Hrvoje Njiric and Vedran Skopac’s pavilion proposal for this year’s Salon clearly seeks to critique contemporary material culture in Croatia. Being critical in a country without a clear target for criticism (who is really responsible?) and with little room for critical distance (the population of a medium sized city) is no easy task.
To make matters worse, architecture is a difficult medium for social critique, requiring large investment as well as broad consensus even when the project simply seeks to solve a problem instead of articulating an argument. In the contemporary architectural discourse, skepticism as to the possibility of a critical architecture has grown into a theoretical position known as the Post Critical, at least a partial acceptance of the forces of capital and popular culture.
The discourse around the possibility of a critical architecture reached its peak around 1980, the year when Kenneth Frampton, in his work Modern Architecture: a Critical History, attempted to construct a historical framework for contemporary “critical” architecture. The book concluded with two possible critical positions: one the hand Mies’s beinahe nichts (almost nothing) a matter of fact approach that “the building task to the status of industrial design on an enormous scale” and on the other a new kind of vernacular, a “set of (architectural) relationships linking man to nature”, this concept eventually developing into Frampton’s theory of Critical Regionalism.
Avant-garde or experimental
A Critical History and the subsequent proposals for a contemporary critical practice were based on an interpretation of the writings of Manfredo Tafuri, but Frampton glanced over one of Tafuri’s most interesting and least developed concepts the distinction between two forms of critical practice, the avant-garde and the experimental. For most historians and critics avant-garde practice was synonymous with notions of experimentation, but for Tafuri the two presented two distinct approaches, differing primarily in their practice and not in their product.
For the purposes of defining a critical architecture, the avant-garde offers a method of direct critique, while the experimental only offers the possibility of framing a space of critique. The avant-garde’s critical message is possible because it is created in an autonomous space analogous to that of Fine Art production, outside of real time and politicized space. The experimental approach operates in real time and space, trading autonomy for agility.
Tafuri’s concept of experimental practice echoes the ideas of the Croatian archeologist and art historian Ljubo Karaman, who developed a theory of art practice on the periphery, as opposed to the center or province, where an artist lacks both limitations as well a support from various political, social, and economic institutions. The lacks of strong support as well as the lack of clear taboos in a peripheral context make critical avant-garde practice difficult if not impossible. Such a context also makes critical experimental practice difficult to distinguish from everyday opportunism.
The lack of a clear model for critical practice in this peripheral context is clear in a form provincialism commonly and benignly practiced in the association of various local projects with their seeming trans-local equivalents, located in cultural centers. Naming the project Zagreb’s Serpentine Pavilion follows the tradition of calling the Green Horseshoe Zagreb’s Ring or Novakova Ulica Zagreb’s Weissenhof. This tradition of naming local projects based on their cosmetic doppelgangers would be harmless except for one important problem: the projects are not simply different, they are diametrically opposite, particularly in terms of process and the value of these projects is precisely in the form of knowledge generated through that process, the knowledge of how one cans successfully operate in this peripheral context, producing ambitious results with minimal means.
The ZG-pavillion 09 mimics the precarious state of the Keaton house, and through this form of oddly shaped windows and gravity defying structure, begs the question as to who is jumbling the instructions in Croatia and why? The pavilion’s mimicry of the Keaton house could go further than this critique of contemporary Croatian material culture. The do-it-yourself attitude of the Croatian public with its acceptance of new materials and constructive systems as opposed to new forms provides an opportunity for an architect willing to assume the role of a “Handy Hrvoje”; a designer willing to provide instructions for experimentation, rules for playing safe, an open source architecture. The next step in this line of architectural research is clear: Handy Hrvoje needs a pair of unsuspecting newlyweds.