“Experiments in Entropy – 10 years ago I joined Architecture School” is a recent group exhibition held between the end of 2022 and February 2023, at the Valletta Contemporary Gallery curated by Andrew Borg Wirth. The exhibition invited 10 architects, plus the curator himself, to revisit their individual trajectories as architects/designers, through an exploration of Entropy as a universal force. The analysis of the architect’s role today and the critical themes that emerged remain poignantly relevant.
OWS’s own Tracey Sammut was one of the artists, while Andrew Borg Wirth, Matthew Scerri, and Mike Zerafa all previously worked in our sister office, NIDUM.
Openworkstudio’s Leo Chircop met up with the artists to reflect on the show and their work. Below is a look back at each of the artist’s contributions and a further exploration as to what their varied initiatory process was like in applying themselves as artists, and to understand their viewpoints as contemporary practicing architects and how their work was developed.
We congratulate the artists on their successful initiative:
Maria Azzopardi, Andrew Borg Wirth, Isaac Buttigieg, Lucia Calleja, Jean Ebejer, Felic Micallef, Suzi Mifsud, Tracey Sammut, Matthew Scerri, Nick Theuma, Mike Zerafa.
‘Reveal your Modus Operandi, Perit!’ by Isaac Buttigieg
LC: In your work, there is an element of resistance. I couldn’t help but pay attention to the saturated cliches and statements in your meta-narrative comic art but also your humour. Practically, you could say, it is almost a deconstructed Maltese architect’s version of a Hero’s Journey.
For context, the Hero’s Journey is a monomyth theory by Joseph Campbell. ‘In narratology and comparative mythology, the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, is the common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.’
Tell me more about this piece.
Isaac Buttigieg: ‘Reveal your Modus Operandi, Perit!’ is my reaction to the abysmal circumstances in which, at times, our profession is compelled to prevail. The portrayed tragicomical passage draws attention to post-truth capitalism, which in Malta has now reached the status of a quasi-religion. Regrettably what is supposed to be a noble profession, which at its core is meant to be an applied art, is here perverted; this is conspicuously evident in our built environment. However, while my artwork highlights the mayhem in which the perit’s profession finds itself, it also alludes to the fact that so many architects, especially the younger generations, are not so happy with the status quo. I’m pretty sure that in the very near future, architecture will once again command the building industry, rather than just oblige to it.
‘Not Everything Saved Will Be Lost’ by Mike Zerafa LC: The work discusses the uncertainty for the future whilst nodding at the binary matrix of working with the found past. A never-ending dance. Can you tell me more about your process in going about interpreting the theme of entropy in this way?
Mike Zerafa: Yes, I think that you have managed to encapsulate the essence of what I tried to do quite well in that sentence. During the build-up to this exhibition we, the artists, met up a number of times to discuss and figure out what each and every one of us wants to say with their piece. In my head, it’s a literal visual representation of the collective anxieties which kept surfacing in our conversations whilst discussing our roles as players in the local architecture scene.
LC: From your observations, do you see any architectural practicing legacies that are starting to take shape and will be passed on to the coming future?MZ: There are a number of architectural practices with a moral compass that put work into creating things of value – that respect the context in which they work and find innovative ways to improve it. These types of legacies are not always found in grand buildings or bombastic facades – most of the time they lay there in silence, unimposing and respectful.
What is the legacy you wish to approach in your practice that you wish survives, or also perhaps won’t?MZ: When I joined architecture school, I dreamt of building big buildings the way starchitects do – important monumental ones which stand out. As time goes by, in the few years I have spent working in this industry I have come to realize that the architecture which this country (or the world) needs, is quieter. Rather than imposing my work on a context, I would like for the context to drive my work. The legacy I want to leave behind is not one which stands in isolation, but one which is intertwined with our collective heritage.
‘Postcards of Progress’ by Lucia Calleja
Leo Chircop: In Lucia Calleja’s work, we’re looking at architectural buildings acting as a kind of memorabilia or even as an ornament, which are now transforming themselves into a language unique to our cityscapes. Yourself being an uprooted architect with a distant eye on the island – these photographs almost allude to a sense of irony & nostalgia.
Lucia Calleja: Yes, that’s quite accurate. Postcards of Progress is a compilation of photographs that reflects my conflicting feelings towards Malta – a combination of nostalgia and loss, both for an island that I love and miss, and for an identity that is transforming so rapidly.My initial focus was to interrogate whether the current building practices are inhibiting the development of this identity. In compiling the photographs, I hoped to present the various layers of our contemporary fabric and to contrast our built heritage with the lack of identity of the more recent, bland blocks of development we are all so tired of seeing. The presentation of the photographs as postcards are intended to be ironic. The visitor is invited to take a postcard, and in doing so is participating in preservation and depletion processes that reflect our rapidly-changing landscape. What is taken is held dear, what is left behind is to be inherited.
Leo Chircop: Leaving and returning to Malta – Lucia, what’s your point of view on this? Has your perception changed in the way you look at these buildings?
Lucia Calleja: In documenting the project, it became clearer and clearer to me that architecture reflects the society that builds it, and what we see happening around us is down to a society interested only in profit.
I have only been gone one year and when I visit, I do my best to return to the places I hold most dear to me. Tragically, it is in these places where the damage is most tangible, but I don’t want to sound too negative. Malta will continue to change so these conversations need to happen. As architects navigating the industry today we need to question what and how we are contributing to the heritage of tomorrow if we want to look toward a more positive future.
‘Training Data, World System‘ by Nick Theuma
LC: With your background as an architect, and now working at a distance with a shifted angle from your design practice, what are your thoughts on the process of working with data through an excessive and cumulative amount– which in the end may never end up seeing the light of day? How does that balance out with the actions of real decision-making & do you think that inherently your process is in a constant state of limbo?
Nick Theuma: Working with data can be a challenging and often frustrating process, especially when dealing with as large and as excessive an amount of information as we do today. In many cases, designers are required to gather and analyse data as part of their design process, whether it’s to inform their decisions or to provide evidence to support their proposals.
However, not all data will necessarily be relevant or useful, and not all of it will ultimately be used. It’s essential to filter and organise the data to make it more manageable and meaningful. This can involve prioritising data based on its relevance to the project, its reliability, and its potential impact on the design outcomes.
In some cases, data may be collected for research or exploratory purposes, even if it doesn’t end up being directly applied to the project. This can be seen as a valuable exercise in itself, as it can help designers to expand their knowledge and understanding of the context in which they are working.
Ultimately, the process of working with data should be seen as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. While it’s important to be thorough and rigorous in data collection and analysis, it’s equally important to recognise when it’s time to move on and focus on other aspects of the design process.
‘But, did you hear that?‘ by Maria Azzopardi
LC: We’ve become accustomed to tuning out these soundscapes that are taking shape around us. It seems to me that your work is an act of caution, that such sounds are becoming second nature to us. Environmentally – how much are we allowing ourselves to endure these ‘man-made stresses’ around us? Tell me more about your relationship with the ‘white’ noise you have artificially produced to embody entropy.
Maria Azzopardi: Acoustic comfort is a crucial aspect of our daily lives; as a multi-layered medium, sound can help us understand an area without even having to be in it, fundamental to the way we experience architecture.
However, since our local environment is inundated with construction activity, we have been presented with a ‘white’ noise which has become so common that we seem to have grown accustomed to it, almost as if in the absence of such sounds, we would be allowed to think of what we are erecting. Throughout the thought process of understanding entropy within our line of work I discovered that entropy can also propose an accumulation that isn’t always conscious and by artificially producing this white noise I have further comprehended how familiar and easy such sounds can be adapted to and how much we have adjusted ourselves to accept the state of radicality that we find ourselves in.’
‘Synthetics 2/3′ by Matthew Scerri
Leo Chircop: Your works Synthetics 1-3, all represent a state of in-between and duality – precisely encapsulating the process of entropy but also an urge for order and structure.
Matthew Scerri: I believe it’s a fair observation, however, within the term duality there inherently are two opposing extremes of the spectrum. The artworks try to highlight that terms we perceive as opposites are in fact synergies, their borders are not spatial and material, but transient and fleeting.
Using entropy as the lens by which to frame this observation, the idea that the ‘natural’ and the artificial are polar opposites is contested, forests are indistinguishable from planted woodlands, sewerage systems host abundant ecologies, entire cultures of flora travel between countries on our coats and our soils hosts more chemical remnants from air particulates than organic matter taking the form of a surreal landscape, the exhibit bears witness to how blurred and overlapped these two spheres of the material world really are and how this dichotomy is fractured.
It is my personal observation that all three artworks are engaging in a space in which our command of language struggles to define and that this dichotomy of terms we use to try to understand the spectrum is in fact inadequate and possibly destructive to the way we build our future.