BIO 27’s ‘Super Vernaculars’ is a forward-thinking approach outlined by Jane Withers


Biennial of Design (BIO Ljubljana) was established in 1963, making it one of the oldest international design events in Europe. Located in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, the biennial was established as a means to facilitate and contribute to the dialogue between architecture, industry and the academic sectors; BIO has been a laboratory to test and track ideas and innovations. Now in its 27th iteration, the biennial focuses on the idea of Super Vernaculars as a theme. Put forward in a curatorial statement by Jane Withers, the curator of the 27th biennial, the London-based design curator, and writer expands the exploratory nature of BIO to highlight what is often referred to as alternative innovations and narratives. While the idea of a vernacular may seem to be a celebration of the past, Withers’ curation brings together forward-thinking designers and thinkers to take these ideas forward. By pairing Slovenia designers with mentors from across the globe, Withers set up an ideation lab that builds on the knowledge that already exists. The act of sharing knowledge becomes a key component of the biennial’s presentation.

The biennial brings together Mario Cucinella Architects’ Tecla 3D Printed House and biomaterials such as mycelium and geopolymer cement. There are five commissioned projects that are defined as part of the Super Vernaculars’ production platform. These projects pair five Slovenian interdisciplinary teams with internationally acclaimed mentors to tackle compelling problems of local communities and the environment. In a conversation with STIR, Withers elaborates on the nature of the biennial’s theme, and how it positions itself in relation to emerging technologies and vernacular lessons. An extract of that conversation can be found below.


(L) BIO27 Super Vernaculars. Exterior view, MAO, Ljubljana. BIO27 logo by Kellenberger-White and graphic design by Studio Kruh & AA. (R) BIO27 Super Vernaculars exhibition view. Mushroom hat, 19th century. Lender: Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana. | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
(L) Jane Withers (R) BIO27 Super Vernaculars exhibition view. Mushroom hat, 19th century. Lender: Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana Image: (L)Louise Melchior, (R) Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

Devanshi Shah:The idea of the Super Vernaculars almost sounds like a manifesto. The term vernacular gets thrown around a lot, but here there is an attempt to define it. Could you give us your perspective on this idea?

Jane Withers: I have been observing for some time, how many designers are referencing or inspired by vernacular practices that perhaps have often been ignored or lost in the 20th century and the industrial era. Some of these make ecological sense today. I observed this happening in lots of different areas, this sort of rebirth of vernacular, not as a retrogressive or nostalgic idea, but as a departure point for contemporary thinking and innovation. I thought it would be interesting to bring these practitioners from different areas of the world together to better understand it. With its emphasis on community and localism, we need an arsenal of many different approaches to tackle all the challenges, but I think it needs support. A lot of these say new materials are potentially very powerful in terms of impact, but they need support to transfer them from niche concepts to applicable practical materials and systems.


BIO27 Super Vernaculars, View of work by the production platform team Garnitura | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
BIO27 Super Vernaculars, View of work by the production platform team Garnitura Image: Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

Devanshi: The commissions are also categorised, and they have interesting titles as well. Could you elaborate on these commission?

Jane: We wanted to slightly change the focus of the biennial, in that we really wanted to put the resource and look at how we could help, develop the local design culture in Slovenia. We wanted to engage with a lot of Slovenian designers rather than the practice that tends to have happened before of bringing a lot of international designers. A biennial can easily become a circus that comes to town and moves on and just leaves a bit of waste, but not much legacy. Apart from feeling like it was the right thing to do in terms of resources this very interesting local design system. How can you engage that? But there was also COVID, if we had planned it all around international travel, it could well have been cancelled. What we decided to do was work with, international local mentors and bring them together with Slovenian designers from the region. The mentors were very involved with me in setting the brief, for example, the Grains for Brains brief was set by Carolien Niebling.


BIO27 Super Vernaculars, Mycelium packaging by Ecovative, produced by Grown.bio | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
BIO27 Super Vernaculars, Mycelium packaging by Ecovative, produced by Grown.bio Image: Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

Devanshi: This is a very interesting format, but this interdisciplinary approach was that an aspect that was always a part of the Biennial?

Jane: I think we have grown it a bit further. It’s very much part of our own practice. Designers are much more powerful and engaging when they are working with experts with real knowledge in the field. Through biennials, you can have access to and engage with experts that might be difficult through more formal channels, because it is a short-term project and people get involved and share their time and expertise, but it is slightly outside their formal work lives. It is a very good way to get different voices together from anthropologists to engineers. That can really help designers understand the issues and the problems and come up with imaginative approaches, different systems and creative thinking, but they need the information in the beginning, and these experts as sparring partners or these things can easily go off on the wrong track.


BIO27 Super Vernaculars. 21 Supermanifesti / Mega posters on the city walls of Civitanova Marche, Mauro Bubbico, Museo Magma, September/October 2021. Part of a group curated by Marco Sammicheli – Triennale di Milano. | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
BIO27 Super Vernaculars. 21 Supermanifesti / Mega posters on the city walls of Civitanova Marche, Mauro Bubbico, Museo Magma, September/October 2021. Part of a group curated by Marco Sammicheli – Triennale di Milano Image: Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

The outcome is in a way about using vernacular processes as an open-source toolkit that could be shared and others can add to it. Obviously, exhibitions and biennials can be incredibly wasteful, but how do you relook at that? What do you do? And one route is to get a very expensive consultant, but that is not always possible and it is probably not a very good use of resources compared to sharing knowledge. We did not know a lot of these answers, in the beginning, it has been an exploratory journey for us at the moment. We have tried to be quite transparent about it, and we have made a lot of mistakes and realised how to improve.


BIO27 Super Vernaculars. Hayracks are a Slovenian vernacular still visible across the country and which continue to be an inspiration for contemporary architects. Lender: Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
BIO27 Super Vernaculars. Hayracks are a Slovenian vernacular still visible across the country and which continue to be an inspiration for contemporary architects. Lender: Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana Image: Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

Devanshi: The idea of legacy, knowledge and leaving things behind, which is more than waste, seems to be quite an important part of the biennial. Is that linked to the idea of the Super Vernaculars?

Jane: I think so, I suppose the terms we are talking about vernacular here is very much this common store of ecological knowledge that we have often turned out back on. So how do we regrow that? Shared knowledge passed from person to person is the way in which we are referring to the vernacular. I think it is very important to grow new ones for the 21st century. A really good example is rammed earth building. One of the production platform design collective Krater is doing a project that they have in the end called Forbidden Vernacular. They have a very interesting backstory because they are based on an abandoned construction site, a massive site in the heart of Ljubljana. They have been there for the past two or three years working with the biomaterials they have developed based on what they find on the site. So that includes, um, working with Japanese, not weed, the invasion plant to make a paper and so on. And for this, the brief was rammed earth construction. The mentors for this were Atelier LUMA Arles, in the south of France, and they have a lab developing new materials. One of the interesting things that they came across is that clearly earth construction was used around the world in most places. It was a way of constructing buildings out of the materials available on-site, but we have turned our back on it largely and in Slovenia, because there isn’t any certification for construction with the earth there, the researchers discovered that you cannot legally build with earth. But if you import that earth from Austria, the team discovered you can, because it has got the correct certifications.


BIO27 Super Vernaculars, samples of Saferock geopolymer cement by Saferock, 2022 - ongoing | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
BIO27 Super Vernaculars, samples of Saferock geopolymer cement by Saferock, 2022 – ongoing Image: Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

Devanshi: I just had one last question. There seem to be two things happening simultaneously. One is experimentation to show that these ideas are actually possible. The second is building a discourse and a discussion around these experiments. As a curator how do you balance the two?

Jane: The exhibition is about bringing together a critical mass of people and practitioners engaging with this approach. How do you bring it to life? How do you pass it on? And that is through education discussion, embedding it locally. I think how do we do it? I think what is great is seeing the production platforms set up their own forums, talks and discussions. That is when it gets a life of its own, our role is in a way to set up the framework, show the examples and then you want it to become something that is larger than what you put there. We want it to be long-term, we have also included in the exhibition examples of projects that began or were catalysed in previous biennials, to show that they are still going on and have become something powerful. Sometimes projects have already run for a decade or so and showing that they are really working, they are having an impact and talking about them as well as the challenges they have faced along the way so we can learn from them. It is not just about a flood of new ideas that may never take root. The time is for action, we are in an emergency situation and we have to get some of these ideas into reality.


BIO27 Super Vernaculars, exhibition view of Catalysing Community theme | BIO Ljubljana | BIO27 | Jane Withers | Super Vernaculars | Biennial of Design | Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) | STIRworld
BIO27 Super Vernaculars, exhibition view of Catalysing Community theme Image: Klemen Ilovar, Courtesy of MAO

Based at the Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) and created in cooperation with, the Centre for Creativity Slovenia (CzK), the Biennial comprises the Super Vernaculars exhibition; a presentation of five production platform commissions; and a vibrant programme of talks, workshops and engaging events. A city-wide satellite programme of exhibits and events. BIO27 Super Vernaculars: Design for a Regenerative Future, is on view in Ljubljana, Slovenia until September 29, 2022.



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