The 2023 edition of the International Exhibition of Architecture at the Venice Biennale welcomed an arcane spectrum of practices to stretch the definitions of architecture and architectural practice. In this interview, Sammy Baloji, Gloria Cabral and Cécile Fromont discuss the reframing of detritus and the arguments for retaining a ‘presence of the past’ in contemporary construction.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
KOOZ In her statement for this year’s Biennale, Lesley Lokko states how she sees the exhibition as “a laboratory where architects and practitioners across an expanded field of creative disciplines [...] imagining for themselves what the future can hold”. Your participation in theexhibition — Debris of History, Matters of Memory —focuses on the catastrophe of the deadly and destructive collapse of a dam in Bramudinho,a South American mining town. What prompted the project as a response to Lokko’s invite? How does it weave together the geographies of Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, both poles to which your project is tied?
SAMMY BALOJI | GLORIA CABRAL | CÉCILE FROMONT The project began with an encounter between the three of us: Gloria, Cécile, and Sammy. Gloria had an ongoing research project about bricks made from industrial waste in Brazil, conceiving a closed-cycle production mode that uses industrial and agricultural waste as primary material. For example, it is possible to produce bricks that are up to 20% rice husk. This manner of considering material that harnesses the possibility of debris as a resource resonated with Sammy’s and Cécile’s work, about the role of history in shaping the present and future of contemporary societies.
In his artistic practice, Sammy has unfolded a reflection on the historical and social resonance of materials from the colonial era. His public art installation in Antwerp, The Long Hand, used bricks made from Belgian mining residue, marking the maritime gateway through which commodities and people traveled between Belgium and its colony of Congo in the 19th and 20th century. Here, waste is historical in nature, coming directly and indirectly from the colonial exploitation of Congo that allowed for the industrial development of Belgium.
That Brazil, Congo, and Europe have been intimately connected for centuries through the slave trade and colonialism and continue to be entangled today has been a core thread in Cécile’s scholarship as an art historian. The catastrophic events of Brumadinho were a recent and striking example of the critical and contemporary stakes of this common reflection. We thus became interested in thinking further and together about the colonial and post-colonial transatlantic exploitation that have linked these geographies historically and materially. We set off to imagine a visual and architectural form that could transform material and historical debris into a structure that looks from the present into the future. A key dimension of the work is the way in which the transformation of debris into structure can mobilise Indigenous Brazilian and central African motifs and their underlying systems of knowledge.
Image: Gloria Cabral.
KOOZ The installation consists of a multimedia installation, constructed out of debris and bricks made of mining waste from Congo’s former metropolis. Has anything changed since the catastrophic events of 2019? How does the intervention seek to renew international attention towards the dangers and toll of mining and rare mineral extraction — on both the environment and in terms of human labour?
SB| GC | CF Gloria’s practice has demonstrated that it is critical to think about how to build today and in the future without creating more waste, but instead that one may reinvent extant structures and remobilise materials that are already in use. Transformation, rather than production, is key here. In our conversations, the idea of alchemy came to the fore. Historically, alchemy has meant turning disparate elements into gold. Here, it served as an inspiration for our structure, in which foraged bricks and glass — material fragments which often hold a violent or sinister past — become a strong, free-standing, brilliant, jewel-like structure.
It’s not about substitutions of specific material, but rather about rethinking ways of building altogether: to rehabilitate what is already built, giving new form to debris of past buildings.
There are trends in architecture, such as eco-certification, that effectively make few demands on builders and which ultimately have little impact on the natural or social environment. Instead, Gloria’s architectural practice is about a radical reconceptualisation of architecture’s approach to material and construction; one that mobilises what is already built and gives new form to debris, instead of relying on new material. It’s not about substitutions of specific material, but rather about rethinking ways of building altogether: to rehabilitate what is already built, giving new form to debris of past buildings.
This process is an experimental response to the systems of extraction, which have relied on the exploitation of nature and people in the past and today: from the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery to the abhorrent human and ecological devastation of contemporary mining in Brazil, Congo, and elsewhere in the Global South.
KOOZ What is the value of exhibiting this project within the context of the 18th Biennale of Architecture in Venice — considering that the practice of architecture is itself one of the most extractive processes? Meanwhile glass, one of the major artistic and industrial tradition local to the city of Venice, has acted as means of exchange, adornment and medium of cross-cultural design experimentation since the era of the slave trade.
SB| GC | CF In Venice, we used mainly materials that already existed on site, foraging bricks and glass lumps from waste dumps made by the industries in the lagoon. The installation was the opportunity to demonstrate a concept. It built a structure from demolition material and industrial refuse collected, foraged from Venice itself: a city which wealth and beauty derive in significant part from its implication in the slave trade and colonialism. It was a way to literally turn material and historical debris, rescued from sites where they are discarded as useless or undesirable, into a structure whose new form mobilises subaltern knowledge and form: one that is poised to stand from the present into the future.
This recuperation of debris thus helps to make history visible, acknowledging that both matter and memory are important to build the future in both a social and an architectural sense.
This recuperation of debris thus helps to make history visible, acknowledging that both matter and memory are important to build the future in both a social and an architectural sense. This, perhaps, is the particular alchemy that comes from a collaboration between artist, architect, and historian, in which form, structure, and history mix and merge into a precious, non-finite resource.
KOOZ The project is conceived as a highly collaborative endeavour which brings together the practices of architecture and the arts. Lokko herself suggests that “the rich, complex conditions of both Africa and a rapidly hybridising world call for a different and broader understanding of the term ‘architect’.” How defined is the role and mission of the architect in your eyes? In what ways and to what extent should this be framed beyond the act of building buildings?
GC I never tire of saying that I cannot think as an architect but only as a person. Architecture is just a tool — a beautiful tool — depending on the use you make of it; one that allows you to interact with others, who will come with their own tools of transformation. We will come together when we have similar purposes and beliefs about a better society.
Architecture is just a tool — a beautiful tool — depending on the use you make of it; one that allows you to interact with others, who will come with their own tools of transformation.
KOOZ The project highlights the value and potential of past debris and ornament as architectural, but also an historical and social structure with which to chart a reimagined future. How does this reimagined future look like from your participation in this edition of the Biennale?
SB| GC | CF In many regards, we continue to live in a patriarchal, hierarchical system, in which many projects have a (male) leader giving directions to a team of subalterns. However this project began as a tripartite conversation, drawing together three people from completely different backgrounds and perspectives. This continued with a building process that involved the whole team of Mutaforma, the Venice-based laboratory and design studio who collected the material and hand-built the structure. The entire process was collaborative. Collaboration is the only thing that can make a difference in the way we build: constructing not in a hierarchical manner but with a sense of common purpose. The collaborative and experimental process is part of the work, both in its structure and its form.
Collaboration is the only thing that can make a difference in the way we build: constructing not in a hierarchical manner but with a sense of common purpose.
Our contribution was born from a truly experimental process, the results of which are on display in the Biennale. The rhythm of the glass inclusions and the seams of the rhomboid modules are aesthetic features that emerged from the alchemy of the studio. Experimentation is also why the structure, though freestanding, is presented with scaffolding — it was not tested before being built but rather invented and made for the first time, then and there.
Gloria Cabral and Sammy Baloji with Cécile Fromont, "Debris of History, Matters of Memory", 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future. Photo: Sammy Baloji.
Sammy Baloji is an artist based in Brussels. He is currently researching the cultural, architectural and industrial heritage of the Katanga region. He is examining the impact of Belgian colonisation of the Congo, by using archives that enable him to manipulate time and space, and to make parallel between colonial narratives and contemporary economic imperialism. He is Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and laureate of the Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. In 2008, Sammy Baloji co-founded the Rencontres Picha/Biennale de Lubumbashi.
Gloria Cabral is an architect and has been titular partner of the firm Gabinete Arquitectura in Paraguay from 2004 to 2020. In 2016, together with her partners, she won the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, for Best Participation in the International Exhibition. In 2021 she won the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. She studied architecture at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción.
Cécile Fromont is Professor in the history of art department at Yale University investigating the visual, material, and religious culture of Africa and Latin America with a special emphasis on the early modern period (ca 1500-1800), on the Portuguese-speaking Atlantic World, and on the slave trade. Her latest book is Images on a Mission in Early Modern Kongo and Angola (Penn State UP, 2022).