by Zohra KhanJul 06, 2023
A recurring thread in the presentations at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale is that these raise more questions than giving answers to problems. Curator Lesley Lokko built an open ended discourse around the broadest possible range of what we consider architecture to be, beyond the building of buildings. One of the works responding to the biennale’s thematic, Laboratory of the Future is a tectonically loaded installation at the Corderie of the Arsenale by Italian architecture studio AMAA Collaborative Office for Research and Development. Titled It’s Kind of a Circular Story, it invites visitors to explore the radical transformation of a former NATO base in Monte Calvarina in Northern Italy. What used to be a carbon-intensive facility in the Venetian Prealps in Italy is given an architectural and morphological renewal into creating a zero-emission innovation centre.
The installation puts a spotlight on a complex context, a concrete military base in this case, and draws heavily from its territory and landscape to start a conversation. As per architect Alessandra Rampazzo of AMAA, the work sets "a statement that sustainability in architecture can be done through the reuse of what we have, that it does not always have to be a historical centre, but it can also be regular, abandoned factories or simple buildings like the concrete ones that we have in the military base today.” Together with AMAA cofounder Marcello Galiotto, the installation takes off from the studio's ongoing project named On Topography, that dwells on the importance of circularity in reimagining what’s considered decayed.
Upon arriving at the area where the installation is kept, a flight of iron stairs set before a wide table with tectonic artefacts draws one’s attention, creating a sense of approach, visually. The seemingly delicate table—crafted from salvaged brass scraps—carries weighty objects in concrete. The display constitutes an array of objects: an architectural model of AMAA’s Monte Calvarina project, a ceiling suspended piece of a concrete wall taken from the NATO base, a lamp, a vaulted sculpture, and a few framed photographs of the conflicting site. Staged within the biennale’s main exhibition’s 'Dangerous Liaisions' section, the work intervenes in a 1959-built NATO base which originally consisted of four structures for the use of the Nike surface-to-air missile system. What is now imagined by AMAA to be a hub to test new technologies and to organise training for emergency response, before abandonment in 1995, used to be a facility armed with Hercules missiles for nuclear and conventional warheads. The site loaded with years of decay and disruption, in the vision of the Italian studio, finds a new voice and an impactful social life.
The model, made of reinforced concrete, takes up the entire width of the table on the opposite end of the staircase. Mimicking a cross-section of the Monte Calvarina, 12 elements are joined together to create the mountainous form. The concrete base of the defence structure features shifting heights in an attempt to depict the ‘radical tectonics’ of the rugged landscape. As per AMAA, the model reveals the presence of a majestic volcanic complex, formed during the Cenozoic era due to geologic transformations and subsequently modified by meteoric erosion and human intervention.
The cut-out of a concrete wall hanging from the ceiling via wires further blurs the distinction between lightness and weight. Brought from the NATO base, the wall—Rampazzo tells STIR—“reveres the idea that while it is very heavy, it is still in the process, and quite not sure what its future will be." The wall, she adds, "keeps moving as if it is very light.” A hole in the centre of the wall’s painted surface, the aperture drawing one’s gaze to a film that chronicles the journey of the fragment. As per Rampazzo, the hole was already there from the NATO base’s early days which the officials used in controlling the site and in overlooking the facility’s entrance. The intervention of a film through the remnants of the military base creates a moment when the past meets the present. Seen from a distance within the exhibition, the wall becomes one of the key elements of the showcase that established a connection with the site, particularly its materiality.
The highlight of the installation is an elaborate table upon which lies a golden stencil-like composition of brass scraps that evokes the complex landscape of the site. The perforated brass plates were conceived in collaboration with artist Arcangelo Sassolino. Formerly considered scrap, the material was sourced by the project’s technical collaborator De Casetelli, a company that deals in architectural metals and finishes. The composition rests on a sturdy mesh of metallic sawhorses, which per AMAA, is a modern take on the traditional blacksmith sawhorses. “Since the shape of the table is site-specific,” Rampazzo observes, “it deals with a specific moment of the building, and of the Biennale. It tells you that there is always a loop in life and in history that involves not only architecture in general, but also materials and the processes.”
The gaze further shifts to a riveting vaulted artwork conceived by Italian artist Alessandro Neretti of studio Nero. Born from Neretti’s expertise of reading hidden spaces within projects which he transforms into thought provoking installations, the sculpture creates a dialogue between the former NATO base and the Venetian lagoon. Named capriccio from ruins (that time the hills dropped into the lagoon), the artwork is crafted by reversed fence posts and glass insulators sourced from the military base, iron rods from the carpentry of the German Pavilion from this year's biennale as well as salvaged wood from the last edition. Allowing for unforeseen insights and hypotheses, "there is a connection between the materials, the artisans, the art and artists, and design and designers,” Rampazzo says.
There is also a collection of six photographs taken by Italian photographer Ernesta Caviola that offer her way of seeing the process of reaching the military base. Elsewhere a brass tubular lamp by Italian industrial designer Harry Thaler adds more geometric depth to the installation. AMAA’s work at the biennale emphasises the importance of knowing the territory and history of a place before intervening in it architecturally. A book is also part of the showcase in which dialogues between AMAA team and military officials of the Mount Calvarina base is documented.
It’s Kind of a Circular Story brings the focus back to where all architectural ideas emerge—the site. Each element orchestrates a moment with the memory of the Calvarina military base. With growing comprehensions globally around the alarming state of ecology, with contemporary architecture being one of the drivers adding to the disruption, the work upholds the virtuous circle of 'returning land to nature and citizens, avoiding land, buildings and memory waste'. Adding to Lokko’s vision, the Calvarina with its open workshop-like scheme creates a laboratory of the future, in the present, and hopes for a change from ground up.