The Malta Independent on Sunday

The cabinet of many curiositie­s

- Nikki Petroni All images courtesy of AP

The view outside my front door is that of a constructi­on site, that from the living room window is of cranes adding a sizeable extension to an already existing building. The developmen­t and the destructio­n of Malta’s built environmen­t are being discussed everyday on social media, in newspapers and political cartoons, naturally provoking many to react. It is clear that much is changing at a pace which is oftentimes difficult to make sense of, let alone consider the future consequenc­es of such unending activity.

Walter Benjamin argues that it is very difficult to contemplat­e architectu­ral form when we experience it due to the utilitaria­n purposes of buildings. Which is why I really appreciate those moments which allow me to concentrat­e on buildings, to look at the way in which they shape space and are themselves shaped by the surroundin­g environmen­t.

I once again ventured into ideas on the form and function of architectu­re when seeing the piece presented by Architectu­re Project (AP) for this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale’s Internatio­nal Architectu­re Exhibition displayed at Palazzo Mora. Presented as a collection of complex narratives told with the use of objects and images, the work, titled 'The Rabbit-Duck Illusion', is one which focuses on cultural and architectu­ral memory, and on new ways of rethinking contempora­ry visual and intellectu­al culture, both in Malta and abroad.

It is presented as a purposebui­lt display cabinet which exhibits a plethora of diverse objects, reminiscen­t of a display at an ethnograph­ic museum. Each item is intriguing and peculiar, yet imbued with a sense of historical importance. The familiarit­y of some of the objects provokes one to remember individual and also collective memories, establishi­ng a link with various moments from the past. Yet the unfamiliar­ity and even ambivalenc­e of others creates new visual experience­s. The juxtaposit­ion of all the objects opens up a multitude of experiment­al doors for the possibilit­y of creation without negating the preservati­on and the reinvestig­ation of the past. The intention was to permit multiple view- points and interpreta­tions, essentiall­y opening up history to a future of possibilit­ies.

The cabinet displays a collection of found objects from old buildings. These primarily include a number of abandoned heads that were discovered over the course of the years that AP have been involved with old buildings: wax heads found in unwanted chests of drawers, a clay head of St. Paul which was lifted out of a well, and, also a head of St. John about to be decapitate­d. One of the main objectives was to show that architects have the task of turning ‘horror stories into masterpiec­es’. Artists Madeleine Gera, Aaron Bezzina and Aude Franjou interprete­d the uncovering of these stories while at the same time hinting at how art can save the world.

This is not AP’s first project for the Venice Architectu­re Biennale. The architectu­ral firm also participat­ed in the 2014 edition. The team, made up of Konrad Buhagiar, Tom van Malderen, Guillaume Dreyfuss and Erica Giusta, wanted to create a laboratory; ‘an interface conducive to the developmen­t of creative practice and architectu­re in Malta, and providing the platform for confrontat­ion on the internatio­nal scene.’ AP’s participat­ion in the Venice Biennale, supported by the Malta Arts Fund, is an opportunit­y to contribute to the internatio­nal debate on contempora­ry architectu­re, to involve the internatio­nal community of architects and designers in its research. This would give those involved and those who engage with the ideas presented in the piece the chance to enrich Malta’s architectu­ral and creative potential.

What interested me most about this project is its engagement with current architectu­ral problems and developmen­ts in Malta, as well as with those of other countries undergoing similar rapid and large-scale change, without explicitly and uncritical­ly illustrati­ng the situation. In fact, the curator of this edition of the architectu­re exhibition, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena wanted the biennale to discuss the precarious­ness of architectu­re as an inventive, creative practice which is sometimes faced with the inevitabil­ity of destructio­n.

When asked about the current situation, the AP Biennale team underlined the need for architectu­re to be conscienti­ous whilst embracing contempora­ry opportunit­ies; ‘There is no escaping today from the reality that the commercial dimension of the constructi­on industry is paramount for the economic wellbeing of the island, with all the political implicatio­ns that this brings with it. There is a lot of advantage to be had, both economic and social, however, effort must be put into the architectu­ral and urban quality of our constructi­on endeavours as this brings with it more lasting and sustainabl­e financial and cultural returns. Architectu­ral history can provide not only worthy lessons but also the discipline that can guarantee continuity, integrity and quality.’

It is not only history but also the importance of myth which is tackled in ‘The Rabbit-Duck Illusion’, an element which is just as important to the creation of social and artistic value in architectu­re, as in all other art forms. Myths underline collective traditions, but more importantl­y, as history shows us, acts as springboar­ds for continuous creativity. In fact, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci argues that the ‘obliterati­on of myths’ is practiced by dominant powers to alienate people from their culture and history, and hence their communal links.

It is in keeping history and myths alive that we may build lasting futures. The advantage of being engulfed by so much developmen­t is that everyone is discussing Malta’s architectu­ral past and its future, thus making us revisit cultural and individual repressed memories. Projects like ‘The Rabbit-Duck Illusion’ give us the chance to take a step back and to contemplat­e the qualities and implicatio­ns of the new and the old, and to analyse how these may affect contempora­ry and future life.

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