Architecture in Socialism.
an anthropological trip through a not so distant past.
EXHIBITIONS / PROJECTS
TEXTS AND REVIEWS
182cm – an anthropological trip through a not so distant past
Vitruvian Man is perhaps Leonardo da Vinci's most famous illustration. In this work, Leonardo used both image and text to express the ideas and theories of Vitruvius, a first century Roman architect and author of 'De Architecturalibri X'. The Vitruvian ideas, presented by Leonardo, formedthe basis of Renaissance proportion theories in art and architecture.
In his treatise, Vitruvius discussed proper symmetry and proportion as related to the building of temples. The architect believed that the proportions and measurements of the human body, which was divinely created, were perfect and correct. He therefore proposed that a properly constructed temple should reflect and relate to the parts of the human body. He noted that a human body can be symmetrically inscribed within both a circle and a square; this idea influenced his architectural practice and became a pillar for reliance or rejection during the history of architecture in the West, but not only.
When looking at the series 182 cm by Endri Dani, what first struck me is that, like da Vinci, Dani begins his project with a drawing. It consists of a human figure inscribed within a square-like frame that extends into contours of what seems to be a building – thus leading our thoughts back to da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The series is composed around a repetitive pattern. We see the artist being photographed in the center of entrances at various apartment blocks in Albania. These differing places are strongly discernible from each other either by their look, construction materials and color, or by the clear interventions they have undergone over time. However, there is one feature that connects them together as a red thread: all of them are nearly the same height, a seemingly disproportionate height, as if they were built for a special species of humankind. Indeed, as we shall see, they were built for a special kind of species. So let’s take a quick look at the history behind these curious structures.
The pictures have been taken in cities throughout Albania, at the entrance of buildings which were built mainly in the time-span between 1970 – 1990, corresponding to the last two decades of the dictatorship – referred to as a communist one – in the country. On one hand, the work refers to the specific conditions under which society, culture and architecture developed in the country during those years. Meanwhile, one should put such developments in a larger European and historical context to understand eventual ramifications and highlight local specifics.
After World War II and the rise of Communist parties across the region, architects living in Eastern Europe and the new territories of the Soviet Union found themselves in a new position: now they had guaranteed employment and there is a high demand for their servicesas result of post –war construction. Soon, however, their initial enthusiasm was dampenedby the nature of the authoritarian regimes and the lack of professional freedom, including the complete ban of private activity as a licensed architect. Coupled with the fact that communist economics relied on rigid five-year planning, architects across the region became technicians producing an industrial commodity, rather than creative artists executing an individual vision. Emphasizing typification, standardization, and mass production, architectural practice across the Eastern Bloc shared more similarities than differences among the various countries. Architects also shared the everyday economic realities of communism with shortages as a generalized feature which epitomized the system itself. Therefore, as in other sectors, architects focused on strategies to address the problems including prefabricated building elements, lightweight building materials, and the mechanization of work on building sites. Highlighting the similarities and unification of styles was also ideological, since the communist ethos of a minimum standard for all was integral to thinking about designing cities with undifferentiated class structures, and housing was the most indicative of this approach. In this way the buildings of that time were not valued as architectural objects, but rather as indicators of production performance. Meeting quantitative targets was more important than evaluating what had been produced, thus removingany incentive to improvearchitecture on aesthetic or functional grounds.
However, this strain of development is not an isolated tendency of the former Eastern block. Indeed it is a ramification of the modernist legacy that on the Western part has been identified under the term “techno-rationalism”, strongly identified with Le Corbusier, according to whom the architects could no longer be artists – they had to become engineers. Clean lines, rectilinear forms, geometric volumes, unornamented surfaces, open plans based on the Cartesian grid, and expressed structural systems, are some of the architectural features of this strain. Repetition of standardized units and a rejection of place are other characteristics. Furthermore, a quick glimpse at European level of the same period would reveal that similar developments were taking place everywhere, both in the East and in the West. These developments correspond with the industrialization period and the rapid urban growth of cities that brought along the urgent need to counter the housing shortage in cities all over the continent. Across the big cities of many countries in Europe one can find large-scale and intensively developed areas with uniform apartment blocks,most of them built in the 1960s or the early 1970s. This is true on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. In most cases such approach is related to the so-called social housing intended for groups with low purchasing power and subsidized by the state and/or local authorities. The technical quality of these buildings might be low and the external environment in many cases is poor. However not all the examples should be viewed in a negative light. While presenting a number of deficiencies, these constructions still managed to respond to the housing crisis, sheltering a rapidly growing urban population. In quite some cases, like in East and West Germany, Sweden, even in the Soviet Union, despite the low construction quality, the buildings presented a new and exciting development in housing facilities and chain of production.This particular phenomenon of metropolitan construction deserves more thorough and proper research.
In that framework we can understand that the case of Albania was an offshoot of a much larger continuum. The practical needs were pretty much the same as in all other countries, even though the technology came to the country much later and in poorer condition. Also Albania faced a housing crisis, especially in urban areas due to rapid urbanisation rhythms, high birth-rate, and further deteriorations because of earthquakes. The authorities undertook great efforts to improve the situation, including the introduction of prefabricated building systems over the 70s. A special prefabricated building materials factory was established in the outskirts of Tirana aiming to meet the demand for new urban housing.
However, it is the above-mentioned ideological implications, coupled with extreme shortages in the most isolated country in the world that gave the Albanian case its own unique tonality. It is precisely these implications that Dani addresses in his project. Using a simple element which consist of choosing his body length as a standard, he challenges us to a reflection over the complicated relation between human body and architecture, spanning through millennia – from the times of Vitruvius to today. By photographing himself against the entrances to these standardized buildings the artist highlights the existence of a glitch in the functioning of a system that pretended it built by and for the people. His body seems totally squeezed by the square, low frame of the entrances of each of the dwellings. His head literally touches the ceiling of the entrance and it’s difficult to understand how such construction was even planned. Indeed, standardization in Albania was not simply a feat to be implemented in industrial production. The communist regime loudly propagated the engineering of the New Man as the biggest achievement of Albanian socialism – or whatever it was in reality. By declaring religion era dicated from the country in mid-sixties (XX century), the Albanian ruling communist dictatorship replaced God, and even claimed to have created the New Man of Socialism - a new species that was uniform and standardized in looks as well as in thoughts, but mostof all in its social and moral codes. Therefore, in a similar move to Vitruvian thought, replicated by Italian Renaissance, the communist authorities pretended to place at the center the such so-called New Man of socialism). However, while Vitruvius claimed that the center of the center was to be found inside the human body (the navel), the rulers of Albania had clearly decided that the center of the center had to be located outside the body – namely in the ideology. By doing that they were abusing with their power to consolidate the grip over the whole collective body of the society
It is from here we can maybe start to speculate on the incomprehensible dimensions we encounter in Endri Dani’s photo series 182 cm. The visible disproportions hint at this displacement of centrality. It’s still difficult to comprehend why these buildings entrances were made so low, while the rest of the floors had normal height. It’s as if someone was after a collective gesture of bowing-in-reverence, as if the threshold of the entrance to these buildings was indeed a metaphor for being reborn on the other side, into the habitat of the New Man of Albanian socialism. Dani photographs himself in a disarmingly peaceful position, with his arms hanging low. His 182 cm body frame would lead one to think that he’s visiting the land of some alien, small-people race that has hastily built habitats on earth. At other moments, he seems to offer himself as an out of place decoration or ornamentation to the structure. And at other instants yet, it seems as if the entire weight of the building and its history is resting on his head and shoulders.
182 cm in my eyes resembles a curious anthropological quest. By photographing himself against the entrances of the edifices, the artist bridges an important gap in time and extends his reflection beyond the mere period of their construction. Endri Dani metaphorically embodies the contemporary descendant of those new humans, someone that now moves in and out of these living spaces together with those who came The dwellings on their side present an infinite and colorful amount of interventions, layers, wounds and scars. All these traces bear witness to the chaos enveloping the lives of the bodies that inhabit them and continue to struggle with perdition in their new everyday reality, now governed by other sets of rules – those of the free market. And although we don’t see other people in the pictures, it’s as if those wounds and scars we note on the buildings are somehow engraved on the consciousness and collective body of the society, a direct consequence of the power dynamic still controlling their lives.
Art critic and curator