Pandora's Boxes


The German contribution to the Architecture Biennale 2023 gives something back to Venice. Materials saved from the previous year’s Art Biennale result in interventions and repairs in favour of the city and its people. The workshop in the German Pavilion is open to collaborations from local initiatives, with changing guests. The beginning was made by Munich’s Bellevue di Monaco, which built a bar counter in the Pandora Culture Centre. Grisi Ganzer was heavily involved. He gives his impressions and experiences in the following personal report.

In mid-September the newly picked curator team for the German Pavilion at the 18th Architecture Biennale in Venice 2023 visited us in Munich. A colourful group from Berlin took their place with us excited hosts in the cafeteria in Bellevue di Monaco. The collective consisting of producers of Arch+ magazine and the architect firms Summacumfemmer and Büro Juliane Greb had received the gong from the Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building, the commissioner for the German Pavilion, to represent Germany at the 18th Architecture Biennale.

The team presented its contribution for Venice under the motto “Open for Maintenance - Wegen Umbau geöffnet”C. Under the general theme of sustainability, care, repair and maintenance were to be a focus. Given this theme, organisations from around Germany and local initiatives were invited to take part in the pavilion. We were one of the invited organisations. Along with the architects for the renovation – the Munich firm Hirner & Riehl – the Bellevue di Monaco was chosen as an example of sustainable and preservative construction. For the curators, of particular interest were also the social effects of the project: more societal participation and less exclusion. Simply because of its existence in the heart of Munich, the Bellevue di Monaco has, from the outset, worked against the “concealing” of refugees in the city’s society, as shown by the fact that most accommodations are to be found in the outermost periphery.

Bellevue di Monaco

The Bellevue di MonacoB is a social project in central Munich, a residential and cultural centre for the city’s refugees and non-refugees. Its origins are pretty special. It did not come about thanks to a city council decision or the decision of a major social help network but came from the residents of the surrounding district. It was practically the result of a citizens’ initiative. So, the theme of “Refuge and Migration” is brought from the city periphery, from the first reception centres and accommodations into the heart of the city’s society. I myself had the pleasure, together with a few other engaged citizens, to be part of this from the beginning. From said beginning, when we, simply by demonstrating against the threat of building on a playing field in 2012, pointed out to the city government, based on what was meant as a joke, a “Gorilla/Guerrilla"A apartment renovation, vacant apartments and had not even begun to think about the threatened residences in Müllerstrasse. To the next beginning, when we founded a social cooperative in 2015, and decided to apply for the rental contract for the residences from the city government. And on to the latest beginning in 2018, when the first refugees moved in and we presented a regular cultural programme, and the whole thing was opened officially and celebratorily by the Mayor of Munich.

With actions aimed at the general public, and also energy opinion reports and statements by architects, structural engineers and heritage protectors, we argued (among other things) for the maintenance of the city-owned buildings Müllerstrasse 2-6 and showed that the buildings were not ready for the wrecking ball but could be brought back to a liveable condition through simple resource allocation. We wanted to instil a rethinking process at the city government about how to deal with property that belongs to all. But, from the beginning, we also asked ourselves whether concrete use would make sense for these city-owned properties in a central position in the city and in an area already suffering the effects of gentrification. Today, the Bellevue is a residence for more than 40 people, a contact point for refugees to get support with learning German or with a professional apprenticeship. It is a place for training and workshops for everything from legal aid to bicycle repair. It is a destination for concerts, readings, theatre and debates, but also for relaxing over drinks and international food in our café or for communal sports in the spectacular playing field on the roof of one of the renovated buildings. The Bellevue operator, a registered social cooperative, now has more than 750 members; the work is carried out by three board members and a team of almost 25 people, which consists of full-time and part-time employees and interns. The supervisory board (consisting of nine persons) and hundreds of volunteers also make an indisputable contribution.

First Ideas

After the Bellevue di Monaco had already provided its as yet unrenovated rooms for the first national press conference on the German contribution to the Biennale 2016, “Making Heimat”, our role this time was to be more active. The curators wanted to have a basketball basket as a usable exhibition object, as one of the rooms in the German Pavilion was still thought of as a “games room”, where the visitor was meant to become active themselves. Symbolically, the basketball basket was to represent the development history of the Bellevue, as an iconic object that had been with us all the way from the beginnings – the citizen protests for the maintenance of a public playing field – to the crowning glory of the renovation in the form of the completed sports field on the roof.

All through Autumn 2022 and on to Christmas of that year, we met regularly with Matthias Marschner and Tobias Friedel from Hirner & Riehl to work on a contribution that would satisfy in terms of the space situation of the German Pavilion, be usable in a sporting sense and still say something about the Bellevue. Matthias und Tobias know the Bellevue like their back pocket. Matthias was lead architect for the general renovation in 2016-2018. He designed the roof playing field and had already become involved in the debates around the vacant buildings. Tobias was the site manager for the roof playing field, and from April 2020 to the opening ceremony in October of the same year, he had been in and on the Bellevue site practically every day. Together with us, the pair had long thought about a table/basketball basket hybrid as a sport-worthy object for the German Pavilion: could it only be used, when one, as in the Bellevue, cooperates with other visitors? Can it be pushed up, pulled down, folded away and used as a table to sit around? And, to distance oneself from the purely symbolical, if the basketball basket were truly usable in a game, could it be left in Venice to perhaps help equip a playing field for new refugee accommodation?

Joining the curator team’s concept of “Care, Repair and Maintenance” as the foundation for sustainability with the people’s awareness was, on the one hand, clear, accurate and self-evident. But, on the other, it did break down into countless socio-political questions that were not so easy to understand. Of course, as a refugee aid organisation, we had to show accountability in the context of a German Biennale contribution on the themes of refuge and migration. Themes on which there was a lot to say, as the treatment of refugees by European countries, has been for a long time deplorable. Also, the political situation in the host country Italy called for a clear response. But while these overall themes may have called for “large gestures” in the context of the exhibition, they can only be dealt with symbolically at such an event.

The goal of the curator team for the German Pavilion was a different one: what was to take place here was not to be symbolical, not just alleged, but was also meant to have concrete effects on reality. Essentially, the Biennale as an institution was to be hijacked, so as to give back to the host city beyond the restrictions of the elite cultural event and national self-presentation – also, and precisely, where the gloss of the Biennale did not reach.

In regular Zoom calls with Anne Femmer, Anh-Linh Ngo, Melissa Koch, Florian Summa and others from the curator team, we experienced how the planning for the Pavilion was realised and also evolved. It was clear that, in the main room, large amounts of re-usable material from country pavilions were being stored from the previous year’s art Biennale, to be used for repair and maintenance projects in and around Venice. A large part of the German Pavilion was meant to be a well-equipped workshop that could be used by groups from Germany on a weekly basis. But it was also made clear that the “(sports) playing area” would no longer be. This set our planning back to zero just before Christmas 2022.

Pandora

For our own contribution, we really wanted to work together with a local initiative from the outset. That Venice, perhaps for other reasons than in Munich, also suffers just as harshly from gentrification, was well known. We assumed that, there too, struggles would be involved in endeavouring to retain spaces for the long-time residents or to instal in them social projects. Florian showed us pictures of the Centro Sociale RivoltaA on the Venetian mainland, where he, together with a group of architecture students, had already carried out a repair project. There was a small accommodation for refugees here, so perhaps a joint project was possible? It was not easy to make real contact with them: the centre is run by volunteers who have to earn their money elsewhere or study during the day, additionally they were heavily involved in multiple political activities in Venice. But we eventually got a date for a visit to the Rivolta in spring 2023. Hurray!

We were to discover that we were connected not just by our work with refugees and our engagement in social matters, but, and not lastly, also by our “squatter” past. In mid-March, the Bellevue delegation, made up of Till Hofmann (chairperson and co-founder), Barbara Bergau (project manager at the Bellevue) and myself, took a train to Venice. Elena Carraro met us at Mestre Station in Venice and took us in her small car to the Rivolta in Marghera, where we met other activists. The independent centre has been in existence since the 1990s. A former spice packaging factory in an industrial zone along the Canale Industriale was turned into several event spaces and the centre’s own gastronomy area with a pizzeria, a club room and a cinema. Just like in the Bellevue, Sport also plays a role here: there is a small sports hall here, where a number of teams train. On the roof, the people from the Rivolta have placed a solar energy installation, which has also turned them into energy providers. Directly next to the Rivolta is the refugee accommodation known as the Cooperativa Caracol, where Elena works full time, and we were able to visit with her.

The Rivolta left an unbelievably lively impression on us, and we already liked it a lot, but the best was yet to come: with Elena we drove to Mestre to the Centro Climatico Pandora. The building, named so by Venetian activists, consists of two floors, high ceilings, large windows with old wooden shutters and sits on a small green space. The activists had achieved access to the vacant building and now use it for diverse activities; their aim is to convert it into a cultural centre. Directly beside the building is a fenced-in piece of land, on which, years ago, the former city-owned Mestre clinic had been demolished; nothing has ever happened there since then. What is today the Pandora once served as the place of patient admission for the clinic; then it stood empty for 10 years. Elena showed us around the building, which committed mainland Venetians had returned to a working condition using simple resources. The large room on the ground floor, practically the building’s lobby, was meant for use by various groups; a toilet had been brought back to work and energy provision by battery provided light throughout the internal spaces. When we saw the Pandora, we immediately were forced to think of “our” various former vacant buildings in Munich. It was immediately clear to all three of us visitors that we wanted to do something for this building.

The Pavilion

The next day, Florian Summa welcomed us at the entrance to the Biennale site and took us to the German Pavilion, where preparations for the opening of the exhibition were already running full steam ahead. In all rooms, materials from the demolitions of last year’s Biennale had been stored: panels, planks and pipes made of wood, metal and the most diverse materials had been placed in impressive stacks. To most of the materials pieces of paper had been attached that indicated from which country’s pavilion they were. The world comes together – in the form of artistic waste. Florian told us that when the Biennale is over, the installations are mostly just ripped out and thrown into open boats for transportation to the mainland. Each pavilion has to allow for thousands of euros in their budget, just to get rid of this one-off interior decoration. It is mixed waste, which is expensive to dispose of, not to mention the ecological aspect. Florian also showed us the workshop, which was now almost completely installed and awaiting users in a side wing. It had been carefully equipped with tools and machines supplied by the sponsoring companies. Now that we were able to see the workshop and the real stacks of materials and listen to Florian’s excited accounts of how all the materials could be re-used in various projects, we were convinced by the curator team’s concept. Turning the German Pavilion into a veritable recycling centre for the duration of the Biennale we regarded as a courageous signal against the throw-away mentality that has become normal in today’s construction activity.

Back in Munich, we reached the decision to accept the invitation to be the first group to use the possibilities of the pavilion in the opening week and to embrace the German Biennale workshop openly and without bias. Without bias in the sense that we wanted to work with the materials we would find there. But we needed clarity beforehand on what was to be built at the Pandora, what was really needed there. Enrica Ferrucci, a Munich architect with experience working with group and upcycling projects, as added to and strengthened our team and began, together with Tobias, working on the pre-planning, so that our workshop week in Venice could hit the ground running. Through our exchange with Elena and the other Pandora activists, we learnt that they wanted to have a bar counter in the large room on the ground floor. The ground floor space is the scene of most collaborative activities and the former clinic’s patient admission reception counter had provisionally been used for that purpose so far. But the bar counter was also to be moveable; firstly, so that it could be used in the garden around the building; and secondly, in the event that the city government had the building emptied, so that it could be taken with them.

On Site

Since 18 May, the Thursday before the opening weekend, we had been arriving in dribs and drabs in Venice; we had already been to the Biennale pre-Opening, and on Friday had been to the street party in the Casette in the Giudecca when the German Pavilion was officially launched. That neighbourhood has been firmly committed to fighting gentrification for many years now. Under the slogan “Case per tutti”, apartments are being protected from luxury renovation in this former working-class neighbourhood and kept for normal earning people. On the Saturday, the day the Biennale opened, a podium debate held by the BDA (Federation of German Architects) took place on the plateau outside the German Pavilion under the motto “Vacant buildings provoke – for activation of vacant buildings for the common good”. Matthias had once again presented the Bellevue di Monaco as a good practical example, for which he had been called a “rebel” by the moderator. On the Sunday we were back at the Rivolta, which had reached boiling point, as on the same day the “Venezia Hardcore Festival” was taking place, with hundreds of guests. In the midst of all this confusion, Elena had nevertheless found time to discuss with us the participation of the Pandora activists in the coming workshop days at the Biennale.

On Tuesday 23 May, our workshop week officially began in the Giardini della Biennale. The day before. the rest of our team had arrived in a van from Munich. That same day, a smaller group had already been at the Pandora, where Tobias and Enrica had presented their preliminary thoughts on the bar counter furnishings and had then accompanied the Venetians to the German Pavilion to view the building material. The Munich Bellevue team worked together with the Venetian Pandora members for a short, intensive week. We arrived punctually by Vaporetto or on foot for the opening times of the exhibition site in the morning and were allowed to hoist our Bellevue banner on the flagpole in front of the building and thus to symbolically occupy the pavilion. In the pavilion’s “west wing”, Tobias and Enrica, as architects, and our Bellevue caretaker Matini Zahn, as a qualified carpenter, led the workshop. Off and on, the rest of the Munich team, consisting of Bellevue workers and residents, worked as “lay persons under instruction” in various functions: Abdullah, Barbara, Donika, Nasim, Reza, Lotte, Mohammed, Shegy, Till und myself. Daniele, Elena, Filippo und Maria from the Pandora were time and again present. We did not have much time. The workshop week was really only three and a half days long, as the boat for the transport of the finished bar counter to Mestre had already been booked for the Friday.

In order to recover the materials we had chosen, we had to first work through the huge stacks in the pavilion’s large main room. The idea of making up the panels from smaller piece was rejected, as the structure needed to be extremely robust and light at the same time. Besides, gluing everything technically correctly in order to make large panels from smaller pieces would have taken more time. The Austrian entry to the Biennale in 2022, “Invitation of the Soft Machine and Her Angry Body Parts”C included colourful printed wooden panels featuring a 1970s inspired décor. The rest of the bar counter was to be built from the abundantly available printed panels, several ventilation grilles and a few belts and metal fittings. The idea of the “moveable bar” counter was, e.g., that it should be made of mobile modules which, depending on the length, could be flexibly added together to produce one single bar counter wherever it was needed. Cutting the panel and mounting it were carried out using the tools available in the workshop. For the “branding” spray cans (of paint) were procured in order to add the Pandora and Bellevue logos by means of stencils cut by hand. The work went according to plan. As there was a stationary mitre or cross cutting saw for cutting thick planks and lathes available in the pavilion workshop, but no panel sizing saw for cutting larger panels, the Festo hand-held circular saw with a guide rail was used for this job. Cutting the panels was done by those experienced with circular saws in the team, while it was possible for the subsequent rounding of the edges to be carried out by the less experienced with a routing machine. The materials available in the store also inspired our team to make several lamps that can ideally provide lighting for the bar counter.

Laboratory of the Future

The notion of an open workshop includes the idea that visitors to the German Pavilion during opening hours could examine the workshop room. Along with the curator team member Anne Femmer, who was on the site daily, we were also asked to be a contact partner for the visitor. We were often involved in conversations around the overall concept for the pavilion. An older architect found herself reminded of her student days, when the matter of ecology in construction was already a thing. She was of the opinion that we should be “much further” in the debate now. Treating the use of resources as a theme was not enough for her; she wanted to see practical solutions being put forward. Other visitors thought the German contribution was too obsessed with the small details, given the size of the problem. In these conversations, given the experiences with Bellevue, I endeavoured to support small, local initiatives that show in practical terms that another economic approach is possible. These activities are, at the most, complementary to the larger and more general rules of the lawmakers or international associations. Here too, there is an inseparability between ecological and “social sustainability”, if one wants to use the latter to describe the goal of our work in the field of refuge and migration. In other words: when one is unsuccessful, like the Bellevue in Munich or the German Pavilion in Venice, in being convincing on a local basis and in the practice, with lots of little supported groups and projects – be it for climate protection or human rights – then it is doubtful that politics in general can manage to convince people. Which is why I believe that the German Pavilion’s grassroots approach is absolutely justified in 2023.

As our team was large enough, we also had the opportunity to visit other pavilions and exhibition spaces, in addition to working in the workshop. The overall theme for this Architecture Biennale, “The Laboratory of the Future”, was interpreted, and rightly so, by most contributors as a demand to deal with the sustainability of construction and living (in a house or apartment) and the effects on the biosphere. The question must be asked as to what extent, as part of a large event like this, an event that has to serve national representation desires, an exhibition contribution can be anything more than a biological/dynamic fig leaf, that is secured to a branch, whose environmental balance still ends up being devastating. The white elephant in each exhibition space is the counting down of time that remains for humankind to cut the use of resources also, and precisely, in construction to a minimum.

Honour and Experience

The Biennale itself, as an international event with several hundred thousand visitors each year, and an extension into the whole area of the city, has, of course, its effects. The Biennale company now runs its own agency that manages the properties required for it in the whole of Venice. Having such an appetite means it is also necessary to take a (self-) critical stance. The German Pavilion this year endeavours, by involving local initiatives, to reduce the problematic aspects for the host city. To be invited to the Venice Architecture Biennale and asked to be part of such contribution, is for a project like Bellevue di Monaco a great honour, for to actually work on site is simply also a great experience. For a few days the German Pavilion became our general headquarters and the corner of the gardens containing the venerable country pavilions our local ‘hood. Every day, around lunchtime, the team would gather on the side steps in the shade of the large trees for a picnic. Honour and experience are one thing, but one also had to make sure there was enough to eat for the whole team. Other organisational and logistical things to do with our participation were also necessary: accommodation, travel (arrival and departure) for all involved and getting around the city. The latter is especially taxing in Venice. Getting to, and from, the Giardini, takes at least three quarters of an hour, either on foot or with the Vaporetto. Particularly for those among us who were new to Venice, the walking routes through the city were a challenge. The Biennale site closes every day 6:00 p.m., and at 7:00 p.m. we started out on our way home. On two days there were no local travel modes available at all, first due to a strike and then because of the Vogalonga rowing boat race, that takes place once a year. On this occasion, Venice is completely closed to all motorised boats, including taxis and Vaporetti. The impressive sight of thousands of unprofessional paddlers all starting the 30-kilometre course at the Piazza San Marco was, however, enough to forget our burning soles.

Friday meant saying goodbye to the Giardini. We left the workshop and loaded the finished bar counter components onto the chartered boat and headed in the direction of our van, which had been parked at Tronchetto since Tuesday. On the Saturday we walked around Venice a little, and on the Sunday, we drove the 20 kilometres to Mira on the River Brenta, where the yearly anti-racist Rivolta football tournament was being held for the first time since the Covid pandemic. With local footballers having to fill our ranks, the Bellevue team still managed, in humid/hot weather, to bravely play all of our group matches, ending in the last place in Group D. After being knocked out of the tournament early, there was a short ceremony during which the bar counter was handed over to the people from the Pandora before the crew from our van started out on the long way home via the Brenner Pass.

Unfortunately, this means that our experience of the bar counter’s first use was virtual only. Nevertheless, we could not help being a little bit proud when we saw the Instagram.D Nevertheless, we could not help being a little bit proud when we saw the Instagram pictures of a party in early June in the Pandora gardens, showing the bar counter we had made. I hope the Pandora can stay in the occupied building in Mestre, develops further and in the not to distant future is also recognised by the city of Venice and subsidised as a socio-cultural space. If we, through our “international cooperation”, have made a small contribution in this direction, then the Biennale project was certainly worthwhile. And all of us here at Bellevue are, of course, overjoyed at the friendship that resulted with the Rivolta/Pandora and look forward to the Venetians visiting us here in Müllerstrasse in Munich.

Pandora's Boxes

8/29/2023


The German contribution to the Architecture Biennale 2023 gives something back to Venice. Materials saved from the previous year’s Art Biennale result in interventions and repairs in favour of the city and its people. The workshop in the German Pavilion is open to collaborations from local initiatives, with changing guests. The beginning was made by Munich’s Bellevue di Monaco, which built a bar counter in the Pandora Culture Centre. Grisi Ganzer was heavily involved. He gives his impressions and experiences in the following personal report.

In mid-September the newly picked curator team for the German Pavilion at the 18th Architecture Biennale in Venice 2023 visited us in Munich. A colourful group from Berlin took their place with us excited hosts in the cafeteria in Bellevue di Monaco. The collective consisting of producers of Arch+ magazine and the architect firms Summacumfemmer and Büro Juliane Greb had received the gong from the Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building, the commissioner for the German Pavilion, to represent Germany at the 18th Architecture Biennale.

The team presented its contribution for Venice under the motto “Open for Maintenance - Wegen Umbau geöffnet”. Under the general theme of sustainability, care, repair and maintenance were to be a focus. Given this theme, organisations from around Germany and local initiatives were invited to take part in the pavilion. We were one of the invited organisations. Along with the architects for the renovation – the Munich firm Hirner & Riehl – the Bellevue di Monaco was chosen as an example of sustainable and preservative construction. For the curators, of particular interest were also the social effects of the project: more societal participation and less exclusion. Simply because of its existence in the heart of Munich, the Bellevue di Monaco has, from the outset, worked against the “concealing” of refugees in the city’s society, as shown by the fact that most accommodations are to be found in the outermost periphery.

Bellevue di Monaco

The Bellevue di Monaco is a social project in central Munich, a residential and cultural centre for the city’s refugees and non-refugees. Its origins are pretty special. It did not come about thanks to a city council decision or the decision of a major social help network but came from the residents of the surrounding district. It was practically the result of a citizens’ initiative. So, the theme of “Refuge and Migration” is brought from the city periphery, from the first reception centres and accommodations into the heart of the city’s society. I myself had the pleasure, together with a few other engaged citizens, to be part of this from the beginning. From said beginning, when we, simply by demonstrating against the threat of building on a playing field in 2012, pointed out to the city government, based on what was meant as a joke, a “Gorilla/Guerrilla" apartment renovation, vacant apartments and had not even begun to think about the threatened residences in Müllerstrasse. To the next beginning, when we founded a social cooperative in 2015, and decided to apply for the rental contract for the residences from the city government. And on to the latest beginning in 2018, when the first refugees moved in and we presented a regular cultural programme, and the whole thing was opened officially and celebratorily by the Mayor of Munich.

Bellevue di Monaco with rooftop court – © Frank Schroth
Müllerstrasse 2-6 – © Regupol
Opening of the roof rooftop court – © Tobias Friedel
Furniture project with students and refugees – © Matthias Marschner
The Café of the Bellevue di Monaco – © Regina Recht
Steps for events – © Regina Recht
Rooftop cout with lighting – © Matthias Marschner
01 | 08
Bellevue di Monaco with rooftop court – © Frank Schroth

With actions aimed at the general public, and also energy opinion reports and statements by architects, structural engineers and heritage protectors, we argued (among other things) for the maintenance of the city-owned buildings Müllerstrasse 2-6 and showed that the buildings were not ready for the wrecking ball but could be brought back to a liveable condition through simple resource allocation. We wanted to instil a rethinking process at the city government about how to deal with property that belongs to all. But, from the beginning, we also asked ourselves whether concrete use would make sense for these city-owned properties in a central position in the city and in an area already suffering the effects of gentrification. Today, the Bellevue is a residence for more than 40 people, a contact point for refugees to get support with learning German or with a professional apprenticeship. It is a place for training and workshops for everything from legal aid to bicycle repair. It is a destination for concerts, readings, theatre and debates, but also for relaxing over drinks and international food in our café or for communal sports in the spectacular playing field on the roof of one of the renovated buildings. The Bellevue operator, a registered social cooperative, now has more than 750 members; the work is carried out by three board members and a team of almost 25 people, which consists of full-time and part-time employees and interns. The supervisory board (consisting of nine persons) and hundreds of volunteers also make an indisputable contribution.

First Ideas

After the Bellevue di Monaco had already provided its as yet unrenovated rooms for the first national press conference on the German contribution to the Biennale 2016, “Making Heimat”, our role this time was to be more active. The curators wanted to have a basketball basket as a usable exhibition object, as one of the rooms in the German Pavilion was still thought of as a “games room”, where the visitor was meant to become active themselves. Symbolically, the basketball basket was to represent the development history of the Bellevue, as an iconic object that had been with us all the way from the beginnings – the citizen protests for the maintenance of a public playing field – to the crowning glory of the renovation in the form of the completed sports field on the roof.

All through Autumn 2022 and on to Christmas of that year, we met regularly with Matthias Marschner and Tobias Friedel from Hirner & Riehl to work on a contribution that would satisfy in terms of the space situation of the German Pavilion, be usable in a sporting sense and still say something about the Bellevue. Matthias und Tobias know the Bellevue like their back pocket. Matthias was lead architect for the general renovation in 2016-2018. He designed the roof playing field and had already become involved in the debates around the vacant buildings. Tobias was the site manager for the roof playing field, and from April 2020 to the opening ceremony in October of the same year, he had been in and on the Bellevue site practically every day. Together with us, the pair had long thought about a table/basketball basket hybrid as a sport-worthy object for the German Pavilion: could it only be used, when one, as in the Bellevue, cooperates with other visitors? Can it be pushed up, pulled down, folded away and used as a table to sit around? And, to distance oneself from the purely symbolical, if the basketball basket were truly usable in a game, could it be left in Venice to perhaps help equip a playing field for new refugee accommodation?

Joining the curator team’s concept of “Care, Repair and Maintenance” as the foundation for sustainability with the people’s awareness was, on the one hand, clear, accurate and self-evident. But, on the other, it did break down into countless socio-political questions that were not so easy to understand. Of course, as a refugee aid organisation, we had to show accountability in the context of a German Biennale contribution on the themes of refuge and migration. Themes on which there was a lot to say, as the treatment of refugees by European countries, has been for a long time deplorable. Also, the political situation in the host country Italy called for a clear response. But while these overall themes may have called for “large gestures” in the context of the exhibition, they can only be dealt with symbolically at such an event.

The goal of the curator team for the German Pavilion was a different one: what was to take place here was not to be symbolical, not just alleged, but was also meant to have concrete effects on reality. Essentially, the Biennale as an institution was to be hijacked, so as to give back to the host city beyond the restrictions of the elite cultural event and national self-presentation – also, and precisely, where the gloss of the Biennale did not reach.

In regular Zoom calls with Anne Femmer, Anh-Linh Ngo, Melissa Koch, Florian Summa and others from the curator team, we experienced how the planning for the Pavilion was realised and also evolved. It was clear that, in the main room, large amounts of re-usable material from country pavilions were being stored from the previous year’s art Biennale, to be used for repair and maintenance projects in and around Venice. A large part of the German Pavilion was meant to be a well-equipped workshop that could be used by groups from Germany on a weekly basis. But it was also made clear that the “(sports) playing area” would no longer be. This set our planning back to zero just before Christmas 2022.

Pandora

For our own contribution, we really wanted to work together with a local initiative from the outset. That Venice, perhaps for other reasons than in Munich, also suffers just as harshly from gentrification, was well known. We assumed that, there too, struggles would be involved in endeavouring to retain spaces for the long-time residents or to instal in them social projects. Florian showed us pictures of the Centro Sociale Rivolta on the Venetian mainland, where he, together with a group of architecture students, had already carried out a repair project. There was a small accommodation for refugees here, so perhaps a joint project was possible? It was not easy to make real contact with them: the centre is run by volunteers who have to earn their money elsewhere or study during the day, additionally they were heavily involved in multiple political activities in Venice. But we eventually got a date for a visit to the Rivolta in spring 2023. Hurray!

We were to discover that we were connected not just by our work with refugees and our engagement in social matters, but, and not lastly, also by our “squatter” past. In mid-March, the Bellevue delegation, made up of Till Hofmann (chairperson and co-founder), Barbara Bergau (project manager at the Bellevue) and myself, took a train to Venice. Elena Carraro met us at Mestre Station in Venice and took us in her small car to the Rivolta in Marghera, where we met other activists. The independent centre has been in existence since the 1990s. A former spice packaging factory in an industrial zone along the Canale Industriale was turned into several event spaces and the centre’s own gastronomy area with a pizzeria, a club room and a cinema. Just like in the Bellevue, Sport also plays a role here: there is a small sports hall here, where a number of teams train. On the roof, the people from the Rivolta have placed a solar energy installation, which has also turned them into energy providers. Directly next to the Rivolta is the refugee accommodation known as the Cooperativa Caracol, where Elena works full time, and we were able to visit with her.

The Rivolta left an unbelievably lively impression on us, and we already liked it a lot, but the best was yet to come: with Elena we drove to Mestre to the Centro Climatico Pandora. The building, named so by Venetian activists, consists of two floors, high ceilings, large windows with old wooden shutters and sits on a small green space. The activists had achieved access to the vacant building and now use it for diverse activities; their aim is to convert it into a cultural centre. Directly beside the building is a fenced-in piece of land, on which, years ago, the former city-owned Mestre clinic had been demolished; nothing has ever happened there since then. What is today the Pandora once served as the place of patient admission for the clinic; then it stood empty for 10 years. Elena showed us around the building, which committed mainland Venetians had returned to a working condition using simple resources. The large room on the ground floor, practically the building’s lobby, was meant for use by various groups; a toilet had been brought back to work and energy provision by battery provided light throughout the internal spaces. When we saw the Pandora, we immediately were forced to think of “our” various former vacant buildings in Munich. It was immediately clear to all three of us visitors that we wanted to do something for this building.

The Pavilion

The next day, Florian Summa welcomed us at the entrance to the Biennale site and took us to the German Pavilion, where preparations for the opening of the exhibition were already running full steam ahead. In all rooms, materials from the demolitions of last year’s Biennale had been stored: panels, planks and pipes made of wood, metal and the most diverse materials had been placed in impressive stacks. To most of the materials pieces of paper had been attached that indicated from which country’s pavilion they were. The world comes together – in the form of artistic waste. Florian told us that when the Biennale is over, the installations are mostly just ripped out and thrown into open boats for transportation to the mainland. Each pavilion has to allow for thousands of euros in their budget, just to get rid of this one-off interior decoration. It is mixed waste, which is expensive to dispose of, not to mention the ecological aspect. Florian also showed us the workshop, which was now almost completely installed and awaiting users in a side wing. It had been carefully equipped with tools and machines supplied by the sponsoring companies. Now that we were able to see the workshop and the real stacks of materials and listen to Florian’s excited accounts of how all the materials could be re-used in various projects, we were convinced by the curator team’s concept. Turning the German Pavilion into a veritable recycling centre for the duration of the Biennale we regarded as a courageous signal against the throw-away mentality that has become normal in today’s construction activity.

Back in Munich, we reached the decision to accept the invitation to be the first group to use the possibilities of the pavilion in the opening week and to embrace the German Biennale workshop openly and without bias. Without bias in the sense that we wanted to work with the materials we would find there. But we needed clarity beforehand on what was to be built at the Pandora, what was really needed there. Enrica Ferrucci, a Munich architect with experience working with group and upcycling projects, as added to and strengthened our team and began, together with Tobias, working on the pre-planning, so that our workshop week in Venice could hit the ground running. Through our exchange with Elena and the other Pandora activists, we learnt that they wanted to have a bar counter in the large room on the ground floor. The ground floor space is the scene of most collaborative activities and the former clinic’s patient admission reception counter had provisionally been used for that purpose so far. But the bar counter was also to be moveable; firstly, so that it could be used in the garden around the building; and secondly, in the event that the city government had the building emptied, so that it could be taken with them.

On Site

Since 18 May, the Thursday before the opening weekend, we had been arriving in dribs and drabs in Venice; we had already been to the Biennale pre-Opening, and on Friday had been to the street party in the Casette in the Giudecca when the German Pavilion was officially launched. That neighbourhood has been firmly committed to fighting gentrification for many years now. Under the slogan “Case per tutti”, apartments are being protected from luxury renovation in this former working-class neighbourhood and kept for normal earning people. On the Saturday, the day the Biennale opened, a podium debate held by the BDA (Federation of German Architects) took place on the plateau outside the German Pavilion under the motto “Vacant buildings provoke – for activation of vacant buildings for the common good”. Matthias had once again presented the Bellevue di Monaco as a good practical example, for which he had been called a “rebel” by the moderator. On the Sunday we were back at the Rivolta, which had reached boiling point, as on the same day the “Venezia Hardcore Festival” was taking place, with hundreds of guests. In the midst of all this confusion, Elena had nevertheless found time to discuss with us the participation of the Pandora activists in the coming workshop days at the Biennale.

The team of the Bellevue di Monaco – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Centro Climatico Pandora in Mestre – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
First meeting at Pandora – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Viewing the material in the German pavilion – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Concentrated work – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
The workshop in the German Pavilion – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
«Branding» – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
The finishing touch – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Team catering – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
The boxes of the bar – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Removal from the Giardini – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Dinner with the curate Anne Femmer – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Team Bellevue at the Antiracist Football Tournament – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
Arrival of bar and lamps at Pandora – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG
01 | 15
The team of the Bellevue di Monaco – © 2023 Sozialgenossenschaft Bellevue di Monaco eG

On Tuesday 23 May, our workshop week officially began in the Giardini della Biennale. The day before. the rest of our team had arrived in a van from Munich. That same day, a smaller group had already been at the Pandora, where Tobias and Enrica had presented their preliminary thoughts on the bar counter furnishings and had then accompanied the Venetians to the German Pavilion to view the building material. The Munich Bellevue team worked together with the Venetian Pandora members for a short, intensive week. We arrived punctually by Vaporetto or on foot for the opening times of the exhibition site in the morning and were allowed to hoist our Bellevue banner on the flagpole in front of the building and thus to symbolically occupy the pavilion. In the pavilion’s “west wing”, Tobias and Enrica, as architects, and our Bellevue caretaker Matini Zahn, as a qualified carpenter, led the workshop. Off and on, the rest of the Munich team, consisting of Bellevue workers and residents, worked as “lay persons under instruction” in various functions: Abdullah, Barbara, Donika, Nasim, Reza, Lotte, Mohammed, Shegy, Till und myself. Daniele, Elena, Filippo und Maria from the Pandora were time and again present. We did not have much time. The workshop week was really only three and a half days long, as the boat for the transport of the finished bar counter to Mestre had already been booked for the Friday.

In order to recover the materials we had chosen, we had to first work through the huge stacks in the pavilion’s large main room. The idea of making up the panels from smaller piece was rejected, as the structure needed to be extremely robust and light at the same time. Besides, gluing everything technically correctly in order to make large panels from smaller pieces would have taken more time. The Austrian entry to the Biennale in 2022, “Invitation of the Soft Machine and Her Angry Body Parts” included colourful printed wooden panels featuring a 1970s inspired décor. The rest of the bar counter was to be built from the abundantly available printed panels, several ventilation grilles and a few belts and metal fittings. The idea of the “moveable bar” counter was, e.g., that it should be made of mobile modules which, depending on the length, could be flexibly added together to produce one single bar counter wherever it was needed. Cutting the panel and mounting it were carried out using the tools available in the workshop. For the “branding” spray cans (of paint) were procured in order to add the Pandora and Bellevue logos by means of stencils cut by hand. The work went according to plan. As there was a stationary mitre or cross cutting saw for cutting thick planks and lathes available in the pavilion workshop, but no panel sizing saw for cutting larger panels, the Festo hand-held circular saw with a guide rail was used for this job. Cutting the panels was done by those experienced with circular saws in the team, while it was possible for the subsequent rounding of the edges to be carried out by the less experienced with a routing machine. The materials available in the store also inspired our team to make several lamps that can ideally provide lighting for the bar counter.

Laboratory of the Future

The notion of an open workshop includes the idea that visitors to the German Pavilion during opening hours could examine the workshop room. Along with the curator team member Anne Femmer, who was on the site daily, we were also asked to be a contact partner for the visitor. We were often involved in conversations around the overall concept for the pavilion. An older architect found herself reminded of her student days, when the matter of ecology in construction was already a thing. She was of the opinion that we should be “much further” in the debate now. Treating the use of resources as a theme was not enough for her; she wanted to see practical solutions being put forward. Other visitors thought the German contribution was too obsessed with the small details, given the size of the problem. In these conversations, given the experiences with Bellevue, I endeavoured to support small, local initiatives that show in practical terms that another economic approach is possible. These activities are, at the most, complementary to the larger and more general rules of the lawmakers or international associations. Here too, there is an inseparability between ecological and “social sustainability”, if one wants to use the latter to describe the goal of our work in the field of refuge and migration. In other words: when one is unsuccessful, like the Bellevue in Munich or the German Pavilion in Venice, in being convincing on a local basis and in the practice, with lots of little supported groups and projects – be it for climate protection or human rights – then it is doubtful that politics in general can manage to convince people. Which is why I believe that the German Pavilion’s grassroots approach is absolutely justified in 2023.

As our team was large enough, we also had the opportunity to visit other pavilions and exhibition spaces, in addition to working in the workshop. The overall theme for this Architecture Biennale, “The Laboratory of the Future”, was interpreted, and rightly so, by most contributors as a demand to deal with the sustainability of construction and living (in a house or apartment) and the effects on the biosphere. The question must be asked as to what extent, as part of a large event like this, an event that has to serve national representation desires, an exhibition contribution can be anything more than a biological/dynamic fig leaf, that is secured to a branch, whose environmental balance still ends up being devastating. The white elephant in each exhibition space is the counting down of time that remains for humankind to cut the use of resources also, and precisely, in construction to a minimum.

Honour and Experience

The Biennale itself, as an international event with several hundred thousand visitors each year, and an extension into the whole area of the city, has, of course, its effects. The Biennale company now runs its own agency that manages the properties required for it in the whole of Venice. Having such an appetite means it is also necessary to take a (self-) critical stance. The German Pavilion this year endeavours, by involving local initiatives, to reduce the problematic aspects for the host city. To be invited to the Venice Architecture Biennale and asked to be part of such contribution, is for a project like Bellevue di Monaco a great honour, for to actually work on site is simply also a great experience. For a few days the German Pavilion became our general headquarters and the corner of the gardens containing the venerable country pavilions our local ‘hood. Every day, around lunchtime, the team would gather on the side steps in the shade of the large trees for a picnic. Honour and experience are one thing, but one also had to make sure there was enough to eat for the whole team. Other organisational and logistical things to do with our participation were also necessary: accommodation, travel (arrival and departure) for all involved and getting around the city. The latter is especially taxing in Venice. Getting to, and from, the Giardini, takes at least three quarters of an hour, either on foot or with the Vaporetto. Particularly for those among us who were new to Venice, the walking routes through the city were a challenge. The Biennale site closes every day 6:00 p.m., and at 7:00 p.m. we started out on our way home. On two days there were no local travel modes available at all, first due to a strike and then because of the Vogalonga rowing boat race, that takes place once a year. On this occasion, Venice is completely closed to all motorised boats, including taxis and Vaporetti. The impressive sight of thousands of unprofessional paddlers all starting the 30-kilometre course at the Piazza San Marco was, however, enough to forget our burning soles.

Friday meant saying goodbye to the Giardini. We left the workshop and loaded the finished bar counter components onto the chartered boat and headed in the direction of our van, which had been parked at Tronchetto since Tuesday. On the Saturday we walked around Venice a little, and on the Sunday, we drove the 20 kilometres to Mira on the River Brenta, where the yearly anti-racist Rivolta football tournament was being held for the first time since the Covid pandemic. With local footballers having to fill our ranks, the Bellevue team still managed, in humid/hot weather, to bravely play all of our group matches, ending in the last place in Group D. After being knocked out of the tournament early, there was a short ceremony during which the bar counter was handed over to the people from the Pandora before the crew from our van started out on the long way home via the Brenner Pass.

Unfortunately, this means that our experience of the bar counter’s first use was virtual only. Nevertheless, we could not help being a little bit proud when we saw the Instagram. Nevertheless, we could not help being a little bit proud when we saw the Instagram pictures of a party in early June in the Pandora gardens, showing the bar counter we had made. I hope the Pandora can stay in the occupied building in Mestre, develops further and in the not to distant future is also recognised by the city of Venice and subsidised as a socio-cultural space. If we, through our “international cooperation”, have made a small contribution in this direction, then the Biennale project was certainly worthwhile. And all of us here at Bellevue are, of course, overjoyed at the friendship that resulted with the Rivolta/Pandora and look forward to the Venetians visiting us here in Müllerstrasse in Munich.

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