Stalker Architecture: Design and (Private) Ideology (Valdas Ozarinskas)

This essay was written for a book but I don’t know what the status. As there is scant information on Valdas Ozarinskas, the most brilliant architect I ever met, online, here it is.

(All images are being used under the principle of academic fair use. I will remove them upon request).

How to talk about a brilliant artist who would not theorize his work? For if there is anything that Valdas Ozarinskas said, it is that his was a “private ideology,” [“privati ideologija”] and indeed, the group of architects that he belonged to named themselves just that.

Given the relative lack of such statements from Ozarinskas, this essay begins with an attempt to read a selection of his works while also contaminating the reading with half-remembered memories of discussions that ranged dangerously late into the night, beginning over drinks in the ŠMC café and ending in the dimly lit galleries of the art centre above, in which he showed me his latest installations and we would talk until nearly dawn. Thus, it is entirely possible that this reading is a largely fiction, created only by the fog of time. Still, I think enough seeped through those nights, enough registered that what follows is not merely speculation, but also reveals something of the private ideology.

Let’s take “private ideology,” and unpack it. If the life of an artist who worked within an exhibition hall is a fundamental commitment to constantly engage with the public, to refuse to engage seems like a contradiction. But “private” is not the same as “no.” Ozarinskas’s refusal to explain his work might be understood as stemming from the overly didactic dominance of both Western theory and Soviet Marxism, to give a freedom to the viewer to fill the space with their own projections.

Indeed, if we put the emphasis on “private,” we can get to the crux of Ozarinskas’s ideology. We talked often about the Soviet-era housing projects ringing Vilnius and how, in their modernity, they provided the individual with an unfiltered sense of both their infinitesimal smallness and their infinite potential within society. One makes of it what one does, or one sinks into the abyss. It’s the individual that faces mass society and their private journey to negotiate it is at the core of modern existence.

Tarakonas, cockroach, with Audrius Bučas, 1999.
[This is not mentioned in the text as I was not aware of this project when I wrote it.]

But with Ozarinskas having left us no explicit guide, we may still be forgiven for wanting something more, besides the urge to take the work as it is given. To start, we might begin with the suggestion that Ozarinskas was a realist, greatly concerned with the world, as found. Architecture theorist Liane Lefaivre’s brief article on “Dirty Realism” in architecture is useful for us in coming to terms with this condition. Lefaivre adopted this term, originally developed by literary critic Bill Buford in reference to a strand he identified in postwar American literature, to refer to European architecture that addressed the damaged urban fabric of the continent’s cities during the 1980s. The urban context of Vilnius and Lithuanian cities in general, pock-marked with voids created during bombing in World War II and rampant demolition during the early Soviet era is very much the kind of condition that Lefaivre describes as giving birth to Dirty Realism. The response to this condition, according to Lefaivre, is an architecture that seeks not to oppose the condition of the late twentieth century European city with postmodern attempts at suture, but to defamiliarize it, to follow Russian formalist Viktor Schlovsky’s dictum to “make the stone stony” and bringing to the fore its incompleteness and grit.

We can see Dirty Realism throughout much of Ozarinskas’s early work. Take, for example, his 1990 competition entry for the church at Elektrėnai, done in collaboration with Audrius Bučas and M. Cukermanas. Here, the architect takes as the context a city designed in the Soviet era to service the large electrical plant nearby. Eschewing any nationalist nostalgia for Lithuania’s past, they drag a rough poetry out of the industrial context of the commission, producing a model apparently made out of scrap metal and, as photographed, floating in a dark void.

This was taken further in Ozarinskas’s 1996 NATO’s café. Where in Elektrėnai, the architects were still struggling to articulate their work in an idiom influenced by Deconstructivism, in NATO’s, a more mature approach emerged. Found in a relatively nondescript building of indeterminate age on Arkliu gatve, NATO’s is a crash of steel, initially appearing very much at odds with its surroundings. At the same time, NATO’s testifies to the real condition of Old Town Vilnius: even as every year buildings are renovated or rebuilt according to supposed archeological records and the fabric seems to be rising up from ruin, in fact, this is a pastiche, created in our time. Behind the façades lurk hotels (in 1998 the massive Radisson SAS complex would tunnel through numerous buildings on this block), embassies, apartments and offices—outposts of globalism—that bear no relation to the original historical function but rather use it to mask their own agenda. NATO’s, obviously but not innocently named after the military organization then making inroads into post-Soviet Lithuania, vividly uncovers this context through the discord between the building’s neo-classical exterior and the post-industrial interior. Design elements derived from military hardware marked the space, where waiters in black uniforms seemingly derived from military clothing served patrons.

Dirty realism in Ozarinskas’s work culminates in his multi-year renovation of the Contemporary Art Centre, where he was associate director and chief exhibit designer. Built in 1965-1967 CAC was originally Vilnius’s Exhibit Hall and was designed by Viktoras Čekanauskas. Inspired by Alvar Aalto’s 1959-1962 Wolfsburg Cultural Centre, Čekanauskas’s design underscored occupied Lithuania’s ambitions, its architecture pointing to the West and a neighborhood around the Baltic Sea rather than to the occupier, Soviet Russia. With the building considered a monument, interventions within it had to be done strategically rather than surgically. In what seems to be a paradox, one of the most significant interventions at the CAC was the most minimal; Renata Dubinskaite explains in a review in Meno Dienos that Ozarinskas painted the gallery floor in a neutral gray tone, obliterating the faux marble pattern, but leaving it with a palpably thick layer of paint that nevertheless left the outlines of the original pattern visible in certain places. At the same time, in the adjacent CAC café, Ozarinskas not only rolled back the clock, restoring crucial elements from the café’s Soviet era design (notably the spherical lights that hung over the tables), he introduced harsh industrial elements in the toilets, each marked by portholes and rounded windows seemingly reused from a Soviet battleship or submarine. Throughout the CAC galleries, Ozarinskas added heavy steel doors to provide both security and fire breaks between the spaces that harmonized with the rough modernity of the center’s exhibit spaces.

In the CAC cinema and foyer, Ozarinskas turned toward a confusion of public and private. For the cinema, he created a stark black box, populated with a series of couches readily identifiable as coming from IKEA. Thus, visitors would be lured into thinking of the space as analogous to their living room where they might relax and casually watch television even as the CAC’s programming was bound to be avant-garde and provocative. Similarly, at the entrance hall or foyer, Ozarinskas deployed elements outside of their usual context, notably milk crates repurposed as shelves and detached airplane wings hung from the ceiling to produce horizontal surfaces while provoking questions about how precisely these objects had made their way into the space.

Found or dislocated objects became a key part of Ozarinskas’s oeuvre starting around 2000. The radical and clashing forms of projects like NATO or the Elektrėnai Church gave way to a more evocative and mysterious approach that I’ll dub Stalker Architecture after the term developed in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1962 book Roadside Picnic and the 1979 film Stalker that director Andrei Tarkovsky’s based on that book (it’s worth noting that the film was mainly shot at an abandoned hydroelectric plant near Tallinn). It’s hard to imagine Ozarinskas, with his voracious appetite for cinema, would have been unaware of Stalker, but although the similarities are clear, I wish to draw a parallel rather than a direct influence. What is important is the figure of the “stalker” in both book and film, individuals who go into a dangerous, restricted area known as the Zone. If the film departs from this a bit, in the book, it’s clear that the stalker goes into the Zone, a formerly ordinary town in which some kind of alien presence now resides, in order to (generally illegally) retrieve alien artifacts. This strikes me as very much what Ozarinskas began doing in the 2000s, creating a design based around the discovery and display of artifacts that would create a sense of defamiliarization among those who encountered them.

Still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979)

Probably Ozarinskas’s most famous work, done in collaboration as Private Ideology with Marina and Audrius Bučas, Gintaras Kuginys, and Aida Čeponytė, was the Lithuanian Pavilion at Expo 2000. As Ozarinskas would later do at the CAC foyer, the team of designers turned to the metaphor of flight, creating a pavilion that simultaneously looked like some kind of airplane engine and a futuristic flying machine. Notoriously, the Lithuanian Architects’ Union sought to manipulate the competition and condemned the project as having nothing to do with Lithuanian culture and discrediting the professional community, thereby revealing itself to be a bankrupt holdover from Soviet days. In contrast to the backwards vision of the Architects’ Union, Private Ideology sought to rethink Lithuania not as an “imagined community” based on an fixed idea of an “ethnic” past as expressed through architecture, but instead sought to envision the country in terms of air transit, understanding that the role of post-Soviet Lithuania was to take its place in a rapidly globalizing capitalist economy, even with all the fraught transformations of identity that this would bring.

In a 2001 competition for the Danish port of Federicia, Ozarinskas and Ceponyte added what they claimed to be dots used for geolocating the space shuttle onto oil containers in the port themselves as a way of making the landscape more readable. At the same time, these bold graphics and alien qualities seemed to recall Malevich’s Black Square, artifacts inscrutable in purpose and mysterious in origin. Soon, they spread throughout the CAC, installed above the café (where one sprouted an antenna, appearing to become a satellite receiving dish), in Valdas’s office, and even serving as a table in the staff lounge.

In 2002, Ozarinskas and Ceponyte produced their most controversial work, this time for the Lux Europae competition in Copenhagen. Here, they addressed the Soviet era nuclear reactor named after Valdas’s home town, Ignalina. An RMBK class, graphite-moderated nuclear reactor, like the one that melted Chernobyl, Ignalina became a thorn in the side for Lithuania as it was the country’s biggest source of energy and largest export while also being deemed inherently unsafe by country’s EU neighbors, who insisted it be shut down as a condition of Lithuania joining the European Union. Citing that the closure of the project was going to be tremendously costly (the idea of free energy turned out not to be so free), the artists sought to draw attention to the reactor, hanging a series of four television monitors in Copenhagen’s Østerport Station, each suspended in orange material that brought to mind radiation suits. On each monitor a video stream, purporting to be live from Ignalina, was displayed. The result caused a controversy leading as high as the Lithuanian Parliament, where concerned was voiced that such a work put Lithuania in a bad light.

In both the Federicia project and the Ignalina project, the architect acts as a Stalker, bringing back strange artifacts or video from a realm of mysterious origins. Complimenting this, in the apartment he designed for Aida Čeponytė and himself as well as in the Vilnius office of Saatchi & Saatchi, Ozarinskas created spaces that seemed to service as processing centers for such objects. In both cases, the space of home or office becomes rethought as a laboratories, filled with stark metal furniture and fixtures. If hyperfunctionalist, these are also industrial spaces, in which the occupant is not so much a dweller or worker as an experimenter, engaged in possibly dangerous practices.

For his apartment, Ozarinskas also made a simple black rubber pillow with a simple handle (this may have actually been originally used for a concert by the band Monolake and was called “Monolake”). This would become a recurring theme for Ozarinskas, reappearing as seating for his 2007 Transverse exhibit at the Contemporary Art Centre. On this occasion, I remember Valdas showing me the pillow and exclaiming that there was no need for anyone to have more than this, that this was a sufficient architecture in itself. In this, we talked about Archizoom’s No Stop City, a project that we were both influenced by, in which the dwelling was to be reconceived of as a “well-equipped parking lot.” The pillow would be the perfect furniture for that condition, architecture reduced to its degree zero.

In 2010, the black pillow reappeared at the Contemporary Art Centre, but now in massively oversized form, taking up most of the main hall. Produced with his longtime collaborator Audrius Bučas, the project was originally to be a massive version of the portable pillow, 25 x 25 meters, something that viewers could project their own desires into. With strange lines on the floor of the gallery—apparently lane markers for an Olympic swimming pool—the project seems to be another relic from the Zone, this time blown up to impossibly huge size. But the country was already gripped by the Global Financial Crisis and by 2009, when Vilnius was declared that year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, there was little money for art and pessimism about the future. Notwithstanding that the project was exhibited more widely than any of Ozarinskas’s artworks and in 2012 re-appeared at the Old Brewery in Cēsis, Latvia and in the Baltic States section of the Liverpool Biennial, Ozarinskas rethought the project as a project of failure.

Ozarinskas’s last project, which opened in 2014, the week before he died, was “Filtrai” at the Antanas Mončys House in Palanga where he had been appointed curator or two years. Here, Ozarinskas produced twelve photographs, each 137x300cm in size and all nearly black, their differences nearly invisible, produced by very long exposures through the sorts of filter used in welding glasses. Here, at last it seems we are offered a glimpse of the Zone that Ozarinskas had relentlessly explored and from which he had brought artifacts. The Zone, it turns out, was nothing less than his relentlessly fertile imagination.