Venice Biennale Top Award for EPFL Designed National Exhibit
The Kingdom of Bahrain’s first National participation at the International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, has been awarded the Golden Lion. The exhibition design was conducted by Prof. Harry Gugger and Leopold Banchini from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). An interview with Professor Gugger.
When the Minister of Culture for Bahrain, Sheika Mai Bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, first saw the national exhibit in Venice, her heart must have skipped a beat. One of the huts that the lapa studio transported from the shores of the island country in the Persian Gulf contained an original window from her childhood home on the seaside.
Three of these illegal but tolerated huts, often built during the night, were dismantled then shipped in their entirety to be part of the Mostra Internazionale di Architettura National Exhibits in Venice. The exhibit titled Reclaim—conceptualized, designed, and constructed by the EPFL laboratory—is a reflection about cultural transitions and how they are represented by architecture. An interview with Professor Harry Gugger.
What does the title of the exhibit, Reclaim, come from?
The origin of the nation’s name, Bahrain, I’ve been told, means either “Between to seas” or “Two types of water” because there is, remarkably, fresh water sources in the middle of the surrounding sea. Until recently, the country was turned toward the sea and depended both economically and socially on its presence. People gathered on its shores in huts, fished its waters for food, and dived for pearls.
When oil was discovered, the social focus turned towards the desert and the sea was “reclaimed” by real estate investors. By naming our exhibit Reclaim, we have re-appropriated the term in a similar way that the people who build these sea huts are reclaiming the sea for themselves.
What is the content of the exhibit?
Three huts were chosen; I wanted a triptych that represents this spirit of turning back towards the sea. I wanted to avoid a typical exhibition design, so we transported three of these huts to Venice and simply put flat-screens in them with interviews of locals talking about their relationship to the sea. We took everything: carpets, cushions, refrigerators… everything. Even one of the teapots still had tea in it when we took it out of the box.
I have been to many Biennales, both architecture and art, and most of the time the visitors are so overwhelmed with information that they are saturated and exhausted very quickly. In the spirit of this year’s Biennale, as Seijima-san has named it “People meet in architecture,” our team wanted to create a space where people feel comfortable to spend some time in these structures.
We also created a catalogue with texts, maps and images that take the reader through the process our team and students went through in discovering and studying Bahrain. This catalogue is meant to be read at one’s leisure—either in the huts or once back home.
And how is water represented?
You have to imagine it. What better place to talk about an island city than Venice? Our team added boardwalks to the huts, made with the most recent technology in woodwork—without nails but grooved pieces of wood to connect the planks—that evoke the feeling of walking over water. We also raised one of these boardwalks so that the visitor has a view of the Laguna out of the Arsenale’s window.
How did your lab come to work with the Ministry of Culture of Bahrain?
It is a true EPFL success story. Noura Al-Sayeh, who was an assistant in my laboratory of Architectural Production (lapa), met Sheika Mai Bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, the Bahrain Minster of Culture, during the 2008 Biennale – after seeing the cultural masterplans we created for Geneva and London, the Sheika was immediately interested in working with our lab to make a national exhibit.
This was an importantly collaborative effort, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. I myself spent one year in Bahrain working with the university and student over there. Students from lapa also came for a two-week workshop in December of 2009. The exhibit, as well as a recent book, Bahrain Lessons, are the fruits of this collaboration. I was especially impressed, considering their age and experience, working with Noura and Leopard Banchini. After leaving EPFL, Noura is now the Head of Architectural Affairs at the Ministry of Culture for the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Professor Harry Gugger, formerly of Herzog & de Meuron and currently direction of the Laboratory of Architectural Production (lapa) and the Harry Gugger Studio in Basel.