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Interview with Marianne Krogh – Rethinking water as a planetary and design element in the making of the Danish Pavilion at Venice Biennale
By Alexandra Totoianu
Water is a scarce resource that is in a constant state of flux giving both opportunities and threats to humanity. The interview reflects on how design can raise awareness of our relationship with water and on working with it as a system through the lenses of making the Danish Pavilion.
Marianne Krogh curated the Danish Pavilion from Venice Biennale in 2021 together with Architects Lundgaard and Tranberg. She also curated two contributions to the São Paolo Biennale. She holds an MA in Art History from Aarhus University and a PhD from Aarhus School of Architecture. She worked at Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin and Copenhagen and as a publishing editor at Strandberg Publishing.
Alexandra Totoianu is an alumnus of the LSA, currently working with Acme architects in London. She explored the political dimension of water through her thesis project ‘Salt of the Thames’. The project rethinks what actual ownership can be through a living bridge in Greenwich by showcasing that the process of producing and managing a natural resource is not purely an economic one. It is the intention that makes the difference through having the celebration of the desalination process at the forefront of the proposed salt piers.
A: We are currently in the era of the Anthropocene, where it is imperative to zoom out to grasp the current issues our Planet is facing and how every action we take impacts it. Water is our most important natural resource and has been used as a commodity for centuries. Our human relationship with water can be tackled on various scales and its plurality reminisces of it as a resource with the potential to be used more than it currently is for the benefit of the common good.
How did the process of the pavilion unfold in relation to water as our most precious and scarce resource?
M: The natural elements and the resources we’ve had for so long have been taken for granted for many centuries and they’ve always been in the background as we breathe the air, we use the water, and exploit the soil for agriculture. I think this needs to be in the foreground now because the Planet is in a difficult state in many ways. In this respect, our exhibition is not an exhibition about water, it is more an exhibition that tries to establish a space, an experience, an adventure where you can feel that we are completely connected and interconnected and that this is between us and the surroundings, human beings, animals, every living creature. We chose to use water because it is the basis of all life and it also has such a wide range of possibilities. You could say we always use it as an architectural element in the exhibition. The water which is on the globe has always been here, it is not like we regularly get water from outer space, it is just circulating, melting, freezing, evaporating and so on. This is something we don’t really think about and this is one of the reasons why we chose to make the cycle tap into the global dimension. Collecting the rainwater and letting it go through endlessly through the exhibition is a way of stressing that we are connected to a global circuit. At the same time, it is an element which has fantastic possibilities for creating different atmospheres. First of all, it activates different senses: hearing, smelling, and touching – so parts of the exhibition are very atmospheric. We also used the water to irrigate plants: tea for drinking which stresses the human relationship to the body and the life water can create.
We are also presenting the water in different states: running on the floor whilst you are able to step on it, as it is not something to avoid, it’s rather important to understand that flooding is the result of our own actions. We also control it through tubes which are running through the exhibition which is something we humans do a lot – control the water. There is an element of unpredictability which we have discussed a lot: Normally when you curate an exhibition there is a process, then it’s ready and then you sort of freeze it and you don’t need to worry or think about it anymore. Instead, the exhibition has gained a life of its own now – the water turns a bit green because of algae, and there are people making tea, serving it and looking after the plants. I had conversations with them all the time to see its evolution – the spaces are alive and they also live at night when the exhibition is closed, so the next morning it won’t look the same as the day before. I think that is quite interesting, sometimes you are a little afraid because you don’t have full control but I find it intriguing because this is the state we are in – we are so used to controlling everything but we can’t and that is something we need to get used to and learn to see the beauty of.
A: I love the idea of nature as an element which is over-controlled by humans as I think this gives a lot of space and ways to reflect on how to see beauty in the uncontrolled ways nature works, echoing what you just said about reflecting on flooding as a consequence of our actions. This makes me wonder whether there is another way to create space, a more fluid, uncontrolled way in this era of disparity between the different systems that compose the planet?
M: An important thing that we got inspired by is the notion of the ‘critical zone’ which is something Bruno Latour talks about. We have been working on it over the last couple of years and it is a term from biology explaining where life actually is on Earth. It is a very small crust on Earth, 1 km up in the air and beyond where the air becomes unbreathable. Within that tiny crust, it’s where life is – unbelievable!
This has been very helpful for us because we are so used to thinking of us, humans, as something external, or living alone but when you think of this small crust you can really feel how entangled we are with each other. The reason why it is called a critical zone is that there is a very critical balance right now which can be destroyed. If you think of that, we would have to revise the idea of what space is. The modernist notion of space is that there is already a space that is neutral, a space in which we add objects, we take them out, and we switch objects as it is perceived as empty. This is something we have worked a lot with in the exhibition. That is why we haven’t added any objects inside to look at. The exhibition is the space and the space is created together within the visitors, the plants and the water. It is happening multiple times and it’s an ongoing co-creation at all times.
A: I think that is a really important element which I think could be scaled up in architecture nowadays, especially due to the fact that we need more critical thinking when producing space. When talking about a certain unpredictability or perhaps trying to find ways to create this unpredictability, I am thinking of Bruno Latour’s take on architecture when he talks about it being a dynamic element rather than a static object. This could actually be quite a thought provoking concept and perhaps it could be a natural element which we don’t unfold as much ? What is your take on this?
M: That’s nice, I like that you say that this unpredictability could be one of the natural elements that makes a space, it’s a nice way to put it. Because this is how it is: Life is unpredictable and every time it doesn’t evolve the way we want it, we get frustrated, and angry – if we would invite unpredictability in a direct or conscious way maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
A: The more we become aware of it, the better our understanding of it becomes – a more solid understanding of the ways our ecosystem works as this is also something I am looking into for my thesis. Something else I find extremely relevant for the topic is when you mentioned the experience and that the infrastructure is visible in the pavilion. I think this is another really important element that could be scaled up in projects and cities. Especially since during modernism, infrastructure was centralised so now it is rather urgent to shift the thinking and policy making towards decentralised infrastructural elements. I think the way you pose this question of the infrastructure in our cities in the pavilion is very subtle and nice. Infrastructure is part of the living elements you have mentioned, it is alive and it plays an important part in showing us how things work, part of an ongoing system which brings the interconnectivity you were talking about. We have also been taught and got used to looking at it only from the perspective of an engineering element, but there is a strong poetic side of it which is not really explored – all its hidden elements – so I would like to hear your thoughts on the idea of exposing the infrastructure?
M: You are right about the exposure: there are 2 points I would like to stress here: we are dependent on technology and I think we could look at it in a more playful manner: modernist architecture for example – there is so much we don’t see and we have no idea what is going on and how things are built. I had many talks with the architects, Lundgaard and Tranberg, and there are so many regulations when you build today that if you really want to make a house where you don’t have 23 degrees in every room, you cannot do it. There are such strict regulations, laws and so on. This is a problem and this leads me to the second point we need to discuss in our society: the first step is exposure and then description: let’s show how the world works, the world’s current state and then we can have discussions on it and see if there is something we want to do in another way but if everything is hidden we don’t have a possibility.
A: What was the angle you approached materiality and locality in terms of the materials you used for the exhibition?
M: We have tried not to use new, expensive materials. We only used local, cheap materials, herbs are local and everything we could we tried to recycle it. We got most of them from the Red Cross using materials with both ugly and nice finishes which remind ourselves that this is life. The platform we built was from a recycled floor from a school gym, it’s not very beautiful but it is just a floor. It is more important to circulate what we got instead of producing all over again
A: The experiential sequences seem very well curated in relationship to the water cycle. How did the process go in terms of the atmosphere you intended to create using water as a tool?
M: The main entrance was moved to one end so you actually enter through a small green area, and then a window was turned into a door. The first thing you see as you walk in is the garden with the water tanks and the whole system exposed as we didn’t want to hide that. You can also see a small river of water coming towards you which gives a sense of confusion as you can’t really figure out what is happening. A white cloth is hanging from the ceiling and it becomes a very specific architectural element, having water dripping from it onto the floor. This creates an atmospheric room due to the sound as the water that drips gets evaporated so you start feeling the cloth in relationship with your own body.
In the plant area, the smell is very strong because of the herbs, and visitors are encouraged to feel them and smell them. It’s very nice that it’s not perceived as a cafe but as a space of engagement. The last space is the basin where the tubes end and the water comes out of the tube and out of the space which is where the floating floor is. We created a variation of the experience due to the water speed, where all the tubes move, so it becomes a living machine and we created niches with bridges where one can sit down as it’s meant to be a space of reflection. We wanted to create a space where you can both experience on a bodily level as well as reflect, and for that reason we had no information on the walls as there is a tendency to read a lot about the state of the world at the Venice Biennale and similar events. We do know enough about the current situation, we just don’t know it on a deeper experiential level.
A: Great way to conclude, thank you so much!