Alliance of Enthusiasts
by Franziska Eidner | Jun 7, 2016
Hey Mr. Ferryman! You could only reach “Sarajevo Now” from the Arsenale using one of the two shuttle boats that took visitors across the harbor basin. Photo © Jim Marshall

“It is not our task to supply recipes. But an architecture biennale should kindle desires,” said Biennale President Paolo Baratta at the opening ceremony in Venice. The biennale is meant to present architecture as “a tool of hope” that can “solve problems and energize changes”. With this year’s biennale, director Alejandro Aravena, Baratta continued, has succeeded in “liberating” architecture and bringing it back to people.

A very special energizing and hopeful architectural moment is to be found in the northernmost corner of the Arsenale grounds. A small boat ferries you across the harbor basin, and from a long way off you can already read the words on the large poster declaring “Sarajevo Now” on one of the halls of the former wharf. The contribution was initiated by an informal, internationally networked alliance and exudes energy, a joy in action and changes, as if it had known what Baratta was going to say. Here architecture really is a tool of hope and change – or certainly could be if the proposed, temporary architecture rescue campaign is to become a reality.

The exhibition suggest that the former “Museum of the Revolution” in Sarajevo be surrounded by scaffolding and a foil then wrapped around it as protection until enough money is raised to thoroughly modernize it. Photo © Jim Marshall
The museum was once a project Yugoslavia was proud of – and since Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence it has been forgotten by the politicians – as the “History Museum”. Photo © Daniel Schwartz / U-TT at ETH Zürich

From military front lines to administrative trenches

“Sarajevo Now” is first of all a case study. In the story of the History Museum that is told in the exhibition we can read the precarious situation of all the large state cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina: There is no Ministry of Culture and therefore hardly any financial support, the former military front lines of the post-Yugoslav civil war now serve as administrative trenches dividing the city. The History Museum is also contaminated in intellectual terms. The former “Museum of the Revolution” is one of the major works of Yugoslav Modernism, erected in 1958-63 in the spirit of the new as the first building block of the socialist expansion of the city of Sarajevo. It is testimony to a former shared history in what is now ethnically divided territory.

The interest in the museum has been correspondingly meager, it has been neglected for years and could soon face complete closure. The substance of the building is crumbling away, staff, heating and electricity bills can all no longer be paid. The sheer fact that it continues to run, and that the museum has emerged as an alternative cultural center, is solely down to the efforts of the zestful director and her countless, largely voluntary supporters in the city. An “Alliance of Enthusiasts” is what Haris Piplas calls this growing circle of volunteers. Piplas is the curator of “Sarajevo Now”, co-founder of the action alliance “Reactivate Sarajevo”; he fled the war in Sarajevo as a child, landed up in Berlin and is now an architect and a doctoral candidate at ETH Zürich.

Children playing on armored vehicles in the museum’s gardens. Photo © Schwartz / U-TT at ETH Zürich

Christo in Sarajevo?

“Sarajevo Now” tells the story of people who do not give up and that of how a state institution morphs into an informal “People’s Museum”. The exhibition also provides a suggestion on how to stop the building’s decay with the least possible financial expense. The proposal: to wrap the museum as it is in plastic foil, spanned across the entire building using scaffolding and ropes. In this way, the edifice will be protected against the weather until such a time as money has been raised to enable its comprehensive modernization. The packaging would expand the museum into the bargain, thus providing additional space for reading rooms, playgrounds, film screenings and other alternative uses. The foil would cost two euros a square meter, and a total of 50,000 square meters will probably be needed, not to mention the costs for the structural framework.

The idea was developed as part of the “Reactivate Sarajevo” action alliance along with Urban Think-Tank, which concerns itself with informal urban development world-wide and with Swiss architects Baier Bischofberger, which is otherwise active in high-end designs for museums. The architectural rescue campaign is supported both by the History Museum and by local as well as international partners. The non-profit organization Matica, founded by refugees from the Bosnian civil war resident in Switzerland, as well as artists Charlie Koolhaas, Jim Marshall and Anri Sala are all involved.

Urban Think-Tank and Baier Bischofberger Architekten want to stick the building as it is under a plastic foil. Visualization © U-TT und BBA

“From battle zone to test case”

In this way, in the space of a very few months not only has the proposal been fleshed out, but above all a circle of supporters established, a budget acquired, and a contribution to the architecture biennale realized. After the brief intermezzo in Venice (where “Sarajevo Now” is only on show until June 30, 2016), the exhibition will move on to Sarajevo. In the late summer, a major fundraising campaign will kick off there, accompanied by countless events in the museum and other spaces round town. This immense dynamism, driven by a mixture of local commitment and an ever larger international network of former refugees of the civil war who have engaged the architecture and art scenes, that we have to thank for a truly energizing architectural moment in the North Arsenale.

Perhaps the museum will actually have a protective skin before the advent of winter – and more space, in keeping with how it sees itself as a “People’s Museum”. The well-packaged museum could then truly function as the symbol of hope for the success of informal architecture and urban development from the bottom up, for the search for successful and smart solutions that can be found and realized in the midst of the political vacuum that is the former battle zone of Sarajevo.

"Sarajevo Now"
North Arsenale, Tesa 99, Venice
May 28 – June 30, 2016

On the inside, all the traces of decay aer visible, while the interior is being re-configured and expanded. Visualization © U-TT and BBA
An improvised ramp at the staircase at the main entrance to the museum. Photo © Daniel Schwartz / U-TT at ETH Zürich
With its small patch of green, the History Museum is a Modernist island of calm in a highly heterogeneous setting. If it deteriorates further then a demolition debate is no doubt round the corner... Photo © Daniel Schwartz / U-TT at ETH Zürich
Hey Mr. Ferryman! You could only reach “Sarajevo Now” from the Arsenale using one of the two shuttle boats that took visitors across the harbor basin. Photo © Jim Marshall0