Your exhibition Emotional architecture 2. Lost in Transition that was on show in Vaal Gallery in Tallinn this spring is a development of an earlier project which is partly also included. What triggered to make it in the first place?
There were two things. First and above all a powerful image coming from a folk tale read to me by my grandmother, when I was very little. It is the story of Păcalăst (sort of Romanian Tijl Uilenspiegel) who – told by his brothers “pull the door behind you when you leave the house” – reacts ad literam and starts off carrying the door on his back. I suppose that this episode triggered a semantic shock, a subliminal awareness that language has the capacity to create ambiguity with unexpected and painful consequences. That image became a latent component of my affective memory, a kind of dilemma waiting for solution. When I moved into my first house in Bucharest, I studied in detail the entrance door – a modest one – and tried to imagine what it would be like to carry it on my back all around the city centre. In 1994, when I renovated my second house, I went so far as to keep a useless door on the balcony for about a year, gathering courage to perform the above mentioned action. Luckily, the event never took place. I say luckily because otherwise I would have probably not decided to make Sample City, the film where the man carrying the door plays a crucial role.
Second – my travels, during which I discovered that architecture holds over me a constant power of fascination, somewhat therapeutic. The (vague) perception of the built environment becomes the first stage in the semantic acceptance / assimilation of a place (I use the term place in a phenomenological sense – as a space for spiritual and sensorial practices). While trying to understand the causality of my special relation to architecture I arrived to some intermediate conclusions that I list in the order of their subjective importance: a. the observation of architecture had a latent and durable influence over my spiritual formation; b. architecture is a metadiscipline, whose dynamic capacity to determine evolutions and breaks in the social body is far from being fully acknowledged; c. architecture has become, through a complex set of factors and events, the only meta-discipline whose shortcomings and limitations are not compensated any more by domains such as visual arts, music, theatre, literature, religion.
Ceausescu’s palace has an important presence but the video Sample City actually speaks about experience of the whole city in its different layers. Do you feel the whole Bucharest to be “imprinted” by the presence of the House of the People? Does one building have the strength to affect the identity of a whole city? Community? Their subconsciousness?
While we are living now in times when architecture is used as a branding tool for the marketing of urban identities in a context of tough global competition, the case of Bucharest is more complex. In order to make the reader understand, I will quote some raw data put at my disposal by the wonderful Mariana Celac, architect and spiritus rector in the process of re-evaluating the identity of Bucharest as a problemcity. ”In about 10 years, between 1980 and 1990, 5 square kilometers (one-sixth of Bucharest’s historic core) had been cleared; old neighborhoods, home for 40,000 people, had been displaced without any proper legal, financial and or moral compensation; 14 churches dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries had been irretrievably lost or moved from their original settings to new locations. Archaeological sites, vegetation, hills, the whole subtle and intricate fabric of the old city simply vanished.”
The above described process drained the economy of a country brought anyway to knees by a merciless dictatorship. The result is a building with 4 hectares floor surface (!), surrounded by a deserted area right in the middle of the city, and positioned at the end of a 4,5 km boulevard cut straight across the old centre, and constantly failing to become part of it. Inevitably and for reasons too diverse to be debated here, the House of the People became the emblem of 21st century Bucharest, yet another proof that architecture is a meta-discipline, in the sense that it does not operate according to common logic and current morals.
Do you agree with a common statement that the contemporary identity is essentially urban?
While this is a truism, the opposite is also truth, although we do not allow us to think about it: while basing our activities in cities, our constant moving and commuting around is a somehow desperate attempt to explore a space in between, an area of freedom that cities do not contain, an area where rules do not apply and where the heavy burden of responsibilities is suspended. Secretly every city dweller is projecting for retirement a utopian place of hiding, in a wood, next to the sea. Nobody wants to stay in the city, except the homeless, who use the urban context as a large, dysfunctional, messy home.
You have stated that architecture is essentially about fear, vanity and god.
We, the common people, are afraid of the dark and of the cold, therefore we need architecture; we also need large buildings and streets because we feel that they represent our strength and our skills; and we need worshiping places because we lost the capacity to bond to our inner spirituality and we think that god is some external authority, operating from a shiny place. For the same reasons of fear and vanity we are inclined to pave the way for dictatorships of all kinds – ideological, economic, religious.
You have also done this project in Trondheim. What attracted you towards Tallinn?
Tallinn has a lot of qualities for someone interested in architecture: is has the right scale for allowing exploration and control by a foreigner unfamiliar with the local context; it has an variety of urban and architectural solutions densely distributed; it has a right percentage of dysfunctional areas and problematic developments – which means that you are stimulated to research and react without being put down by too much poverty, stupidity or beauty; and it has among the educated city dwellers a very high level of consciousness concerning architecture, urbanism and other topics relating to our well being in a city. To my knowledge, it is a place where almost everybody can elaborate on their built environment with quite some awareness – something unique in the European culture as experienced by me so far. It might have to do with the way Estonians deal with their national identity – so heavily under attack for some time.
But of course this is the background on which is projected the work of Raine Karp. His large projects were the reason for me to come back and work in Tallinn.
The Tallinn workshop was centered around the City Hall. This is not as tyrant-like a project as the Ceausescu palace but what are your feelings on comparing the two? How do you perceive the presence of the City Hall in Tallinn context? Placing the two screens next to each other in Vaal seemed to give the City Hall, at least partly, quite a strong colouring. Although judging seems not to be the subject.
The City Hall is a building of extreme complexity, both morphologically and in its historical development. This complexity is still unfolding and it is fascinating to see how a building (I could say JUST a building) made a quarter of a century ago is still stirring passions, political tensions, economic turmoil, while being the focus of various types of projections emanating from the collective psyche. Comparing the City Hall and the Palace of Ceausescu is inevitable for me, because they are both very powerful symbolic presences, coming from a specific political period, which still needs a careful evaluation. What will come out of this particular comparison, I cannot tell yet, but for sure it is useful to look at the ways in which the last decade of the cold war unfolded in places so different in all respects like Romania and Estonia, and to do that from a point filled with new contradictions and old social tradition – the Netherlands.
Is it possible to converse, to “overwrite” (as a palimpsest) an existing building with a strong identity? I’m partly referring to the conversion of Ceausescu’s palace into a contemporary art museum. And is it necessary? The architect’s or planner’s intention seems not to guarantee the desired results.
Buildings and books and all products aspiring to public glory and to historical significance have a destiny going beyond the initial intentions of those who generated them. It is inevitable – in the case of architecture – that new functions will overwrite the old ones; the history of the genre is in that sense abundant with examples. While the Palace from Bucharest seems to be frozen in a mixture of political representation and a lame effort towards openness, the City Hall seems to be in a stand by state – and this is of course a more promising situation.