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‘Open and independent’: The free Russian space at Venice Biennale 2018

Outside the official program of the Venice Architecture Biennale a new generation of young architects, designers, and researchers offer their own interpretation of ‘free space.’

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Last week, just 300 meters from the Russian Pavilion in Giardini, an independent collective launched the Virtual Russian Pavilion, where visitors were invited to see the virtual reality exhibition ‘Free the Space.’

Wearing VR glasses, one could enter the space of a 3D model of Alexei Shchusev’s Russian Pavilion, to discover it placidly empty.

The theme of the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture chosen by curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara is ‘free space.’ In the exhibition’s manifesto they stated that “Free space can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived.”

“Why is it free? Because we didn’t ask permission to create it. Why is it open? Because everyone is welcome. Why is it independent? Because we are financed neither by the government, nor by business” – Anton Kalgaev

Responding to this theme, the group 🦁🦄(lion & unicorn) designed their project as “a critical manifesto for a free, independent, and open Russian Pavilion.”

The collective includes architects, designers, and researchers – most of them Strelka alumni. Currently 🦁🦄 consists of Pekka Airaxin, Liza Dorrer, Karina Golubenko, Maria Kachalova, Anton Kalgaev, Maria Kosareva, and Ivan Kuryachiy. Jelena Viskovic, Valtteri Osara, and Vladimir Gontcharov worked together with the group on the project.

🦁🦄 . Photo by Liudmila Savelieva

The name ‘lion & unicorn’ comes after the two symbols which Alexei Shchusev – the architect of the Russian pavilion in Giardini – placed on the small gates of the building in 1914.

“For more than 100 years, these doors have been opened to the public, while they remain almost closed to generations of architects, artists, and curators,” the group said in their statement.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition in Parco delle Rimembranze, writer Anton Kalgaev called for a more transparent and clear competition for the Russian Pavilion. Kalgaev was part of the Strelka Institute team which curated the Russian Pavilion during the 2014 Biennale of Architecture.

“The Virtual Russian pavilion is a kind of free, open and independent platform. No one knows how to get into the real Russian pavilion. And it’s very strange to hear it from me, who once got in. We are not quite comfortable with this, and some transparent and clear procedure of getting into the Russian pavilion needs to be created at least virtually,” he said.

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'Free the Space'

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'Free the Space'

‘Free the Space’ was the first show at the virtual pavilion, which will host regular exhibitions in the mediums of virtual and augmented reality. The curatorial concepts and participants of future exhibitions will be selected during an open international competition. The group plans to open the first exhibition, designed in this way, at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2020. In the future the public program of the virtual pavilion will also include discussions, publications of articles, and research projects.

“Free, open, and independent – that’s what the Russian virtual pavilion is,” said Kalgaev. “Why is it free? Because we didn’t ask permission to create it. Why is it open? Because everyone is welcome. What will be exhibited there depends on you, and we will provide an opportunity to bring it to life virtually. Why is it independent? Because we are financed neither by the government, nor by business. Our exhibition is a manifesto of a free, open, and independent Russian pavilion.”

“It is like paper architecture, just made of binary digits” – Liza Dorrer

‘Free the Space’ leaves the visitor one on one with the emptiness and freedom of the pavilion’s space, Kalgaev told Strelka Mag. “But what attracted us was not the emptiness per se, but the opportunity to show the pavilion as seen by a person working on an exhibition inside of it.”

“When we worked on our project for the 2014 Biennale I was absolutely enchanted by this space. But now the people who had been in the pavilion several times could not recognize it when entering it alone and seeing it empty. So we invited them inside to feel free to fill the space.”

The original idea of the alternative pavilion belongs to architect Liza Dorrer, an alumna of Strelka’s The New Normal design think-tank.

“We architects move to the digital space because currently it is the freest space. It is like paper architecture, just made of binary digits,” she told Strelka Mag.

 

Free Rest Space

On the same day, just a few meters away from the site of the virtual pavilion on the embankment of Viale Vittorio Veneto, Moscow-based architect Alexander Shtanuk presented his installation ‘Free Rest Space,’ which addresses the problem of overbooking and overcrowding in Venice.

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Alexander Shtanuk

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'Free Rest Space'

A long row of 20 Soviet-style folding beds brought from Russia were installed along the embankment facing the Venetian sunset and inviting passersby to lie down and enjoy the view.

“Every time a Biennale takes place in Venice, there is no place to stay – all accommodation is fully booked,” Shtanuk said. “So these folding beds offer a free space to everyone who wants to rest or sleep.”

Following the opening of the exhibition, some of the folding beds were given away to locals, “so that part of 'Free Rest Space' would remain in Venice,” he added.

Shtanuk, who was born in Minsk, said his installation was also a nod to his Belarusian heritage. He presented ‘Free Rest Space’ as the first Belarusian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Photos: Timur Zolotoev

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