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Cultural Partner


September 20, 2006

Stefano Boeri

Bryony Roberts interviews Stefano Boeri, architect and editor-in-chief of Domus, about his recent projects and Domus' participation in the Venice Biennale of Architecture. Boeri runs the design firm Boeri Studio and founded Multiplicity, an interdisciplinary research group that explores issues of urban transformation.

AK:  Last year, you created quite a stir with your Ryugyong Hotel project, which is on display at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. By invitation of the North Korean Architectural Academy, you were able to observe the unusual architecture and urban planning of Pyongyang, North Korea. After publishing a controversial account of your trip in Domus, you launched a theoretical design competition for the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang. Can you describe the visual and symbolic importance of the hotel to the city and your motivation for holding the competition?

SB:  The Ryugyong Hotel is the mother of all Pyongyang's urban giants. Built on a hill in preparation for the 1989 Youth Games, 330 meters tall — the tallest building in the world at that time — with a Y-shaped base, lifts on its sloping sides, and several rings of revolving restaurants at the top, it was destined to house a 105-story international hotel with 3,000 rooms and become the symbol of the city. But its construction was never completed, perhaps because of erroneous reinforced-concrete calculations or, more simply, because financing ran out after the Berlin Wall collapsed.

Today, the Ryugyong Hotel pyramid is a huge carcass of riddled concrete — a visionary metropolitan sculpture visible all over the city, the indication of a failed thirst for power. One year ago, Domus decided to grasp the opportunity of Pyongyang's involuntary and spectacular aperture to the world, launching a call for architectural and geopolitical ideas to rethink Pyongyang's immense concrete pyramid.

AK:  How does this project fit into Domus' mission as a publication and a curatorial force?

SB:  I believe that the act of observing, describing, and interpreting the built environment helps us understand the community we inhabit. And I believe that the landscape — the territory continually defined by our movements, reinvented by our desires, punctuated by what we build — is an excellent metaphor for our society. The local is a treasure chest rich in details and clues that tell us about the forces that permeate our daily lives, forces that at times are manifest in the space that surrounds us, perhaps just for a few instants, like footsteps in the snow. Architecture's political dimension is not to be found in the labels we attach to our projects, nor in our magniloquent political declarations; rather, it lies in the production of useful and critical knowledge about the world that surrounds us — knowledge that is useful because it is critical.

We traveled to Pyongyang, and we described, without feeling the need for ideological proclamations, a city invented and realized all at once by a dictator and his staff of architects; a city punctuated by immense, semi-abandoned monuments that revolve around a gigantic ruin (the Ryugyong Hotel), symbol and consequence of the failure of a regime trying, perhaps, to escape from its suicidal isolation.

But Pyongyang's sinister landscapes are not to be quickly dismissed as the tangible proof of the existence of a "kingdom of evil." As we pointed out, one can perceive something familiar in them, an eerie familiarity to an eye accustomed to the imagery of western science fiction. It's as though in the aftermath of the 1952 bombing of Pyongyang (an entire city razed to the ground seven years after Hiroshima and Dresden — have we all forgotten?), someone like George Orwell or Ridley Scott decided to create, without a hint of irony, Western culture's worst dystopia. It is impossible to remain indifferent to the bizarre collection of architectural caricatures built by the North Korean nomenklatura. They created a city populated by automata unable to exercise their free will, the incarnation of an isolated absolute regime that is nevertheless capable of unscrupulous recourse to the symbolic language of Western democracies.

AK:  Your research group, Multiplicity, has tackled issues of borders and politicized space with the highly collaborative, multimedia projects USE, Solid Sea, and Border Device(s), which have been shown in Documenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennale, and Kunst-Werke in Berlin. Are these installations meant as catalysts for political change?

SB:  In recent decades, a large part of progress in thinking about the urban condition has coincided with exhibitions of architecture and contemporary art dedicated explicitly or implicitly to the city. We only need to think of shows such as Les Immatériaux, organized in 1985 by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard at the Centre Pompidou or the traveling exhibition Cities on the Move, curated in 1999 by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru. Not to mention the 14th edition of the Triennale di Milano in 1968 on the theme of Il Grande Numero (The Large Number), curated by Giancarlo de Carlo, which anticipated thinking on mass individualism and the concept of "multitude." Or Documenta X, curated in 1997 by Catherine David and Jean-François Chevrier in Kassel, perhaps the most important — and most misunderstood — collective reflection on the urban condition that has ever been produced in Europe. And, of course, the Mutations: Harvard Project on the City exhibition in 2000.

In fact, it has become evident that the field of urban studies has a strong tendency to dissipate knowledge and a poor ability to move forward. Those who study the city constantly tend to remove ideas produced in the past and suddenly rediscover them later: a ceaseless and unnerving succession of amnesias and continual discounting back. In this situation, exhibitions — more than written texts or buildings — have become the "inaugural" place where new ideas are introduced and begin to circulate. This is in part because this type of spreading of knowledge rewards events that are for quick consumption and thus more powerful from a communicative point of view. It is also because today every new idea on urban space — which is both ultra-ordinary and hyperspecialized — achieves consensus only if it effectively represents the urban condition we all live daily. Failing this, it loses force and is simply an abstract theory. More than books and built architecture, exhibitions are successful, at times, in reconstructing the perceptive experience of the contemporary city: that clash of information, messages, codes, but also sounds, sights, and perceptive rhythms that we live with each day. From this perspective, exhibitions are good catalysts for political change.

AK:  This Biennale focuses on the infrastructure and social dynamics of cities, a topic that features prominently in your research. How does this exhibition compare to those you have organized or participated in on the topic of urbanism?

SB:  There is nothing more distant from the experience of the contemporary urban condition than exhibitions that try to document the contemporary city (as is partially happening in the current Venice Biennale), because this kind of exhibition often selects a single impersonal viewpoint and does not take account of the multiplicity of subjects that live in and give value to an urban area. Without this diverse clash of viewpoints, exhibitions that wish to "tell the story" of the contemporary city are often mute, a mere assemblage of data and notions.

Multiplicity's installations are born from a real attempt to restore this polyphony of perceptions and experiences. They are investigative research projects on the urban condition. They basically endeavor to scrutinize the material and physical territory in order to understand more about the choices, reasoning, desires, and intolerances of the city's inhabitants and the economic and cultural energies that cross it.

AK:  Your design firm, Boeri Studio, often tackles sites that are in transitional or border spaces. How do you address these conditions in your design language?

SB:  Borders are not simply bidimensional phenomena but complex, constantly changing, unpredictable sites totally connected with social and political behaviors. For this reason, we started to produce a list of "border devices" with the Multiplicity group, a list that tries to reconcile the multitude of different borders and synthesize them into a simple taxonomy.

For instance, some boundaries are like funnels that channel disorderly flows of individuals and objects to a place — along a coast or border — such as the boats that ferry immigrants between the two sides of the Mediterranean. Others are like impenetrable pipes, such as the highways that cross Israel and Palestine. There are boundaries that emerge between the folds of two territories in conflict, such as the strip of desert cutting through the middle of Nicosia, but also boundaries like sponges that attract populations and investment to create new communities. Like phantom limbs, other boundaries continue to function even when they no longer exist. And above all, everywhere in the world, there are enclosures: barbed wire, concrete barriers, or mobile ones.

In my architectural practice, I try to conceive of boundaries as the sensors of contemporary world dynamics — dynamic "devices," which vibrate with the energy and resistance that drive current history. For instance, this is what we are doing in Marseille, where Boeri Studio has won an international competition for a large building overlooking the Port of Marseille's docks — a multipurpose building destined to house research activities and documentation spaces on the Mediterranean. There, we planned a novel, C-shaped building containing the sea within its interior. The water of the Gulf of Marseille enters between the building's two horizontal planes (that of the conference hall and the exhibition center) creating a veritable water square capable of harboring fishing boats and sail boats or simply serving as a swimming pool and mooring for small pleasure boats. The idea is to create a Mediterranean device on Marseille's docks, a space truly able to accommodate the sea and its unpredictable fluctuations.

Domus is presenting Fiction Pyongyang in the Cities. Architecture and Society exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, which runs through November 19.

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