Architecture Project’s installation at this year’s Venice Biennale is contributing to the international debate on contemporary architecture, as well as serving as an opportunity to enrich Malta’s architectural and creative potential. Veronica Stivala explores their Cabinet of Curiosities.

Photos: Architecture ProjectPhotos: Architecture Project

A 19th-century silver tray, fragments of marble, a part of a sculpture of St John’s head, a copy of Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, a black and white 2013 print and a model and text of one of Architecture Project (AP)’s creations are some of the contents of AP’s appropriately titled Cabinet of Curiosities.

A neat structure made of wood and glass, the cabinet and its contents are this architecture firm’s contribution to the 15th International Architecture Exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia 2016. The exhibition forms part of a series of collateral events under the title Time Space Existence and is organised by the Dutch non-profit Global Art Affairs Foundation.

AP’s Biennale team created the installation which entailed its conception, construction and exhibition of a cabinet of curiosities containing objects chosen for their capacity “to exemplify experimental design and construction processes”.

By inviting curiosity and enquiry from the viewer, the cabinet is a form of curated impromptu between a structured rendition and a poetic metaphor

The cabinet is a portal, if you will, into AP’s ethos and work. The architecture firm’s driving force is “to explore new fields in order for the design of new projects to acquire new and added value,” the team explains. What they have done is juxtaposed the every-day with the individual and the collective, the unnoticed and the historical stories and encounters.

“In bringing related objects (models, drawings, fragments and prototypes) into fresh dynamics and paradigms, the cabinet prompts the discovery of new conceptual models and axes of research, which will in turn feed future projects and explorations,” they say.

The layered structure of the wooden cabinet is enhanced by glazing and mirrored panels, offering multiple viewpoints and dynamic interpretation of its contents. By inviting curiosity and enquiry from the viewer, the cabinet is a form of curated impromptu between a structured rendition and a poetic metaphor.

The objects and images on display in the cabinet are taken from AP’s 25 years-old memory and brought into new spatial and temporal proximity. The point is for viewers to see not architecture projects but ‘the-coming-into-being’ of multiple social narratives particular to its projects.

Over the past 25 years since its creation, AP has worked on architectural projects such as the Barrakka Lift, the Valletta Waterfront and Dock 1 in Cottonera, where both the conservation content and programme involving movement and accessibility have informed and regenerated places where identity and quality of living have been central in redefining these social spaces.

One of the strongest underlying messages in this exhibition is the exploration into what constitutes what is pleasing on the eye and what is not. That said, a definition of ugliness and beauty is, to quote one of the members of the team, “as difficult and mutable as shifting sands and breaking waves”.

While people may react negatively to change, in the long run this has proved to be a source of appreciation of beauty. “History has shown how innovation has often prompted reactions and objections, but has served as the basis for a new understanding of beauty,” they say. “A sound and informed critical judgment of new projects would go a long way to guiding the creation of the new urban environment and public spaces.”

The installation plays with the concept of ‘ugliness’ through the image of the ‘severed head’, present in many of the items on the shelves

This, they say, requires “a rethink of our education system, more rigorous and critical appraisal of our national curriculum in order to ensure that not only the architectural profession and regulatory bodies and institutions involved, but also that the public is better placed to conceive and realise the environment of the future”.

The installation plays with the concept of ‘ugliness’ through the image of the ‘severed head’, present in many of the items on the shelves. On show are a number of heads that were discovered over the course of the years that AP have been involved with old buildings: wax heads found in abandoned chests of drawers, a clay head of St Paul lifted out of a well and, not least, the head of St John about to be decapitated by Caravaggio.

“One of the messages that emerges is that the architect has the mission, like Caravaggio had made his, to turn horror stories into masterpieces,” they note.

The images of heads and severed heads is, of course, provoking, if not disturbing. But this is exactly what AP has set out to do. “Participating in the Venice Biennale provides AP the opportunity to contribute to the international debate on contemporary architecture, to involve the international community of architects and designers in its research, thus getting important feedback and the chance to enrich Malta’s architectural and creative potential,” they say.

AP is constantly looking forward to new ideas through the exploration of past interactions between concepts and the public, serving as a springboard to generate new and alternative solutions. AP’s projects always strive not only to maintain but also to improve quality and innovation while working at the margins.

With this in mind, the cabinet’s relevance lies also in its function as 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. This project is supported by the Arts Council Malta through the Malta Arts Fund, Project Support Grant.

The exhibition is open to the public at Palazzo Mora in Cannaregio, Venice, Italy, until November 27.

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