Interviewed in Rotterdam on 11 September 2014
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli was the chief curator of the central exhibition Monditalia at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, led by director Rem Koolhaas. He is representative of the new generation of architects who have replaced traditional architectural practice with research work. He was recently made the youngest partner at OMA, the world’s leading office for architecture, urbanism and cultural analysis and is part of AMO research studio in Rotterdam. Their research work focuses on areas beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture, including media, politics, sociology, technology, fashion, curating, publishing, and graphic design. The critical knowledge of the territory where different disciplines meet is the precondition of ephemeral architecture, architecture which is moving, changing and disappearing, we have discussed.
ORIS: Standing here right above the marvellous Monditalia scale model, in its true length of approximately 300 m, let us start the interview by explaining the spatial concept behind this exhibition, currently taking place at the Corderie of the Arsenale in Venice.
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: Obviously, the Architecture Biennale already began, so there is nothing new to tell. However, the opportunity to collaborate with other Biennales was an inspiration for spatial organization. I think the model is quite clear because from the beginning to the end of the Corderie one can see how the relationship between the projects is regulated, including movie projections, so that on a basic level one has a feeling that there is a master plan at work here. The system of displaying research projects is broken by stages introduced for other Biennale events. When empty, the stages are a celebration of the void. When you walk through the space - and obviously once the exhibition was opened there were no more events every single day, every hour - you could find the structure empty. What is interesting is that the stages become part of the exhibition, in a way they celebrate the Arsenale space, but also allow visitors to go up, to turn the experience of space from bi-dimensional to three-dimensional, and to be a part of the overall choreography of space. This is an exhibition of movement. The presence of the stages gives you a chance to look at the performances when they happen, but also to look at the space, and to look back at the exhibition in a different way, to look at the people moving as part of the performance. So it has a bit of a choreographic attitude to it. Every stage has a unique quality; some of them are open, permeable, some of them are closed and protected. The entire exhibition is an experiment, and in a way I still do not know whether the experiment was successful. In a way, both spatially and in terms of program, we challenged the format of the Biennale, as well as of exhibition space in general.
ORIS: The Arsenale serves as a performing platform for the other festivals – film, dance, theatre, and music – happening simultaneously. Is it the first experiment of the kind in the history of the Venice Biennale?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: Yes, it is the first time that the five departments collaborate: The Architecture Department is, naturally, the coordinator, working jointly with the Dance, Theatre, Music and Film Departments. The Film Biennale has a permanent presence; it forms the backbone of the exhibition, with the other departments joining in. We have programmed a series of live events, workshops, debates, etc. reflecting on multiple topics, echoing the permanent exhibition. The magic in the exhibition is that when you enter it, at different times of the year, you always find something different, so the exhibition is never the same. Even the contents shown on the screens and on stages are constantly changing. The structure is permanent, while the content is fluid, changing through time. The project is best represented by a calendar of events.
ORIS: Monditalia dedicates the entire exhibition space to a single theme – Italy. How did the concept come about, and how did it yield an architectural and exploratory exhibition which is a portrait of a country?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: In order to reply to this question we need to revisit the concept of Fundamentals. Fundamentals, of course, has three declinations. In the central pavilion at Giardini we show Elements of Architecture, which focuses on 15 Elements, the basic elements of architecture practice – ceiling, window, stair, ramp, etc…; that is a fundamental aspect by definition. There is the Absorbing Modernity section of the exhibition, which is fundamental from a different point of view, because this is the century that has defined us, to an extent. It is a century dominated by globalisation and modernity. Different countries absorbed this modernity in different ways. Ultimately, Italy was considered one of the fundamental countries: unique because of its richness and history yet it shares common conditions with many other countries - in particular the coexistence of extreme potential with dysfunction and political turbulence. We thought that looking at Italy would be a perfect way to look at the rest of the world. So it is a paradigmatic country in that sense. I think this exhibition specifically is based on a paradox. Here we look into Italy to describe the world, through specific characters of the country. Inevitably there is also a connection to Venice. We wouldn’t have done Monditalia if we were not in Venice, for the Venice Biennale. We would have done another country for another Biennale. I think the possibility to concentrate part of the energy of the Biennale into the whole country is a big challenge. What the exhibition probably doesn’t succeed in communicating is a sort of homogeneity that would help the reading of the whole thing, from the beginning to the end. It is very exciting, even chaotic in a way, but that is probably also its problem.
ORIS: Differently from previous Biennales that showcased established architectural practices in manifesto exhibitions at the Arsenale, you invited an army of researchers and academics of very diverse backgrounds. What kind of an undertaking was it to orchestrate so many people involved in the content production?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: It was orchestrated on two levels. One level was collaboration with the other Biennales– Dance, Theater, Cinema and Music, because they all tried to respond to the topic of Monditalia. Rem Koolhaas often said that it was a Biennale based on research endeavour. Each country contributed with its research project. The office, through the Elements, brought out pure research - for example, in the Italian pavilion the focus is normally on design but but we, in Monditalia, wanted to to focus on the system itself or what precedes design. The exhibition has, therefore, a documentarist approach to Italy, through actual case studies, and we selected the main topics of this investigation which we deemed relevant for telling a story of the current transformation of Italy – its politics, religion, economy, technology, media, immigration. We had a relatively long preparation phase before launching the brief wherein we tested the topics of the case studies that we had collected. Usually, architectural case studies are conducted on the existing buildings, or areas, places, in other words. Out of this collection of case studies we made a catalogue of projects per topic, and there was the brief we sent out. Our goal was to simply suggest directions. Curators, as well as all the people we invited, could have taken that direction, or proposed a similar topic, which need not have, necessarily, taken the presented direction. We sent out a large number of invitations to people who we thought would be interested. We selected 41 case studies, which were coupled by 82 movies in the exhibition, thus we had two movies per project. The majority of the people who participated were relatively young; people in their 30s and 40s. You could say this is Italy, or Italy in the world, Italy as the world seen through the eyes of a specific generation. We did not only send out the proposals to young people; there were also older groups contacted, or more established groups, in some cases. But the proposals that seemed to be the most exciting, the most coherent to the topic, were all from this very homogenous generation, so we like to think that, in a way, part of the freshness is also related to the response to our brief. Monditalia is a generational statement.
ORIS: Can you tell us how did the audience react to the experimental, work in progress, character of the exhibition so far?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: It depends on a number of things. It is strange to talk about a country while in it, so there was a little bit of resistance by Italian critics to some of the choices that we made. There was a lot of enthusiasm too, from unexpected places, from certain people in England, Germany, or France. Generally, there was no homogeneous response. We made a survey to see who was against the exhibition, and who was in favour of it. Perhaps it is a good sign, to have people who were enthusiastic about it, as well as those who claimed it was a failing experiment. Even now people keep writing about the exhibition, not only about Monditalia, but the Fundamentals in general. The fact that there is still criticism, or ideas being discussed, is, I think, a value in itself. The exhibition seems very much alive. The people who were most enthusiastic about the space as a whole, aside from getting to the content of each installation and each movie, were actually people involved in museums. Curators were interested in the format as it is, in a way, new.
ORIS: The entire Biennale was conceived as a manifestation of architecture without signature architects. The upcoming generation was involved in the making of Monditalia. And what about the Elements of Architecture and the Absorbing Modernity exhibitions, the other two crucial parts of the Fundamentals?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: First I want to say that Rem Koolhas was not happy with the fact that the Biennale, as a result of a marketing decision, would only exhibit his works. He insisted that it was a joint work of his, and his associates. I think that the essence of a research based exhibition such as this one, is that you cannot do things on your own. He was, of course, the director, who – unlike the previous Biennales – was trying to share responsibilities, and he also did it throughout the entire year before the Biennale. Funnily enough, the system is not ready for this somehow. People just want a big name; they do not want to accept this kind of attitude. Elements were running a collaboration between AMO – here they have fixed the team of 15 people - and a large number of Harvard students. Actually, the Harvard studio was transferred to Rotterdam, they were all working on the office ground floor, and they would do research in house, coordinated by the AMO employees, such as James Westcott and Stephan Petermann. We took a big risk, and we still do not know whether we have succeeded or not. The Biennale has sometimes been judged as weak, but as a curator Rem also had to run an office of 400 people with his partners in a moment of financial crisis.. Coming back to the coordination of the entire Biennale, if you look at the curatorial intervention, either from the office or from Rem to the exhibition, the three parts correspond to a gradient. One exhibition is fully curated, designed and researched by AMO and Harvard, 100% curated, and that is the Elements of Architecture. Monditalia is somehow in between, we defined the script; we defined the overall master plan and design, but then we allowed domains of freedom, of expression. The third level is Absorbing Modernity where we launched the topic, and then every country responded as it desired. What was new in the process was that, for the first time, there were meetings organized in Venice for all the countries. Every country had two opportunities to present to Rem. No one was diverted from their course by being instructed that it was not possible, but we took care of sharing enough coordination in order for the countries to respond coherently to the overarching topic. Just by having all the countries at the same time in one place, when they could actually hear from each other what they were doing, made the process more interesting and it unlocked new potentials – such as thematic connections across countries looking at similar topics.
ORIS: I am interested in your previous experiences on Architecture Biennales. In 2010, you co-curated Cronocaos exhibition that dealt with the neglected topic of architectural preservation. Until then, almost no attention was paid to the heritage preservation in the Biennales since Portoghesi’s Presence of the Past in 1980. Can give us more details about the project?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: The project was based on an observation that preservation itself was a somewhat neglected subject by architects, so that preservation is on one side of the scale, while architecture is on the other. The intention was to talk about the contradictions of heritage preservation – whether it be political or scientific – and to simply raise certain questions. There was not, as always in the exhibition, a precise answer on what to do. We were observing the phenomena. At the base of that exhibition was the recognition that a lot of projects of OMA which were once considered cutting edge or radical, could also be considered projects of heritage preservation. The last wall in the exhibition was dedicated to 27 projects of OMA which are clearly projects of preservation – they range from Fondaco dei Tedeschi, clearly a project of preservation in most traditional terms, to our collaboration with Hermitage, and to a project we did in the Lybian desert, which is a preservation of a natural context, to the preservation of modernist buildings. The exhibition explored a part of the OMA archive, rephrasing part of the projects through the filter of preservation. The research unveiled the tendency of preservation to grow extensively – particularly evident in the past 2 decades and that somehow clashes with the ever faster need of transformation. So on one side there is larger and larger domain of the world, of the territory that is preserved, and on the other side there is a need for accelerated development. The growing number of unesco sites is often related to the political intention to give more relevance to a country, for example, to use the unesco listing under the world heritage program to attract more tourists. Preservation is also growing in scale, including larger and larger territories. We began with monuments dating back to the 18th and the 19th century when the interest in preservation emerged, and we are now seeing large landscapes, so there is an enlargement of the size of the object of preservation. What I consider most interesting is that the time between what is preserved, and the moment which is being preserved, is shrinking, to the point that you can now consider preservation a prospective, instead of a retroactive practice. We made a map which showed that 12% of overall space of the world is under preservation today. But on the other side, we also explored what we call the Blackhole. There is a period in the history of architecture that is neglected by preservation, the period of social architecture built between 1950s and 1990s – collective public buildings and social housing that was built originally on the wave of enthusiasm when architects were supported by the public sector, and worked for the public sector with the intention to change the cities. Now those very buildings – Robin Hood Gardens in London, for example, or many buildings in Italy, or anywhere in the world actually – are being neglected, demolished or simply abandoned due to a very weak public sector. It seems that there is a global task force which intends to erase that period of architectural history. The title Cronocaos was also related to this kind of contradictory conditions. On one side, we preserve buildings such as La Sagrada Familia, which is completely fake. It is a unesco preserved building, because, of course, the aura, the image that it has to maintain in the face of mass tourism. We can say that preservation does not act objectively, or not according to a linear course of history. There is a nostalgic feeling, so everything that is a monument is being preserved; everything that is historical is preserved, even though it is fake, even though it is reconstructed. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi is a perfect example in this sense- the building in itself has been heavily reconstructed in the 20th century.. A book that was crucial in conceiving the exhibition was Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym; it investigates what nostalgia is. Nostalgia is not an objective attitude towards our past; that is not real past, but a reconstructed past, the past of our dreams. We live today in a moment of nostalgia and defitely not just in the physical domain. It is increasingly difficult to be modern. For example in Italy, in the 1960s and the 1970s there were still architects able to have a dynamic relationship with historical artefacts. I am talking about Franco Albini or Ignazio Gardella or Gruppo bbpr.. And now the laws have changed, the rules of preservation have changed, so it is very difficult to make something modern anyway. The exhibition unveiled this contradiction, by unveiling the focal points, although not giving us a solution.
ORIS: Distance between contemporary architecture and fashion is shrinking. A few partnerships in those disciplines have been as successful as the one between the AMO and Prada. I am thinking of ground-breaking projects such as the Prada Epicenter in New York and the Prada Transformer in Seoul. When did Rem’s collaboration with Miuccia Prada begin? And how did you get involved?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: From the early 2000s. I entered the office working on Prada projects; that somehow marked my professional history in the office. Since 2010, I have been in charge of a very diverse range of projects, from stage sets for fashion shows to exhibitions for the Fondazione Prada. The work is not necessarily related to the construction of artefacts; it is also related to some non-architectural projects. For example, publications, graphic design, website projects. With Prada, we have a consolidated collaboration. The continuous engine of such collaboration is the design of the set for Prada and MiuMiu fashion shows. It is an interesting experience, because it is the moment when we are really exposed to the creative processes of their company. It is where we see them work. Obviously, we have worked together on this kind of projects since day one. The fashion show stage design, and the fashion show collection design, happen at exactly the same moment, and we share exactly the same premises. In the end, the result resembles a theatre. In a theatre, set responds to the costumes, costumes respond to the set, and everything is put together with music and lighting. So, what is presented through the fashion shows is not a collection itself, it is a concept. The concept usually reflects a specific idea of a man or a woman that Miuccia Prada and her creative team want to present. Some political moments have significantly influenced certain shows. For example, in 2009, during the big financial crisis, we did shows that reflected on it – it was serious, gloomy, delivering a serious and concentrated atmosphere. Our work on the shows has also engaged in reshaping the mechanics of the traditional runaway or even expressed subtle polemics to the fashion system – this is the case of a stage developed in 2011, where we sat 600 people on a perfect grid of blue cubes – a sort of democratic layout for a fashion show, with no distinction between first row, second row, and therefore with no distinction between who is more or less important, etc… It was a small revolution in itself. The fashion show projects we do for Prada take eight weeks to prepare, they last a day, and then all is taken down. I think that is the beauty of it.
ORIS: I guess that collaboration with artists, both for AMO and Prada, have broadened the experiments beyond fashion. I am referring to the 24-Hour Museum project with the artist Francesco Vezzoli. How would you describe the architectural and social laboratory which was put up for that occasion at Palais d’Iéna in Paris?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: This was a very interesting project because it was not meant to be a museum space; it was a social stage, and during 24 hours it hosted very different activities. The premise of the project was the idea that Museum spaces are as much social places as others locations in a city. We colonised the whole ground floor of the Palais D’Iena’, normally the house of a section of the French government. In fact , the main operation here was to make public a place that normally is not public. Then we had a dinner that was exclusive, and because it was a social experiment, people who were not invited were looking in from the outside of a large cage. Somehow this kind of comments on the fashion system; this was a commentary on exclusivity. It became a party place overnight and the art became the light boxes. The day after, because we didn’t unveil that it was a fake museum, we had art schools coming to our tours, and we were guiding them around. In a way you could consider it a 24 hour performance.
ORIS: In 2013, an important architectural intervention in terms of exhibiting and curating was undoubtedly the re-enactment of the famous 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form curated by Harald Seemann. What were the challenges of putting on this peculiar borderline project at the Fondazione Prada in Venice?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: Like you said, this is the re-edition of a very famous show curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969. The original show was staging some of the most radical and revolutionary artists of those years, artists who were changing the way art was conceived and made. So from several exponents of the Arte Povera in Italy to Michael Heizer, Bruce Neumann and conceptual artists such Joseph Beuys. Originally, it took place in Bern, in Switzerland. This exhibition was about process, all the artists were invited to do site specific works there. If they didn’t produce something, then the exhibition wouldn’t show up. The big challenge for us was to reenact something that was actually meant to be unique, site specific and from a specific moment in time. What we did was the overlapping of the original building to the new one – a baroque building facing the Venice Canal Grande. We deconstructed the pictures of the original exhibition found at the Getty research institute to recreate the original set up. What we rebuilt in Venice is the Bern Kunsthalle from 1969, not the current one. We have restaged a moment in time, and we overlapped it with the baroque building. The result was a sort of limbo. It is something in between – not the Venetian building, nor the 1969 Kunsthalle. It is a stage, a theater for another form of representation. Overall I think this was a dubious operation in fact. It is really critical to replicate something that was actually all process based. I had the impression that we musified something that originally was not meant to be a museum, something that was meant to be alive. If you look into the archival photos of the exhibition, you realize it was about constantly negotiating spaces and ideas between artists; everything was moving while happening close to each other. Now, because of the pressure of art market, the artist tends to be alone with his space, in total isolation – his product being the most important, and very rarely engaging with the rest. The political dimension seems to be lost. wabf 1969/2013 ultimately aimed to unveil this fundamental difference between the state of art and of the artists now and then, by sharing knowledge and archive materials about a crucial moment of contemporary art history.
ORIS: Now that you have demonstrated such a complex section of your OMA/AMO body of work, does it make sense to ask about your favourite architectural or intellectual domain?
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: In a way OMA is a beautiful office, because it allows you to be who you want to be. There is that kind of freedom. It is not the kind of office where you walk in and are told: This is the way we do things here. Obviously there is a little bit of that, but there is also the freedom to be who you are, and to do what you want to do. And I think that is an extreme luxury, a fantastic aspect of the office. If you look at the collection of people working under every partner, they are completely different. There is a huge diversity also in the typology of partners. I work with people who are typically very young, a lot of non-architects, simply because I deal with projects that require that kind of population. I think the strongest quality of Rem is that he can relate to all this diversity, and he can intelligently address it. I cannot say what I like the most, because precisely this possibility to be transversal to all of this, from AMO to OMA, is what I like the most.