<The article was written for Capital LIGHT and published in February 2023.>
The excitement is high, and there's a reason for it. Bulgaria is preparing for its second national participation in the most significant event in the world dedicated to architecture and the built environment, which opens at the end of May this year. The greater stake in this case is the long-term commitment of the Bulgarian state and our regular presence at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Organized by the cultural institution La Biennale Di Venezia (producer of events for art, cinema, music, dance, and theater), the Biennale, with its 40-year history and 17 editions, has managed to establish an image as a mandatory forum for participation, serving as a compass for the moods and global trends in the field of architecture. The themes of each edition are the culmination of the high sensitivity, relevance, and comprehensiveness of the work of multidisciplinary teams in a global and local context. The presented projects are both a response to the curator's assignment and a reflection of the present, with an element of speculation about what lies ahead.
Details about the 18th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale have been clear since the end of May last year. The curatorial role has been entrusted to 59-year-old Lesley Lokko, who is of Scottish-Ghanaian origin. Alongside all her titles, awards (including the Order of the British Empire for achievements in the field of architecture and education), and appearances as a lecturer, the exceptional Lokko is the founder of the African Futures Institute (in Accra, Ghana) and a science fiction writer with best-selling books translated into 18 languages.
In times of conflict, uncertainty, and cultural upheaval, the theme "The Laboratory of the Future" proposed by Lesley Lokko provokes thoughts in two directions. One is entirely connected to Africa as the youngest and dynamically developing continent in the world, resulting in rapid urbanization and chaotic growth. The other is dedicated to the Biennale itself as a platform for experiments, sharing experiences and visions, and considering architecture as a factor for societal development. The laboratory signifies testing, exchange, and harnessing of different knowledge and skills in the search for successful solutions, which according to Lesley Lokko, are not instantaneous but require long-term work.
Undoubtedly, it is prestigious for a country to be part of this ambitious and all-encompassing intellectual architectural demonstration called the Biennale. Participation is important for the country's image and has political implications in the best sense of the word, as it is a statement that the respective country is capable of presenting its own concept, launching names, and standing adequately in an international context. If the country does not have the privilege of being one of the 29 nations with a permanent pavilion in the Giardini Park, it falls among the other 163 member states of the UN, to whom space can be provided in the corridors of the Arsenale - the other highly visited location of the forum - or within Venice itself, upon request and payment of rent.
Fifteen years ago, Bulgaria participated for the first time with a selection of young and promising architects at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale. Under the title "Bulgaria: Inside the Young Architect," curator architect Georgi Stanishev (brother of the then-serving Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev) presented the works of selected young architects. The location, the island of Giudecca, away from the hotspots of the Giardini and the Arsenale, still managed to attract visitors and media interest. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian state did not make efforts to continue what was started. The chronic absence of Bulgaria from the Architecture Biennale (in contrast, smaller European countries like Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia have consistently and purposefully had their pavilions over the years) is in a way a complete "miss" in relation to the processes in global architectural practice. It is an isolation that is mainly a product of long-standing institutional inertia.
Therefore, Bulgaria's second national participation in the Architecture Biennale is big news. Renting a central location in Venice (Tiziano Hall) for a period of three years guarantees participation in two architecture biennales and one for art, as well as the organization of two full-fledged competitions (in addition to the one just completed).
Another positive aspect noted by the jury and the participating architects in the competition for the curatorial project for Bulgaria's national participation in the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale is the remarkable mobilization of the guild. The thirty-four submitted projects (despite the exceptionally short deadlines and budget constraints) are a clear sign of the new generation of architects' desire to get involved and place their work in a global context.
The winning interdisciplinary team (Arch. Boris Tikvarski, together with photographer Alexander Dumarey, graphic designer Kostadin Kokalanov, Arch. Maria Gyurova, Arch. Bozhidara Valkova-Goranova) has a great opportunity to represent Bulgaria in a memorable and meaningful way. The theme "Education as a Journey from Darkness to Light" actually corresponds to the unwritten rule of the Biennale - the more impactful and understandable the concept, the more memorable the exhibition.
We had the pleasure of speaking online with Arch. Boris Tikvarski from POV Architects, from his home in Rotterdam.
Your studio is not very popular in our country. What projects are you engaged in?
Calling it a studio would be an exaggeration; rather, we are a collective of individuals with similar interests, most of whom are former classmates from VIAS (editor's note: now UASG). We graduated in 2012 and scattered around the world due to circumstances. It is not our main occupation, and at the moment, it is more of a hobby. Over the years, we have all worked for major architectural firms in the Netherlands, Italy, and France. Friendship and participation in competitions connect us, and depending on the task, we involve other like-minded individuals in our projects. We joined forces for the first time in 2017 in the competition for the Heating Plant building. Things went well for us back then, and we became second. We continued with major competitions in the country, such as the one for the hotel at the Open Air Ethnographic Museum "Etar" (editor's note: second place), for Karin Dom (editor's note: among the mentioned projects), and others, but we have never won until now. The idea behind all these appearances and projects is to offer what excites us and not conform to the familiar status quo. We also have small realizations, such as an office interior. For the first time now, we became first in the competition for the Bulgarian pavilion and have the opportunity to realize our idea.
How did you choose the theme of depopulation as the focus of your project, and how does it fit into the overall theme of the Biennale, "Laboratory of the Future"?
The theme is indeed challenging, especially the connection that Leslie Loko makes with Africa. We are aware of the past, when Bulgarian architects worked in Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite these processes, we do not consider the theme of Africa to be currently relevant in our context, so we did not seek a direct connection with it. Our focus presents a different interpretation. We are not opposing it, but rather reacting to what is happening in Africa, where there is demographic growth, with a contrasting example.
Although most of our team are increasingly external observers in the Bulgarian context, depopulation as a trend interests us because we are all, on the one hand, participants and, on the other hand, affected by it. However, the decisive factor for our choice was the fact that between the two Bulgarian participations in the Biennale, in 2008 and now, there were two population censuses. This gave us an assessment of the significant demographic decline that Bulgaria has experienced while not being represented in Venice. Later on, we found the most appropriate expression of our idea through the photographs of Alexander Dumarey, whose work I have been following for years.
Why do you specifically turn the abandoned schools from his photographs into symbols of depopulation?
The photographs he has taken in the last 6 years vividly illustrate the pressing issues we face. We did not force the theme to fit the photos or vice versa; things happened naturally. What is impressive to us is how Alexander Dumarey, through his photos and with little information, showcases the scale of the problem. For me, these are very gripping shots. We decided that they could arouse the curiosity of the audience and attract them to the exhibition. However, it should not be forgotten that the Bulgarian participation is located outside the central areas of the Biennale and needs a significant stimulus to attract visitors to our pavilion.
On-site, information will be provided for each school, and a total of 207 schools will be shown through exterior shots, with only a few showcasing their interiors. Everything displayed will include the precise location, village name, and date of the photographs. It should be noted that what can be seen is only a small part of what is happening in Bulgaria. In 2008 alone, 400 schools were closed in the country.
Tell us more about the scenography of the pavilion. The school desks occupy a central place in it and, to some extent, awaken nostalgia for the past. Is this intentional?
The school desks, as well as the textiles used to shape the space, are part of the scenography. They are elements that support our narrative. We resort to curtains to present content because the space itself has heterogeneous characteristics. The idea is also to transfer various objects from the actual locations to the pavilion. Nostalgia for them will only be felt by the Bulgarian audience. The international audience does not have associations with them. Our intention is for them to serve as a catalyst for on-site interaction. Furthermore, the rocket in the exterior part of the pavilion (note: in the center of the space designated for discussions and lectures) is a symbol of the future that seems to elude Bulgaria. We want to objectively look at the problem without entering into political discourse. Nostalgia is absent in our project, and we have no sentiment towards the past; we simply aim to be authentic in presenting the theme.
The project states: "This is an attempt to take responsibility and accept these buildings as stewards." How can this be achieved?
We have all used them when they were functional. There is a general notion that when you no longer use something, you are no longer responsible for it, but that should not be the case. Currently, we are trying to work on the pavilion with the idea of turning it into a platform for debate. The scale of the problem is so significant that we are far from the thought that we can solve it with a 6-month participation in the Biennale. However, we believe that this presence in Venice can be a starting point for people with different perspectives and professional interests to introduce visitors to the theme, thus transforming the pavilion into a workshop (note: in sync with Leslie Loko's idea of a laboratory of the future). We don't want to present just an exhibition or statistics; we aim to provoke discussion.
The expectations specifically for this accompanying program are very high, as the main criticism towards you at this stage is that you are presenting a problem without depth.
At the moment, it is difficult to provide specifics about the additional program. We are currently reaching out to various people who are involved in or researching similar processes, and we plan to conduct a series of interviews with them. Additionally, we aim to have a lecture program in place with the participation of different specialists. We are aware that it is precisely this depth we are seeking through the parallel program, which is the missing layer in our initial idea. The entire project lacks human involvement, and it is precisely this aspect that we want to incorporate through the experiences of people from Bulgaria who are dealing with educational and demographic development issues.
Personally, what does this participation in Venice mean to you?
We were pleasantly surprised by the victory; it is the first time it has happened to us. The joy has passed, and now we are rather burdened and slightly apprehensive about the tremendous responsibility we bear. There is a lot of catching up to do, and it is indeed difficult to organize everything. The reality check is sobering. We are working to successfully present our ideas and receive a positive response from the Biennale itself. Our goal is to leave a mark.
The world's largest architectural forum opens its doors on May 20 and will continue until November 26, 2023. Tickets and news can be found on the official website: https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2023