countries, but more as an integrated and active force.

Do you feel any sentimentality over the loss of litas [Lithuania's national currency before adopting the Euro – ed.]? Was there a noticeable change in Lithuania at the moment of the currency change-over?

I would like to expand this into a broader question. Let's say that global changes are a very important subject to think about. We currently need to think about the return of geopolitics, and a new relationship with the environment and nature in general; perhaps we are not in the most comfortable position to do so precisely because of such lingering national sentiments.

The Anthropocene epoch is a new term in geology that is reflected in the humanities as well, as it changes the way in which we act as the human race in relation with nature. Humans have become the largest force changing planet Earth, geologists claim. We carry more sediment than rivers, winds and all natural forces combined; the second most-used substance after water is concrete; over sixty percent of the total weight of all living beings consists of animals we grow for food; over thirty percent is humans, and only three percent is wild nature. There are many such facts that contemporary geologists are making known to the public. In the Anthropocene, we have a new understanding of our relationship with the environment; for example, there is no longer such a thing as “dark and chaotic nature” (in a romanticist sense): there is no place that is not run by humans, as everything – the whole environment – is manageable, and it can be turned into numbers. We cannot reconstruct all these things that we used to have – deep, virgin forests were a defining spatial condition of the Baltics in the Middle Ages; now we are one of the largest both exporters of timber and furniture producers in Europe. For the Baltics, this means that political boundaries are very fragile, and we must be very aware about not just the statistics, but also about the rapid change this new relationship with the environment is bringing. In short – there is no space for modernization, so the introduction of a new currency would not bring any kind of update to the current one (the Euro).

Clay pit. Photo: Jonathan Lovekin, 2015

But it is an interesting paradox that all of these enormously active construction processes actually cause an appreciation of nature – which we have increasingly less of with each successive year.

We need to design new a relationship with the environment of our region, one that is aware of the ongoing transformations. For example, we think of Rail Baltica as an easy and fast way for passengers to travel, but it will have much broader consequences. It's not only a fast passenger connection between Helsinki and Warsaw. It is a connection between Northern and Southern Europe. Mineral resources from the North can't be transported by sea all year round when all the ports are frozen, but if there is a railroad, the circulation of materials and goods becomes much easier.

What kind of consequences do you think it will bring?

After Rail Baltica is built, we will see consequences such as quite a lot of heavy industry coming into the Baltic countries – they'll be well-connected with this transportation artery between the North and the South, and exactly in the middle of Europe. Think about it – we have a qualified, very literate workforce, so surely there will be very intense industrial development in the Baltics.

Free economic zones can attract a lot of capital investment because taxes, regulations, and labor rights are contained in such zones. Bundle all that together, and it will grow as a spatial script; and as a result, we'll have a lot of people working in these enclaves with great infrastructural links. How can we, as a society, be assured that we will always strike the best deal once we begin signing contracts with all of the companies that will be attracted to our region? Perhaps we need a certain agency that could explain the possible consequences, thereby enabling us to be better bargainers. And it would be great to talk more about such developments, have more media coverage on this subject matter. To coincide with the Baltic Pavilion exhibition, we're publishing “The Baltic Atlas”; you will find many articles and essays in this book concerning the change of our space. One of the contributors, Keller Easterling, an architecture theorist, will give a talk on the morning of the Pavilion's opening day, on the 27th of May. Titled “Interplay”, it will expand further on the possibilities of designing our environment in relation to ongoing interventions.

With the Baltic Pavilion, we are not only celebrating this beautiful fact of unity, but also highlighting that we're living in a moment of fragmentation of the “European Project”, and we should make people aware of these problems. The European Union can be made ours; its concept can be inhabited and consciously used. It has one amazing principle, which is to connect everyone with infrastructure and to circulate resources in such a way that conflicts are impossible. We are in this together, and we should enhance our relationships through spatial organization.

The Baltic Pavilion on the way to Palasport Arsenale  in Venice. Photo of the Baltic pavilion curators' personal archive

What is the main thing that you want to achieve with the Baltic Pavilion?

To make architects more involved in creating built space. It may sound paradoxical, but in fact, we are not in the rooms where important spatial decisions are made. With the involvement of architects and planners, vital spatial transformations could be better thought-through, and simply be better in numerous ways. Architecture is a practical discipline, but it is not only about building. It would be great to involve the public in the decision making, to explain better the processes of change and initiate more enhanced spatial scripts. I guess one exhibition cannot achieve all of these things, but we can start talking about where we are and where we could be.

In “The Baltic Atlas”, we try to connect two questions: “What is possible?” with “What is possible to imagine?”. The main thing is the possible – or the resource, if you like – as it holds all future possibilities; the resources we have form the way we imagine the things to come. Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, in her essay, explores the condition of futurity – where the future is a very tangible projection of current resources; it can be quantified, projected, and made better or worse by infrastructural interventions. So, I guess the aim of the Baltic Pavilion would be to show these ongoing transformative efforts; they are projections of so many initiatives, political programs, utopian ideas, business plans, investments, and attempts to attract investments. It is interesting to see them as a stack of processes – all happening at once and all having traces into the future; how can the architect be involved in shaping what is to come?

We have many disputes over old and new architecture in Latvia. Do you have the same problem in Lithuania – discussions and quarrels between architects?

That's an interesting question, as the role of architecture is discussed. I don't think that Lithuania or Estonia are exceptions. I guess your question is more concerned with architectural issues that are more on an aesthetic level, and how it can change the way a space looks. In Lithuania, as everywhere else, we need to talk about the change of architecture as a practice.

There are new projects coming up, such as the building of The New Modern Art museum (MMC) by Liebeskind, which will replace the “Lietuva” cinema that is still standing only due to numerous initiatives to prevent its demolition based on defending the principle of public interest. The current owners of the site clearly decided not to invest in the image of the building – it is famous due to the attempts to save it. Instead, they decided to apply the recipe of an iconic building designed by a star architect – it really reminds one of the aging international pop star, years after reaching the zenith of their fame, finally stooping low enough to come to Vilnius to give a concert. It would be much more interesting to use the authentic conditions and situations we already have.

Jonas Žukauskas. Photo: Rita Vallukonyte

What do you think people are going to say 100 years from now about today's architecture?

We know already – there are numerous examples, not to mention large ones: climate change is one of them. Perhaps the processes we all work with now should be less inert; just think about our dependency on fossil fuels.

Perhaps we could come back to these few examples we have mentioned in this interview – the same Rail Baltica railway – if we lay the tracks in choosing a certain option, who can say how it will be perceived a hundred years later?

How do you think the public will react to the Baltic Pavilion?

It would be best, at least on this occasion, to not predict any reactions. The Baltic Pavilion is an exhibition in which we tried to bring all our concerns and ideas together. Really, without trying to establish a finished text, but to just show the relationships between ideas and things; to have objects – artifacts – brought together in one place and viewed as material presences. At the same time, we all have one idea, one aim: to distill what kind of spatial practice would be appropriate for the Baltics.