Upon stepping into the Chile Pavilion at the 14th Venice International Architecture Biennale (until 23rd November 2014), visitors are welcomed by a domestic environment. This small flat complete with kitsch dolls and trinkets is a replica of Silvia Gutiérrez's apartment in Viña del Mar, built with the KPD panel system.
Inside the main room a solitary panel produced in 1972 by an industry donated to Chile by the Soviet Union stands in the upright position, like the mysterious monolith out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Through it and with the help of twenty-eight large concrete panel systems developed and disseminated between 1931 and 1981 and recreated via the 3D printed models on display on one wall, curators Pedro Alonso and Hugo Palmarola tell the fascinating story of the KPD (Russian: krupnopanelnoye domostroyenie) system and of the political and social meanings behind it.
The pavilion curators spent roughly 7 years researching this essential element of modern architecture that is also the subject of many political controversies. Salvador Allende signed it up in the wet concrete; the signature was covered up by Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship and representations of the Virgin and Child between two colonial style lamp fixtures were also added. The extensive research was totally worth it as Chile got a well-deserved Silver Lion for revealing through this project "a critical chapter of the history of global circulation of modernity."
Getting an award at the end of a research is always an unexpected bonus, how did you feel when the Chile Pavilion got the Silver Lion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: Even though we felt the Pavilion was well received by the many newspapers, magazines and online sites that listed it as one of the things to see at the Biennale, you're right, it was totally unexpected, also considering that we were obviously not doing the pavilion in order to get a prize. The pavilion is indeed part of a research that I've been doing with my colleague and co-curator Hugo Palmarola over the last six or seven years. For us it was already fantastic to have the opportunity to conclude our research curating the pavilion, but getting the Silver Lion was a real added bonus and made us really happy.
Your approach seemed to go well with other installations: you focused for example on a concrete panel, while Rem Koolhaas divided the main exhibition at the Central Pavilion of the Giardini into different sections. What prompted you to respond to the original brief for the Biennale with a concrete wall?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: Through our installation we were actually responding to the question on the absorption of modernity from within, using one of the elements of architecture - a panel. So the Chile Pavilion is suspended between the "Absorbing Modernity" brief and the idea of Koolhaas' Elements of Architecture.
Who is the main protagonist of the absorbing modernity process, the architects or the people living in their designs?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: What we've been trying to propose through the Chilean Pavilion is that it's not actually architects who absorb modernity, those who absorb it are the people and the workers. We have tried to tell the story from their point of view and, in particular, from the point of view of the workers. They were the most important part of the story as they were connected with aspects of prefabrication and transformation of the world from within the universal army of proletarian collective work.
What inspired you to originally start this research focused on the humble concrete panel with Hugo Palmarola?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: The starting point that we found really interesting was the presence in Chile of buildings made with elements made in Soviet factories. Those buildings and the factories were never investigated in Chile, even if you could find literature, it was not really scholarly work on the topic. After we realised the panels were made in a factory donated by the Soviet Union to Chile in the '70s, we also found out that the same factory had been donated in the '60s to Cuba, so there was a story of globalisation and of Cold War and the relationship between architecture and politics, because in Cuba it happened right after the Missile Crisis so Khrushchev gave the factory to Fidel Castro and a few years later Brezhnev gave the factory to Allende. Our research started in Chile, but it took us to Cuba and Russia; it took quite a long time to really put forward all the different components we were interested in this history of architecture that goes beyond Chile, and has a global edge about it.
Why do you think there were never any publications about this story?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: There are a couple of reasons, one of them is political. You have to keep in mind that in Chile Augusto Pinochet was still alive and playing a role in politics, so up to the mid-'90s it was a bit of a taboo to try and deal with or dig into issues linked to Russia or the Soviet Union, especially just after the end of the dictatorship. The other reason is more linked to the discipline of architecture: we tend to think about the history of architecture as the history of individual architects who give a great contribution to the discipline from within the design of buildings. If you consider things from this perspective, the whole point of talking about industries, prefabrication, and buildings that are considered as ugly and repetitive and are not considered as architecture as they are not designed by individual architects, is neglected and marginal compared to the official canon of the history of architecture. These two things combine in explaining very well why something like this was never treated critically. Recent works published about modern architecture in Cuba talk about buildings, but not about the large panel systems behind them which means that for historians or critics, those buildings are not even to be considered as architecture and that makes them a blind spot for historiography and for us an ideal scenario to start dealing with issues that we consider all the way relevant and important for the architectural discipline.
Was it challenging also to recreate the 3D printed models that form a sort of architectural encyclopedia of panels?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: I teach at the Catholic University in Santiago so I've been running a research unit and workshop for the last three years there. Each student in the course has been studying one system and this resulted in an engaging research and pedagogic project for them. Students were assigned one system and they were asked how was it made, if they were able to find evidence, drawings, photographs and so on. It was challenging, but they recreated all the 28 systems to the point that we managed to re-articulate them panel by panel.
The Pavilion has also got an artistic twist thanks to the photographic section focusing on the workers, how did you come across it?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: The photographs pertaining to the workers were taken by photographer Nolberto Salinas and we were lucky we found him. He was super-generous in allowing us to use the photographs because he was the official photographer for the factory since the beginning and he managed to keep on being the official photographer after the coup and during the dictatorship, so he had the register of the factory since it arrived in Chile until the late 1970s. He is still alive and we invited him to Venice, so he was with us when the Pavilion opened. From the curatorial point of view we were super happy that we weren't curating materials that were already well known by people, but we transformed Nolberto Salinas into the resident artist of the pavilion, discovering his work and placing his photographs at the centre of the debate as well.
Did the monolith in Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey come to your mind while putting together this installation?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: I'm glad you were able to spot this connection. We're happy if visitors can read this connection, as we were certainly not proposing a mini-museum with this pavilion, but a fluid and aesthetic visual manner to present the materials with a cinematic twist. We had many discussions about how to call the pavilion and we knew that "Panel" wasn't going to be exhaustive, also because the panel under Allende was no longer a panel, but he transformed it into a monument, so we started looking for terms and ideas that could encompass the wider history of this element. The idea of the monolith comes from a reflection that takes Kubrick's monolith into account. In the film the monolith is a sort of alien intelligence that gives monkeys the possibility to become men, while the arrival of the panel in Chile meant that a new technology became available.
What's the future of your fascinating research?
Pedro Ignacio Alonso: The Pavilion marks the conclusion of a long-standing research that Hugo Palmarola and I carried out. We have been working for the last few years on a book - Panel - that was published in June by the Architectural Association and that was accompanied by an exhibition that was on in London between May and June 2014. The Biennale was a fantastic way to conclude our research, though it doesn't mean that we're not going to keep working out along these lines. We are very interested in architecture and cinema and in particular in Cuban cinema and in architecture through cinema in a place like Cuba, where we have the possibility to go and the contacts to do more researches. We're also dealing with other infrastructures that were made by Russians in Chile in the '50s and '60s and, you never know at which points some of the threads that were examined in the Pavilion in Venice can continue developing in different manners.
Image credits for this post
1, 3, 4, 5 Photographs by Gonzalo Puga
2. Mrs. Silvia Gutierrez’s Appartment by Felipe Aravena
6. Commemorative KPD panel standing at the entrance of the plant. Quilpué, 1972. © Revista Paloma.
7. Panel with Allende’s signature covered, replaced with a Madonna and Child. Quilpué, 1974. © Nolberto Salinas González.
8. Allende signs the wet panel and writes "Thank you Soviet and Chilean comrades." Quilpué, 1972. © Nolberto Salinas González.
9. Panel in factory. © Nolberto Salinas González
10. Loading panel. © Nolberto Salinas González
11. Building assembly. © Nolberto Salinas González
12. Crane operator. © Nolberto Salinas González
13. Workers. © Nolberto Salinas González
14. Worker. © Nolberto Salinas González
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