Philippine Pavilion Venice Biennale, Kanto.com.ph Creative Corners5

Mutual Support

Sudarshan Khadka and Alexander Furunes on how a year of postponement forged stronger ties for the Philippine Pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale

Words Angel Yulo
Images PAVB-NCCA

Kanto checks in via video call with curators Sudar Khadka and Alex Furunes on 13 May 2021 during their lunch break in between setting up the Philippine pavilion exhibition at the Arsenale. Header: Setting-up of the library as the Philippine Pavilion in Venice. The structure will be returned to the community in Angat, Bulacan, after the Biennale Architettura 2021. Photographed by Andrea D’Altoè

Finally, the Venice Architecture Biennale is happening.

The 17th edition of the international exhibition, slated for 2020, was postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Typically, la biennale—the art and architecture counterparts running every other year—signals the rise of summertime in the old island city. When I was there for the 16th architecture biennale, tourists coursed through all the narrow streets and winding canals. Venice was like a heart pumping tourists, many of them on gondolas.

Although the city is now classified as a lower risk zone by the Italian government, rubbing elbows (literally and metaphorically) is still less likely given the observance of minimum public health standards, venue capacity limits, and extra cautious exhibition visitors. The Venice Biennale is a post-pandemic first-mover, alongside New York’s Frieze Art Fair which pushed through with its May schedule, marking the return of large-scale cultural events. However, its usual quarter of a million strong audience may not be present this year.

The library was planned, designed, and built through a process of bayanihan, the Filipino concept of mutual support. As a tradition that predates the market economy, social and environmental sustainability determines the way decisions are made and resources are utilized. These factors also determine the methods of construction, maintenance, and operation. As such, it offers a different set of values that can give shape to our built environment. Photographed by Toni A. Aguilar

Northern Italy was the epicenter of the outbreak last spring. Tour groups and cruise liners are still nowhere in sight. Venice’s residents let out sighs of relief while hoteliers and restaurateurs ponder the futures of their businesses. Tourism contributes at least 3 billion Euros to the city’s GDP. As of 15 May 2021, less than 10% of the world population has been fully vaccinated. Several pavilions have opted for “silent openings” with virtual events instead of vernissage revelry. If the world is in a better place by fall, in-person opening events might happen then.

Nevertheless, Venice slowly awakens. Bubbly aperitivo again line the cobblestone streets. In the last three weeks, contingents from the 46 participating countries have been setting up their national pavilions at the Arsenale, Giardini, and Forte Marghera, which will be open to the public from 22 May to 21 November 2021. The Philippine Pavilion is taking shape under the watchful eyes of curator Framework Collaborative, composed of architects Sudarshan V. Khadka, Jr. and Alexander Eriksson Furunes.

The Philippine Pavilion exhibition, Structures of Mutual Support, responds to this biennale’s theme of How will we live together? by exploring how the principles of mutual support can propose alternative methods of living and building together that give primacy to collaboration and participation. The curatorial concept is rooted in the practice Khadka and Furunes have shared since their first collaboration in 2014, Streetlight Tagpuro, a post-disaster rebuilding project in Tacloban after super-typhoon Haiyan. Since then, the two have endeavored to refine their design framework in succeeding projects from a textile cooperative in the northern uplands of Vietnam to a community house in the suburbs of Oslo.

The two recurring words in the duo’s work are the Norwegian dugnad and the Filipino bayanihan. These words refer to local traditions in which a community comes together to address problems or accomplish large undertakings through their own resources, knowledge, and values. Throughout history, traditions of mutual support have enabled communities to live together in the face of adversities. Khadka and Furunes are drawing principles from these longstanding traditions to enact a design process that heavily relies on engaging, listening to, and involving a building’s eventual users or inhabitants. 

For the biennale, Framework Collaborative worked with the GK Enchanted Farm community in Bulacan established by Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation. GK Enchanted Farm is a farm village, alternative education platform, and social enterprise ecosystem mobilizing Filipino families out of poverty.  Through a series of workshops based on bayanihan, the community and architects planned, designed, and built a community library and conflict resolution space. Much like bayanihan was used traditionally to move a house from one village to the other, the building has traveled to Venice for the duration of the Biennale and will return home to the village.

“This was the project in which I was able to talk to the community in Filipino. In previous projects, I relied on translators. I appreciated the value of language in the design process,” said Khadka. One of the refinements of the design process in this project was dividing the workshop participants into smaller groups and grouping those with similar temperaments. “There are just people who naturally have louder voices and they take over the discussions. So, the ideas of the louder ones end up becoming the ideas of the group. Intentionally splitting the groups up into smaller teams and grouping the quieter ones together gave everyone a comfortable space to share and the discussions became richer.”

The structure was then disassembled, categorized, labeled, and laid out on the basketball court in Angat, Bulacan for crating and for shipment to Venice. Photography by Don Patrick Claudio

The concept, exhibit, and community library were completed within the allotted time of 4 months and were ready to be shipped to Venice for last year’s opening. Then, the pandemic broke out, the entire world went on lockdown, and the biennale was postponed—initially for an August opening in 2020 then delayed even later to the following year.

“The postponement allowed us more time for reflection, to expand the ideas and themes we’ve been developing. The initial schedule was so intense, but this additional year gave us more space mentally to process the concept more,” shared Khadka. “So, we did additional writing and an additional catalog. We also got to onboard and work closely with more writers and theorists that we were not able to get at such short notice before.”

Reflections in the exhibition catalog include contributions by Leika Aruga, Greg Bankoff, Nicole Curato, Nabeel Hamdi, Pablo Helguera, Marisa Morán Jahn, Maaretta Jaukkuri, Sho Konishi, Portia Ladrido, Håkon Lorentzen, Rafi Segal, Hans Skotte, and Jeremy Till.

Workers install the purlins of the structure at the Philippine Pavilion in Arsenale. Photographed by Andrea D’Altoè
The exhibition catalogs, with graphic design by Kristin Helgadottir

Another endeavor that has kept the biennale behind-the-scenes busy last year is the Curators Collective (CC), a coalition of national pavilion curators and chief curator Hashim Sarkis. Since the first virtual CC meeting on 23 May 2020, the curators gathered online for dialogues and explorations of collaborative possibilities for the 2021 Biennale and beyond. “We’ve been meeting every month, sometimes more than once a month, which is incredible because we curators now know each other well and we’ve been supporting one another with knowledge, expertise, and practices for exhibition,” said Furunes.

How will we live together after the pandemic? The curators of our national pavilion admit that Mutual Support is not intended to supplant the current economics of growth and building. “The capitalist mode is just one of the many ways of doing things,” said Khadka. What they are proposing is an alternative, a counterpoint to our predominant mode. “I think we should enable and sustain a diversity of spaces for living together, and one of them will be of Mutual Support,” added Furunes.

The process Khadka and Furunes have employed is not plug-and-play. Every community has a unique operating structure that has to be studied and responded to, so each project is a chance to test the tools they use. Even the curators admit that designing a high-rise (let alone a city) will not share the same logic as the smaller structures they have completed. They hope that Mutual Support can scale up in terms of being applied in multiple future projects, creating a critical mass of practitioners, and not necessarily one mega project.  “Our neighbors this year are the Albanian and Slovenian pavilions, whose curators we are already working with on something because our concepts are similar,” said Khadka. Another project Khadka and Furunes are considering post-biennale is bringing the Japanese pavilion, an old traditional house which the Japanese curators reconfigured, to the community they are working with in Oslo. “This transnational collaboration is what we’ve always wanted to do with Mutual Support.” •

The Philippine Pavilion at the Artiglierie in the Arsenale will have its vernissage and opening ceremonies on May 20, 2021. A virtual walkthrough of the pavilion will be led by the curators. The Philippine participation at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is a collaborative undertaking of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Deputy Speaker and Congresswoman Loren Legarda. The Commissioner of the Philippine Pavilion is Arsenio “Nick” J. Lizaso, Chairman of the NCCA.

For the duration of the biennale, the community library will be a place to share stories and experiences of mutual support. The Philippine Pavilion invites you to contribute your experiences, memories, or stories of mutual support to be featured in the library: https://forms.gle/H7b9SKEGxv8B9e3n7

Angel Yulo is a writer and editor based in Manila.

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