ARCHITECTURE: When attitudes become form
Architects Marco Casagrande and Sami Rintala are now better known as artists. Is that a problem, wonders Adam Mornement

It’s an overcast Glasgow day in the autumn of 1999. Two young Finns, Marco Casagrande and Sami Rintala, are at the awards ceremony for the world’s most promising young architects. This is the inaugural year of ar+d, sponsored by The Architectural Review and d lineTM international, and our two aspiring architects have just been awarded second place. The only problem is that their project consists of the ritual burning of three hay barns.

Two and half years later, sitting in their Helsinki office, Casagrande and Rintala look back on that day. ‘I suppose we should be grateful really. That award launched us.’ The irony is that the architectural award propelled them on a path marked ‘artists’.

Land(e)scape, Casagrande and Rintala’s moment of stage-managed arson, was conceived as a protest against the gradual erosion of Finland’s rural traditions, and was staged in the farming country of Savonlinna, north-east of Helsinki. Elevated on ten-metre-high legs ‘to create the impression of a slow, majestic walk’, the barns were oriented away from the countryside, apparently walking towards the cities of southern Finland. On one October night in 1999, accompanied by pagan dancing choreographed by Reijo Kela, the barns were set alight, with the idea of recreating the ambience of a mediaeval slaughter carnival. A documentary about the event was shown soon afterwards on Finnish television. In their home country it won the two architects a reputation as wilfully controversial situation terrorists, and it’s a reputation they haven’t been able to shake.

Since the autumn of 1999, the long-time friends and collaborators have designed installations for biennials and triennials in Italy, Cuba and Japan, and this autumn will exhibit in further biennials in Puerto Rico and Canada. And at the last count they had taught architecture programmes in eleven countries. But to date they have designed only one building, a shelter for mobile cranes in Vantaa, near Helsinki.

So how do they see themselves: as artists or architects? ‘I’d say that we’re humanists,’ says Rintala, the quiet half of the double act. ‘People have become the last thing that architects consider. Humans and human needs are the fuel that drives us.’

‘We’re a generation that needs to reassert certain values,’ adds Casagrande. ‘In recent years architecture has become traumatised by money and politics. Design and appearance should be secondary concerns for architects. The concept, and the value of the idea, should come first.’

Their reaction to this perceived trauma has been to retreat into the art world. The proliferation of biennials and exhibitions might seem an unlikely place for architects to forge a reputation, but it has worked well for them. As Rintala says, ‘They are an opportunity to say something that buildings cannot.’

Their latest installation carries a message that only the most conceptual architectural composition could ever hope to get across. Conceived for the Demeter International Contemporary Art Exhibition in Japan (13 July – 23 September 2002), it is an attempt to re-establish ties between the forgotten communities of central Siberia and the outside world, the fulfilment of a wish to offer a hand of solidarity to a people forcibly isolated from the rest of the world for nearly a century (under Soviet rule, large areas of Siberia were off limits to both foreigners and Russians).

Demeter – named after the Greek Goddess of fertility, nurture and harvest – is a showcase of ten site-specific installations by artists, designers and architects from six different countries, and is being held near Obihiro City, on the northern island of Hokkaido, an area known traditionally as the ‘breadbasket of Japan’. Casagrande and Rintala’s interpretation of the enigmatic but essentially environmental theme, ‘to rediscover the memories of land, and link them to the future’, is characteristically unexpected. Over five weeks in June and July they drove from Helsinki to Hokkaido, stopping in 24 communities during the 15,000-kilometre trip. In each they recorded an excerpt from local radio, took Polaroid portraits of residents, and collected a series of objects, such as a hammer, a packet of tobacco and a religious icon. The challenge was to create a document that offered clues about the differences and/or similarities between some of the peoples who populate Siberia. ‘It’s not a particularly clever idea, it’s certainly not anthropological,’ says Casagrande, ‘It’s just art.’

The installation is housed in an abandoned stable at Obihiro’s former racetrack, to which they have made as few alterations as possible, cobwebs included. In each of the 24 stalls of the long, low, wooden structure, Casagrande and Rintala have hung three white panels. Holes in two reveal the Polaroid portraits and the appropriated objects, while from behind the third emanates the recorded radio excerpts.

Initially, the effect of distilling such an epic voyage into 24 chronological parcels seems cold, and not a little underwhelming. The viewer is given very little information, just a superficial selection of sights and sounds; the names of the villages and their locations are not revealed. But after a while this reductive approach becomes compelling. ‘As you walk through you can see the changes in the shapes of the faces and the different objects,’ says Rintala. ‘This is all the information that’s required.’

Their work has always left room for interpretation, but the Demeter installation marks a shift towards a more subtle approach. While the apparently crude barn-burning episode can be read on a range of levels, from a knee-jerk statement of discontent to a recreation of a mediaeval carnival, the Demeter installation reaches a different plane of ambiguity. Unless you know the background, the link between the exhibition theme and the finished product is far from obvious. Both Casagrande and Rintala regard it as their most important work to date.

So, just what else have Casagrande and Rintala been up to since that grey day in 1999? One of their less understated projects was 1,000 White Flags, a protest against the development of Finland’s Koli National Park as a cross-country ski resort. In the summer of 2000, after collecting unwanted sheets from psychiatric hospitals around the country, they made 1,000 white flags to punctuate the verdant landscape of one ski-slope as a gesture of surrender to insanity.

That same summer, for the Venice Biennale’s year of ‘less aesthetics, more ethics’, they resurrected an abandoned barge and landscaped a park inside it. The 50-metre vessel was then floated into Venice, giving the city a new public space. This recycling theme also had a slightly grittier edge, for the vegetation was planted in 60 minutes worth of composted human waste from the city’s sewers: hence the title, 60 Minute Man. The New York Times recognised it as the Biennale’s Best Realised Project.

Later in 2000, for the Havana Biennial, they suspended a seven-metre iron beam on a nylon fishing line between two buildings at the Instituto Superior Politecnico Jose Antonio Echevarria. The feat of suspending the iron beam, although a spectacle in its own right, was by no means the end of the experiment. The fishing line was under extreme tension, and as the beam expanded and contracted according to changes in temperature collapse was inevitable and the sense of imminent disaster palpable. All of which was intended as a commentary on humankind’s relationship with the natural world. Disaster, whether natural or man-made, could happen anytime, anywhere. The installation took its title, Quetzalcoatlus, from a dinosaur which no doubt became extinct when living conditions became too hostile to support it.

In Florence, at last year’s Biennale Internazionale dell’Arte Contemporanea, Casagrande and Rintala produced 1:2001, a six-metre circle of ideological, religious and philosophical books from all over the world. The spines faced out, leaving a serene white interior to the two metre-high circular wall. The installation, which occupied a site in the Piazza della Republica, came to a dramatic end one Saturday night, when the people of Florence were invited to tear it down and take the books away with them.

At the Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art, their response to September 11 was to build Bird Cage, a five-metre-high cone constructed from hemp rope. Every day for ten weeks the cone released a balloon which, after floating to a height of ten kilometres, burst and released a balsa wood bird to carry a ‘message of hope’ on the four winds. Bird Cage, along with Yoko Ono’s Freight Train, was widely regarded as a highlight of the show.

Casagrande & Rintala’s brand of concept-driven humanism has been particularly well received in Japan. As well as the Demeter and Yokohama exhibitions, they have been invited to design a park for the 2003 Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Niigita, their first permanent work in Japan. ‘We have designed it as an industrial ruin,’ explains Casagrande. ‘It will integrate existing temples and trees, as well as fragments of the site’s former industrial use: broken glass, rusty machinery.’ But what is it about their work that makes so much sense to the Japanese? ‘It is the emotional content that is so appealing,’ says Annukka Klinge, a former employee of the Finnish Institute in Tokyo. ‘That and the fact that their work is so well thought through, sincere and professional. There are no loose threads.’

Yet it is the Japanese, too, that insist on defining them as artists, for it is Japan’s art community that keep inviting them back, not its architectural patrons. So, regardless of their self-perception, does it bother Casagrande and Rintala that they are better known as artists than architects? ‘Yes it bothers me,’ admits Casagrande. ‘I consider myself an architect. All the methods and thinking behind our work are architectural. But sometimes we find that to reach an architectural solution a mixture of different disciplines is easier, or more powerful.’ However, they are disparaging about the role that architects play in contemporary society and often talk more like artists. ‘It doesn’t take a genius to design a building. Natural materials and resources are everywhere. The art world is a playground for ideas, that is where the challenges are,’ says Casagrande.

The longer you spend in their company, the clearer it becomes that for Casagrande and Rintala the real question is not one of terminology, but their self-appointed role as spokespeople for a generation: ‘warriors for ethical thinking,’ as Casagrande puts it. As much as anything else, they are driven by a desire to reposition architects in the modern world. And for them a natural consequence of this would be to make people consider much wider issues. ‘Life is hectic. Sometimes people need to stop and look at the horizon, look at the bigger picture,’ says Casagrande. ‘Who, apart from architects and artists, can look where we are heading? Maybe some religious people.’ There is no shortage of self-belief in the Casagrande and Rintala camp.

For further details about the Demeter International Contemporary Art Exhibition: www.demeter.jp

Adam Mornement is a freelance writer, specialising in international architecture and design