After winning the competition for the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Polish architect Andrzej Gwizdała together with Sofía Piñero, Domingo J. González and Fernando Herrera caused a bit of commotion among their Spanish peers. We talk to the Polish architect living in Tenerife about uncertainty in architecture and in the modern world.
Uncertainy photo: Imagen Subliminal
Marcin Szczelina: Why did you decide to participate in the competition for the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale?
Andrzej Gwizdała: The first reason, of pragmatic nature, was that we could. It was the first time when an open competition was announced. During the earlier biennales, these were well-known architects that were invited and offered the position of curators. Moreover, the competition was also open to people from outside the country, and no experience or significant funds were required. In Spain, regardless of the scale and complexity of the project, it is often impossible for young architects without a vast portfolio to take part in public tenders, forcing them to cooperate with privileged architectural design studios which meet all the requirements. When we got the chance, we thought we should give it a go. As many as 47 works were sent to the competition, and our victory caused a great surprise in the Spanish architectural world. I remember that during the first call with congratulations, we were told that it is amazing that we are so young (we were all born in 1988) and that we operate in the Canary Islands. Moreover, we are not well-known and we operate as a collective focusing only on implementing individual projects. However, I should mention that we don’t have an office, which allowed us to survive the pandemic. Had we started a joint venture, we would have almost certainly had a problem maintaining it.
There is very little information about you on the internet. I found out that you come from Krakow and that you studied architecture in Brussels. But how did you find your way to Tenerife?
I left the country at the age of fifteen but my whole family lives in Poland. As part of the Burgundy Examination, I got the opportunity to study in a secondary school in France. Then I went to study in Brussels, from where I moved to Madrid as part of the Erasmus programme. Spain enchanted me with its architectural culture that has prevailed in this country for over thirty years and which survived even the 2008 crisis. For example, even though in the Canary Islands at that time more than half of architectural design studios closed, high-quality architecture is still being created here. After the Erasmus programme, I took a gap year, during which I worked in renowned companies, such as Studio Fuksas in Rome and Atelier Portzamparc in Paris. Later, it was finally time to find a permanent job, so I started sending my portfolio to architectural studios in Spain. I extremely liked the work of the GPY Arquitectos studio, especially their design of the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of La Laguna. I have been working for the studio for seven years now.
How did you assemble the team for the Spanish Pavilion competition? Are they your colleagues from work?
They are my friends whom I met during various workshops and cultural events. We have all experienced a situation of professional uncertainty, and we thought that it was a perfect time to turn that uncertainty into an opportunity.
I am always curious about the moment when practicing architects become curators. Is this a new path you want to follow, or rather an additional element of your professional practice?
In my case, it is really a dream come true. One of the things that I dislike in architecture is the time it takes to complete a project. In the Canary Islands, projects drag on for years and the satisfaction you get from practicing your profession is stretched over a very long period; thus, the pragmatic evaluation of the adopted project strategies becomes extremely difficult. That is why I like smaller-scale projects that allow me to see the result of my work a little faster and to draw appropriate conclusions from it. Owing to this, you can understand whether a given proposal makes sense or whether you should follow a different path. We have chosen an exceptional period and we have been working on the exhibition for two years, but in normal circumstances these are projects which are being implemented in three to four months. I am also fascinated by the educational dimension of the curator’s work.
Your pavilion brings up the question of uncertainty. How do you understand this concept in the context of architecture?
It is worth mentioning that for the first time in over a hundred years of Biennale history, the topic was formulated as a question and not as a declaration. Moreover, Hashim Sarkis asked a very open question: “How will we live together?” We started to wonder whether, as architects, we are able to respond to it, and whether, from the ethical point of view, we even should do it. We concluded that we shouldn’t. As architects and we should be the coordinators of social dialogue. We should try to find ways to broaden that concept and, simultaneously, define it more precisely through a series of specific questions that we can ask to the visitors of our pavilion, but also to the whole society. It is up to the society to ultimately answer them. The role of architects is to put this issue into context, to interpret it in relation to the contemporary, rapidly changing reality. That is why the exhibition presents designs that result from a process in which the citizens always play the key role. In the Pavilion, we invite visitors to explore these processes further and to reflect on what our life together may look like, both in Spain and around the world.
According to Natalia Hatalska, trend analyst who deals with research on the future of cities, the ability to ask the right questions, as well as search and select information are among the competencies of the future.
Like never before, we are now discovering that answers can quickly become outdated. We need to adapt to the pace of social change we are witnessing today. My favourite author, Mario Benedetti, once said that when we thought we had all the answers, someone suddenly changed all the questions. I think this sentence perfectly illustrates the world in which young architects must operate today.
You approach the question of living together very broadly. You have invited not only architects but also creators from many other fields to participate in your exhibition.
The Pavilion hosts much more than just 34 selected works. The first decision after winning the competition was to conduct an open call, assuming that we should give a chance to those who, just like us, had no access to such events before. We asked architects from all over Spain to send us interdisciplinary works with a strong social focus. There were no requirements as to the space, budget or experience. As a result, we received 466 applications from designers at various points in their careers. The Pavilion hosts the works by award-winning architects alongside the designs of artists who have just graduated, making the exhibition a truly panoramic view of the Spanish architecture. The transdisciplinary nature of the exhibition is related to our perception of uncertainty as a space for reflection where we can discuss the boundaries of our profession which became excessively solidified in the social awareness. Interestingly, already since studies, we, the architects, have often purposefully reinforced this closed concept of our profession. That is why the pavilion is filled with various conceptual juxtapositions that are normally considered to be contradictory. For example, we wanted to show that tradition and innovation can go hand in hand. These non-conformist connections force us to reflect and to constantly look for new questions that will more suitably reflect the changing reality we live in.
Do you have your favourite work among the ones you have chosen?
I have a few. I really like all of the 34 selected works. I must admit that before the Biennale I thought that architecture is something exquisite. However, after a year spent selecting the applications to the Spanish Pavilion, I completely rid myself of these prejudices. I am only fascinated by what I see and all these projects seem exciting to me. I draw your attention to the Foll(i)cle project sent in by the Pareid studio and executed in Bangkok. The architects invited a group of people from all over the city to participate in it. During the first workshop, they gathered the residents and discussed with them the living conditions in the capital of Thailand in the context of air pollution. Immediately after the debate, the architects asked each of the city dwellers to give them a lock of their hair and to fill in a short survey concerning their place of residence. The hair was toxicologically tested and, on that basis, a map of air pollution in the entire city was drawn up. Eventually, the workshop participants were invited once again to verify how their beliefs about pollution are reflected in reality. This is an amazing project that combines transdisciplinary architecture with participatory educational processes. It demonstrates a completely new vision of our profession.
What distinguishes the Spanish Pavilion among the other pavilions? How did you present your ideas in a confined space?
The Venice Biennale gathers the projects of various types, sizes and budgets. It’s a place where it is difficult to rivet the viewer’s attention, and thus, you have to present your ideas in an expressive manner. Our pavilion has a very clear spatial layout composed of two zones: the central zone, which we call the “Cloud of Uncertainty”, and the exhibition space surrounding it, in which all the designs are being presented. The “Cloud” has 7,000 cards hanging in the air with all the portfolios received in the open call. Metaphorically, it is intended to represent our atomised society in which, as we are being convinced, we are all mavericks and have no common strategies or goals. However, the surrounding space proves that this vision doesn’t correspond to reality and that we are actually connected in many ways. This seemingly static and dispersed “Cloud” is rather a dynamic and complex network with micro-connections that can change the entire ecosystem. To illustrate these interdependencies between projects, we invented a “Draw” mechanism. The use of the play of lights and short videos allows to combine projects depending on the conceptual framework they are challenging. Thus, the exhibition seems different during each visit, reflects the constant changeability of our reality and does not offer ready-made solutions. Each visitor sees something different, and can interpret what they see in their own way.
This sounds like something you cannot watch in five minutes.
We decided to focus primarily on experience. It is through this unique experience that we try to arouse interest of the visitors and invite them to create their own connections between the projects, and to challenge the juxtapositions suggested in the Pavilion. The exhibition encourages people to visit it more than once and allows different viewers to have different levels of interpretation.
Your Pavilion’s website presents a very eclectic selection of texts about uncertainty that don’t necessarily refer directly to architecture.
We wanted to show many points of view. The whole Pavilion is permeated by a broader idea that, rather than promoting new dogmas, we must create spaces for dialogue and look for diversity of voices in the debate on our common future. We believe that it is the multiplicity and variety of attitudes that distinguishes us from the previous generations and enriches our response to the question of how we will live together. Thus, eclecticism is a feature of both the texts on the website and the works in the Pavilion. It is supposed to inspire and invite the visitors to contribute to this important debate.
What are your expectations regarding the presence of your exhibition at the Biennale?
In the coming months, owing to the popularity of the Pavilion, we would like to invite a wide group of architects and experts in other fields to discuss the potential of uncertainty, and, simultaneously, expand the scope of works contained in the “Cloud”. We hope that this “uncertainty” will turn into an opportunity, and that it will become a starting point for a broader discussion on the boundaries of our profession and on the role of architects in our society.