Architect, curator, and educator Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli talks about the future of the Russian Federation Pavilion in Venice, his experience working at OMA, and his plans after leaving the world-renowned Dutch firm.
In December last year, the newly-appointed commissioner of the Russian Federation Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Teresa Iarocci Mavica, who is also the head of the V-A-C Foundation, announced Italian architect Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli as the curator of the 2020 edition of the pavilion.
Pestellini Laparelli has been working for the Dutch architecture office OMA for well over a decade, and has been a partner at the firm since 2014. He co-curated Manifesta’s 12th edition, which took place in Palermo in 2018, and led and edited Palermo Atlas, OMA’s urban studies on the Sicilian city. Together with Rem Koolhaas he co-curated the Cronocaos exhibition on the politics of preservation at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. At the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, he curated Monditalia, a multi-disciplinary exhibition on the current status of Italy. He is currently teaching at the Royal College of Arts in London.
The 2020 project at the Russian Federation Pavilion is one of his first endeavors after leaving OMA.
Titled Open! it will spotlight the young generation of Russian architects and will focus on the renovation of the century-old building of the pavilion. Designed by famous Russian architect Alexey Shchusev, the pavilion opened to the public in 1914. An open call for architects under 40 to present their vision of the pavilion runs through January 31, with the winner being announced in February.
Responding to the theme How We Will Live Together, which was announced by the curator of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition Hashim Sarkis, the project will offer the opportunity for a collaborative experiment between the winning team and a pool of local partners, in the form of an extended residency in Venice during the 2020 biennale.
Strelka Mag’s senior editor Timur Zolotoev met with Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli during his visit to Moscow to talk about his practice and his vision of what a national pavilion can be.
Your interdisciplinary practice spans architecture, curating, art directing, fashion, etc. Based on your experience, how do you think the profession of the architect and its role have changed in recent years?
There has been a substantial shift to media which has changed or expanded the definition of architecture and of the architect, and which responds in a way to the urgencies or challenges that we deal with today. I have a notion of architecture that is really not consistent and is rather expansive—to me it’s a way to investigate different realities through spatial practices. It’s also a way to respond to, in very practical terms, very different market/research opportunities in the sense that I don’t believe at all that architects should be just builders.
I have a need for an interdisciplinary approach, because I don’t think that architecture is enough to understand the complexity of the world. You cannot exist in a vacuum and because architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the opportunity that we have been exploring in the past years is to also be released from the old idea of authorship—the old image of the architect at the center of major projects like a conductor of an orchestra. Today you’re rather a point in a network of knowledge points, in a network of people who sort of feeds them constantly until you generate an output where you are participating in—but not necessarily leading—the game, and I like that condition very much.
How did your time at OMA shape you as an architect?
OMA is a very special place because you can navigate through different projects, different realities, different mediums, different domains. You have access to non-architects which is a very special condition for an architectural office.
Going back to the origins—I am Italian, I come from a very specific educational, economical, and social background, in the sense that architects in Italy have been struggling to act traditionally as architects for a long time. The second avant-garde—Archizoom, Superstudio—they were already expanding their practices, entering other areas such as technology, economy, anthropology, product design, and so on. My generation was highly informed by that experience and almost by need we had to move out from the traditional boundaries that defined architecture.
Before joining OMA I was working for a multimedia office: we were working across several mediums, designing video games, working on video clips—there were simply very few chances to act as an architect. And in a way, OMA was the only place on the planet maybe at that time with that scale that allowed me to continue to be an architect but in a multidisciplinary way, without actually practicing architecture in the traditional sense.
What are your plans after leaving OMA?
I’m setting up an agency in Milan. It’s a research and architectural agency that will have an interdisciplinary traction and will work across the domains of design, technology, politics, and visual culture in general, with specific attention paid to environmental questions. It’s being set up at the moment.
How do you interpret the theme of the biennale How Will We Live Together?
I think it’s basically asking a question how we can rethink and reinvent eventually modes of existence on the planet that respond to extremely critical challenges which affect us all. The planetary climate crisis is connected to many other crises: political, economic inequalities, rise of populism, management of resources, civil rights, and so on.
Sarkis talks about something that I like a lot as a definition, which is this idea of spatial contract and how an architect can be, in a way, the center or the facilitator of that spatial contract.
It’s time also to look at the world from a less anthropocentric perspective, but rather from a post-anthropocentric one, meaning basically that the spatial contract involves not only human-to-human relationships but also other agents. So there are a number of missing links at the moment that we as architects can help establish by looking at how our space performs. What other institutions are possible or necessary today?
Do you think the concept of a national pavilion is still relevant today? How do you create a comprehensive portrait of a country in this very interconnected globalized digital age?
I think there are two gears to these questions. First of all, the biennale as a whole is a rather obsolete format. There is a very beautiful text by Boris Groys that I read recently that was kind of comparing the pavilions to exotic greenhouses where plants from other countries are brought into—a rather romantic image you could say.
I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to discuss specifically or represent a nation comprehensively. I think the questions which we are trying to answer don’t really have boundaries, so it’s very difficult to actually restrict a discussion to one country or another. It is possible though to cast certain lenses over those questions. I think that in the case of Russia, there is a very interesting relationship of scale—the pavilion basically represents a country which is incredibly big, that occupies a large portion of our planet. So any kind of strategy or policy that is discussed in relationship to Russia has an impact that is global.
There are questions that can be asked about the format of the biennale: what is a comprehensive portrait of a country after all? Should a pavilion always, year after year, showcase a project or an artist? Or maybe it can become a platform for discussion of a longer agenda. Maybe this year we can set the tone for that discussion, and then edition after edition we can build on that knowledge.
To this discussion we also have to add the generational question—the open call that we have launched is open to younger architects. They can range from people who are 25—people who were born in the 90s here, a crucial moment—to people of my age. And I’m sure that the portrait of the country that they would give is a much different one than the one of older generations, and one that is transnational by definition because their perspectives and experiences are transnational. We will put on stage a certain generation with the complexities, problems, and perspectives that they bring on the country, and that for me is very central to this entire process.
What is the main objective behind the Open! project?
Starting from the reconstruction of the pavilion as architecture and as an institution, the questions we would like to investigate are rather political: what other forms of institutions are possible today, what agents can be involved, and what role can architecture play in fostering and supporting such new models? In this sense Open! stands for an attitude geared towards inclusivity and exchange.
The opportunity to redesign the pavilion as a place of aggregation opens up discussions on potentially new modes of existence on the planet. The pavilion sits in an extremely fragile ecosystem, and is therefore very sensitive to the effects of the climate crisis.
There are several layers: the open call, the project of the pavilion, the generation that will inhabit the pavilion, the temporary setup they will install, and the public program that will basically be overlaid on top of all of this. None of these layers really show anything specific; all of them combined contribute to the process.
One of the main objectives is to use this year to set up an agenda or protocol for future editions. So I would like to use this opportunity of the reconstruction to rethink the model of what a pavilion can be—and do—in the context of the biennale.
The project operates on several scales, but no final output is really necessary. That’s why it’s called Open! There is a collegial attitude to it, but it’s not about participation in the way that we intended participation forty years ago.
What preservationist approach do you envision for the pavilion? How will you balance preservation and rejuvenation of the pavilion?
When we did Cronocaos in 2010 there was this attitude to try to reconcile the architect with preservation because there was this kind of snobbish attitude that preservation was just for preservation experts. We thought that it was a very wrong assumption because preservation is a super sophisticated way to be an architect, because you are released from the need to design icons or shapes to mark your presence and you can think and operate on a different level. There are questions about preservation which are on one side very subtle and technical: how to maintain a certain plaster or certain decorative motif, and so on. But on the other side there are questions which are related to the performance of a building: how a building is used, how can you reinvent access to it or flows inside of it, for example, what role technology can play in adapting old buildings—and I do think these are equally relevant questions as designing something that is present, that is really physically changing the pavilion.
The Russian Venetian pavilion is very interesting because it’s one of the pavilions that is facing the lagoon, there’s even a terrace overlooking the lagoon. The pavilion was used by generations of students to trespass the border of the biennale. When you think about it this is an institutional question by definition.
There is a whole relationship that can be reinvented. The goal is not easy because there is no big gesture to make, so you really have to think in a different way. I was hoping the architects who are not necessarily builders could enter the call to cast a different, more strategic perspective on the pavilion.
On July 7, 2020, Sofia Pia Belenky, an alumna of The New Normal program of Strelka Institute, will interview Ippolito about his experience of curation, unfolding the matters of digital and material realms as mediums in architecture. Join the public interview here.