Chopped off and on display | Konrad Buhagiar

Architecture Project’s founding partner Konrad Buhagiar talks about the meaning and significance of the 'Time Space Existence' exhibit, and what it says about Malta’s approach to our built environment

Konrad Buhagiar PHOTO: Alexandra Pace
Konrad Buhagiar PHOTO: Alexandra Pace

Currently, Architecture Project (AP) are representing Malta at the Venice Biennale with a Cabinet of Curiosities… and a morbid (but nonetheless curious) focus on severed heads, entitled ‘Time Space Existence’. Teodor Reljic spoke to AP’s founding partner Konrad Buhagiar about the meaning and significance of this exhibit, and what it says about Malta’s approach to our built environment – while AP also readies itself to participate in an international exhibition in Paris: Espaces Libres

Could you tell us something about how the Architecture Project’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ was conceived and set up ahead of the Venice Biennale? Why did you opt for the cabinet of curiosities in particular?

The cabinet presents AP’s relentless efforts to explore new fields, in order for the design of new projects to acquire new and added value. This is demonstrated in the Cabinet installation by retrospectively inserting a number of AP’s past and current projects in the perspective of the everyday, the individual and the collective, the unnoticed and the historical stories and encounters that are and will be catalyzed by the various sites. In bringing related objects (models, drawings, fragments and prototypes) into fresh dynamics and paradigms, the cabinet prompts the discovery of new conceptual models and axes of research, which will in turn feed future projects and explorations. The layered structure of the wooden cabinet is enhanced by glazing and mirrored panels, offering multiple viewpoints and dynamic interpretation of its contents. By inviting curiosity and enquiry from the viewer, the Cabinet is a form of curated impromptu, something between a structured rendition and a poetic metaphor.

Could you also talk a little bit about the decision to focus on the ‘Severed Head’ as a trope in Maltese art? What is the connection between this recurring visual motif and architecture?

The Cabinet presented at the Biennale puts on show a number of heads that were discovered over the course of the years that AP have been involved with old buildings: wax heads found in abandoned chests of drawers, a clay head of St Paul lifted out of a well, and not least the head of St John about to be decapitated by Caravaggio. One of the messages that emerges is that the architect has the mission, like Caravaggio had made his, to turn horror stories into masterpieces. Artists Madeleine Gera, Aaron Bezzina, Alex Attard and Aude Franjou interpret the uncovering of these stories while at the same time hinting at how art can save the world.

Although the theme of the severed head is only a metaphor, the question of the creation of value, of turning the ordinary and the “ugly” into something precious, is at the core of the time-honoured economic system that governs our lives. From the art market to the real estate industry there is a fascination for and obsession with the discovery of potential, added-value and economic growth. So the theme of the cabinet naturally generated positive reactions as it touched a sensitive chord buried deep in the collective subconscious.

How does AP’s installation address some key concerns of Malta’s architectural scene at the moment? Further to that, what kind of impact do you think these events can have to how we perceive and ‘do’ architecture in Malta?

Like every other activity, the practice of architecture can be carried out in many ways, but none more ideal than that which takes on board a consciousness of the value of many diverse elements, from memory to innovation, from aesthetics to function, marrying them with a certain rigour to create an urban environment with integrity.

Searching for ‘added value’: AP’s Cabinet of Curiosities at the Venice Biennale
Searching for ‘added value’: AP’s Cabinet of Curiosities at the Venice Biennale

Added to this, there is no escaping today from the reality that the commercial dimension of the construction industry is paramount for the economic well-being of the island, with all the political implications that this brings with it. There is a lot of advantage to be had, both economic and social, however, were effort be put into the architectural and urban quality of our construction endeavours as this brings with it more lasting and sustainable financial and cultural returns. Architectural history can provide not only worthy lessons but also the discipline that can guarantee continuity, integrity and quality. The Cabinet of Curiosities serves as a metaphor of the complex magic that is required to produce a healthy and beautiful urban environment.

What is the importance of AP exhibiting at the Venice Biennale?

Participating in the Venice Biennale provides AP the opportunity to contribute to the international debate on contemporary architecture, to involve the international community of architects and designers in its research, thus getting important feedback and the chance to enrich Malta’s architectural and creative potential.

The Biennale project encourages important and high quality networking as well as the showcasing of Maltese artistic and architectural works. For the same reason, AP is currently involved in a number of international projects (such as the collective exhibition we’ve recently been invited to, Espaces Libres in Paris) thus getting important feedback and the chance to enrich Malta’s architectural and creative potential.

Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from the exhibition?

The Cabinet is an opportunity for the audience to formulate its own enquiry into the layers on display, thus generating new geographies for their own memories and inviting them to question the built environment, familiar or not. The juxtaposition of formal and more intellectual relationships provides a springboard to consider the endless possibilities of a dynamic exploration of the collective subconscious in order to add value and integrity to our built environment.

The Time Space Existence exhibition is open to public until November 27 at Palazzo Mora in Cannaregio, Venice, and features work by Madeline Gera, Aaron Bezzina, Aude Franjou and Alex Attard. The project is supported by the Arts Council Malta through the Malta Arts Fund, Project Support Grant. Konrad Buhagiar will be giving a talk as part of Malta Design Week tomorrow (November 7). For more information, log on to: