’We’re turning two neighbours into an exhibition’

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Karin Sander and Philip Ursprung in the Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale Architett
Karin Sander and Philip Ursprung in the Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale Architettura in Venice. (Photograph: Samuele Cherubini)
Karin Sander, ETH Zurich Professor of Architecture and Art, and Philip Ursprung, ETH Zurich Professor of the History of Art and Architecture, are curating the Swiss pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Their exhibition is called "Neighbours" and it explores the Swiss pavilion’s architectural relationship with the Venezuelan pavilion next door.

How can people tell that the two buildings reference one another?
Ursprung: Here’s just one example: Before the Venezuelan pavilion was built, you could see the sea from the Swiss pavilion courtyard. The wall surrounding the Venezuelan pavilion courtyard would have blocked this view. But Scarpa intended for the wall to have a little window in it so that people could still see the Lagoon. Clearly, the two architects wanted their creations to interact.

Did Giacometti and Scarpa know each other?

Ursprung: Oh yes. Giacometti even said once that he had only two architect friends and Scarpa was one of them.

What connects the two pavilions apart from the fact that they are next to one another?
Sander: The two buildings have almost a symbiotic relationship. Their two gardens are connected, and the Venezuelan wall extends some way in front of the Swiss pavilion’s own wall. Scarpa continued the roof line of the Swiss arcade through into his pavilion. There are many more details like these.

Ursprung: But despite these references, Scarpa’s design also features numerous contrasts and tensions. On a purely visual level, the two buildings are very different: the Swiss pavilion is made of brick, the Venezuelan pavilion out of exposed concrete. The Swiss has a more horizontal design, while the Venezuelan is more vertical.

What experience are you trying to give visitors?
Ursprung: We want to offer them a new perspective and encourage them to question the rivalry between the different national pavilions at the Biennale, because that’s really an anachronism.

Sander: All the pavilions are basically neighbours, but these two share a very special connection. We want to place the connections above the divisions. The national pavilions are places of international interaction. People from all over the world come together here and, for a moment, put aside their political and cultural differences.

Is it one of the roles of art and architecture to question national borders and notional boundaries?
Sander: Architecture always has a political dimension.

Ursprung: The exhibition isn’t intended to be a public relations exercise. We see it as a means for us to question and revise entrenched ideas and attitudes.

Venezuela is an authoritarian state. To what extent did the political situation there affect your work?
Sander: For political reasons, putting on a joint exhibition clearly wasn’t an option. It’s also important to note that the Venezuelan pavilion hasn’t staged an exhibition in a long time. In recent years, the building has served as a storage space for Switzerland and Russia. Of course, we informed the Venezuelan authorities that we were going to remove the wall on the Swiss side. We’re still waiting for an official response.

Ursprung: We don’t know for sure, but it appears that after hearing about our project, the Venezuelan authorities want to start taking part in the Biennale again.

From a political perspective, there’s also the question of whether opening up the wall to the Venezuelan pavilion is the wrong signal to send.
Ursprung: We went to Venezuela to see for ourselves what’s going on. The situation there is devastating. Artists and other creatives are walled in and isolated. We’re opening up this wall not to the regime but to artists, architects and researchers. We give these individuals a voice both in our book and as part of various podium discussions.

Sander: We also see the exhibition as an invitation, an example of how art can kick-start a dialogue. In this case, there might just be more leeway in art than in politics.
Christoph Elhardt