In advance of the Venice Biennale, the French design duo developed a series of student and artisan workshops investigating the bricks used to build one of the Central Asian country’s most storied Zoroastrian fortresses.
Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty founded Studio KO in 2000, after graduating from the architecture program at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Since then, they’ve opened offices there, in London, and in Marrakech, where they designed the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. That building, with its sumptuous facade that ripples like silk, showed the firm’s forward-thinking use of terracotta brick.
This year’s Venice Biennale has the theme of “The Laboratory of the Future.” Studio KO embraced this idea in its design for the Uzbekistan Pavilion, developing a series of student and artisan workshops investigating the bricks used to build the Qalas, a 4 BCE—7 CE Zoroastrian fortress in the Central Asian country’s northern reaches. The result, “Unbuild Together: Archaism vs. Modernity,” is a mysterious and resonant maze spotlighting ancient and forward-thinking materials. Fournier and Marty recently called Surface to discuss those workshops, brick’s infinite possibility, and the need for emotion.
How did you first become connected to Uzbekistan?
OM: We had architecture projects in Tashkent [including the Centre for Contemporary Arts], and had a good relationship with their Art and Culture Development Foundation. They proposed that we be involved in the Biennale. We’re foreign designers, so we wanted to wait until we knew the country well enough. There was a special request from the foundation to be as inclusive as possible of Uzbek people, so from the very first day there was an idea to collaborate with 20 students [from Tashkent’s Ajou University].
What did the class consist of?
KF: We visited the ruins of Qalas in a desert that used to be cotton fields, and what remains of it really looks like mazes. I’d also asked students to think about scenography for the pavilion, and without any other brief, most of them had designed kinds of mazes.
OM: We didn’t want the pavilion to be speculative, but immersive and emotional, which in architecture is sometimes a bad word. For the workshop’s second part, we went to Bukhara and met with [Uzbek ceramics master craftsman] Abdulvahid Bukhoriy. Without him, the art of ceramics there would be gone. He explained how he works with oxides, cobalt, and iron. We asked him: What if you wanted to fuck it up, push the limits? He was very supportive and invented some new flaws. He and the students played all night, the ceramics went into the oven, and the day after we discovered what happened. We wanted to test things.
How did you decide on the form to build with the brick?
OM: Karl put together some words, and I sketched three lines and two corridors to answer the question: What would you design if you wanted to create, in two minutes of walking, real emotions of opacity and being lost and found?
KF: We used reclaimed Venetian bricks from the site, the same used to build the pavilion centuries ago. You don’t know if what you’re getting into is new or belongs to the past.
OM: It’s a welcome confusion. The shape doesn’t refer to any classical shape—just straight lines. But it’s kind of badly done, on purpose, almost unfinished. The brick is clearly saying they’re old and dirty, but there’s confusion about what is what. And it’s pretty dark.
KF: The light is only focused on the glazed bricks that Abdulvahid made with the students. Those are from Uzbekistan. But by chance, the shape of the two kinds of bricks are almost the same. So they connected really well together. It’s an invitation to sit at the table of history: the Venetian bricks and the Uzbekistan bricks we glazed and mixed together.
And the wall projection?
KF: It’s a film by El Mehdi Azzam. We asked him to follow the workshop and visit Abdulvahid, and make a restitution of that poetically. He had his own vision.
OM: What’s surprising is the range of scales. He did close-ups that changed the glazing into sea landscapes, but also did some wide moments in the desert.
KF: We’d like the students to understand architecture isn’t only about calculating how to build a house, but how to see with art, culture, and history. The workshop was our way of illustrating a laboratory for the next generation. It’s about culture and crossing disciplines.
You’ve worked so much with brick; what did this experience teach you about it?
OM: Brick has a special richness: out of a single module in three dimensions, you have an infinity of possibilities. The future should be going back to the basics and discovering that infinity. Brick expresses and bears the trace of the terroir of its soil, which gives color and variation you can see when it’s cut. It’s very meaningful and emotional.
Qalas was a fortress—a machine of violence but also of safety. Did you want to investigate the tension between those two qualities?
OM: It’s hard to be reassured because the period is upsetting. We didn’t want to invent theories of how to control the future, rather express solutions of feeling safe in an immersive way. We’re not trying to prove anything. We’re trying to share a feeling and intuition—just an impression, not an explanation—that, maybe, we could be safe again.