Can you tell us something about the general IABR programme?
It turned out we couldn’t realise even 10% of the proposals we put in the bid book. But we decided to go ahead as Berlage Institute. The Kunsthal offered space. There’s a lot going on this summer in Rotterdam: Wimby in Boijmans, a big Corbusier show at the NAi, Rotterdam City of Architecture 2007. Look, a Biennale can be anything; you don’t come to the Biennale, you come to Rotterdam; and there’s a lot happening. From May 24 till June 10, Rotterdam will be the international centre of the architecture world.
At the Kunsthal two exhibitions will be on show: Visionary Power and the New Dutch City. Visionary Power projects themes connect to issues like immigration, tourism, fear, commerce and representation on fourteen world cities. The New Dutch City is a study of urban networks. What’s very important is that we want an active Biennale, a research Biennale. Not a parade of starchitects, but presentations by architects genuinely dealing with the raw reality of everyday city life. That’s why we’re organising a workshop involving ten schools from around the world. Their assignment is to design community centres for various locations in Rotterdam Zuid. We didn’t want an academic workshop. The locations as well as the programming were decided on with social workers, people directly involved, and personnel working for the local boroughs. The question to students is: what is urban renewal? Is it purely economic or is it a social issue? What can architecture contribute? And that’s got to do with the crucial issue: what is the power of representation? The workshop starts two days before the Biennale starts. Two to three teams work on a proposal for a location. After the workshop, all proposals will be exhibited in Zuid. There’ll also be a competitive element to the workshop. The idea is that the workshop will have a sequel within the Pact op Zuid (a covenant signed by the municipality, housing associations and local boroughs to improve the social, economic and physical qualities in Rotterdam Zuid.)
A fourth and entirely new aspect of the Biennale is the Power Lounge, which lasts two weeks. There’ll be a continuous programme in the lower gallery of the Kunsthal. Visitors can sit back on a sofa, sip a cappuccino and enjoy presentations and documentaries. There’ll be speakers in the afternoon. During these Power Conferences and Power Talks, issues highlighted in the exhibitions upstairs will be discussed by economists, politicians and academics. What’s on show upstairs and what’s presented downstairs will always relate to each other. We’re kicking off the Power Lounge with the two-day conference entitled Producing the Contemporary City in which we’ll produce something of a mini-manifesto. The Power Lounge finishes with a debate about the Dutch situation. The idea is to invite the new ministers, not to speak but to listen and take notes.
What will make the Biennale a success?
If we succeed in conveying a sense of urgency. Architecture and planning are important to the city, but architecture cannot confine itself to within its own boundaries when you speak of the city. The new generation of architects is capable of achieving fundamentally important changes because it looks beyond objects. These architects can achieve another, higher, better level of existence.
What changed matters?
One day in 1990 Herman called me and told me he was starting a post-graduate school in Van Eyck’s orphanage and asked if I wanted to work on it. I said: 'Come on Herman, you’re kidding, a new school in Van Eyck’s orphanage?' But no, it was true. Wiel Arets was at the opening, Van Eyck was there too, and Tadao Ando held a master class. It was a big success.
I supplied Herman with around half the students for the Berlage Institute. For some reason or another it was fairly easy at the time for students from Poland, Russia and Yugoslavia to get Dutch study grants. I could take my best students with me to the Netherlands. It was a perfect setting, though there were a few initial problems. All tutors worked part-time, all had their own offices. In hindsight that wasn’t very clever. Nobody was truly committed. In 1994 Herman, Kenneth Frampton and Max Risselada asked if I wanted to become director of the Berlage. My situation at the time was a bit schizophrenic. War raged in Yugoslavia. If I returned I would have to fight for a Croatian national state. That thought was bizarre; my father had been a partisan during World War II. After the war he helped build up Yugoslavia; he was even a minister for a time. Returning to Croatia was therefore not an option. So my wife and children moved to the Netherlands. Since then I’ve lived in the Netherlands and worked at the Berlage. I’m currently director of education and research.
How does your past relate to the current activities of the Berlage?
With the Berlage Institute we want to propagate a way of thinking. We felt that relocating from Amsterdam to Rotterdam was a great opportunity. We see Rotterdam as a laboratory to test our theories. I’ve been able to do more in the Netherlands than I would have had I stayed in Croatia. For example, we staged more than 20 big workshops in the former Yugoslavia. You could see it as a form of development aid. We worked in Ljubljana, Zagreb, in Sarajevo just after the war, in Skopje. We wanted to introduce a European way of thinking. Later, a lot of students from South America came to the Berlage. Workshops have been held in places like Chile, the Dominican Republic and Argentina with the help of former students. A number of years later we sought closer ties with Japan and China, again in the form of workshops and research studios. And with help from the European Union we’ve held workshops in European port cities like Marseille, Barcelona and Rotterdam. Supersudaca, Stealth and Wonderland are initiatives from former Berlage students. The Berlage network is spread right round the world.
How did the Berlage Institute get involved in the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam?
That came about through articles I wrote some years back on transition in the Balkan region. How can an (educational) system be implemented in an area where such a system hasn’t existed for the past fifty years? My work at the Berlage and the publications on transitions threw me into a circuit in which I was suddenly asked to curate exhibitions.
In early 2006 the Berlage was asked by the IABR to make a ‘bid book’. The theme the board of the IABR had come up with was Babylon. Somebody had read Saskia Sassen and thought that cities were important and that the Biennale should be about cities and their international and multicultural dimensions. But what the IABR didn’t know was that the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale would be about more or less the same thing, namely City, Society and Architecture. Venice was about data, statistics, but we want to do more than show data, we want to go a step further. We argue that power is the most important factor that can change the nature of the city. That’s nothing new. In today’s context, however, power is obscure. It is not acknowledged and not discussed. Hence the theme ‘Power - Producing the Contemporary City’.
In 1954 in Zagreb, then part of Yugoslavia.
I studied architecture at the University of Zagreb. Like so many young architects I entered competitions after graduation, among them a competition to design a monument for a young guerrilla fighter killed by fascists in World War II. The monument was to be located at a primary school. That was 1979. I worked on the competition with two friends. At the time we were fascinated by Cedric Price. Our design consisted of a mobile room containing things like the guerrilla fighter’s weapon. With a push of a button the room moved out of the school onto the forecourt. Everybody thought it was a ridiculous idea. My professor warned me: 'Don’t make jokes Vedran; you could end up in prison'. But we still won first prize. The design was never built, but it did land us jobs at the university.
Teachers at the university did research, taught courses and worked as architects. The university was affiliated to a semi-professional architecture firm. On paper this combination sounds interesting, but it wasn’t in reality. The academic environment was too far removed from the real architecture discussion. It wasn’t very inspiring. What’s more, the method of teaching was very Russian, almost exclusively focused on typology. At the time I was researching school buildings, primary schools in particular, among them Hertzberger’s Montessori school. An advantage of working at the university was that I could apply for a grant to study abroad.
And that’s how you ended up in the Netherlands?
Yes. On the form for Delft you had to fill in three names. Because of my interest in schools I wrote down Aldo van Eyck first of course, and then Herman Hertzberger, and the third was Carel Weeber. All I had was a list of names, and there was no Google at the time. I’d no idea who Weeber was but I still had to fill in three names. Herman read by application form. 'This boy is totally confused; he hasn’t a clue. Let’s keep him away from Carel; that’s poison. We have to help him.' And so I ended up with Herman. All this happened in 1983, an interesting period in Delft. The group around Herman was working on what at the time was a new research discipline: environmental psychology. The underlying idea was that a good building has a beneficial effect on its occupants. To design a good school, architects had to understand the behaviour of pupils and teachers in the learning environment.
The approaching departure of Van Eyck was also a factor back then. A vacuum loomed and everything seemed to be possible. To mark the departure of Van Eyck, Herman organised a second edition of Indesem (International Design Seminar), the first of which had taken place 13 years previously. This, together with the Stylos activities, was of huge influence on the form of education in Delft.
After six months I headed back to the university in Zagreb, but I kept in touch with Herman. He arranged for me to get a scholarship in 1986 to do a year’s research at the TU. In that year I worked on a publication entitled Notes on children, environment and architecture. In the years after that I travelled back and forth between Delft and Zagreb, organised an Indesem in Split in 1988, was 'struggling with life', and had a wife and three children. The political situation was also deteriorating. Herman invited me to come to the Netherlands. 'Herman', I said, 'how can you live in a country where it rains 260 days a year? I think you’re very nice, I love Delft, the university has a fine library, but who could live in the Netherlands? It’s not suitable for people.'