Interview with Petros Lapithis on Neolithic settlements, social sustainability, and space exploration – Pavilion of Cyprus at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

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The Pavilion of Cyprus’ curatorial team consists of Petros Lapithis, Lia Lapithi, Nikos Kouroussis, Ioanna Ioannou Xiari, and the Cyprus Space Exploration Organization, all based in Cyprus. The exhibition will be held from May 20th to November 26th, 2023 at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023.

The exhibition draws a parallel between the Neolithic settlers’ journey to Cyprus and the potential for today’s scientists and space navigators to draw inspiration from the architectural community of Khirokitia when designing for Mars. It questions whether the primitive paradigm of the Neolithic period can serve as a model for future architectural design and whether future settlers can successfully establish a community on another planet using their knowledge and technology. The exhibition aims to explore the possibility of a community living on Mars as a potential salvation for humankind.

Here is a conversation between Petros Lapithis, one of the curators of the Pavilion of Cyprus, and Serra Utkum Ikiz of PA!

Serra Utkum Ikiz (PA): What inspired you to choose the Cyprus Aceramic Neolithic Khirokitia as a starting point for investigating social sustainability concerns within a humanistic and cultural framework, and how did you go about establishing this topic for the exhibition?

Petros Lapithis: In the prehistoric period, Khirokitia was one of the world’s most innovative cultures. It played a role in transmitting culture from the Near East to the European world. A Cypriot Neolithic settlement starting around 7500 BC has been an autonomous, self-sufficient settlement, an example of social sustainability, politics, economics, and the environment. It contained the socio-political elements of an egalitarian society, as there is no evidence of warfare, nor competition.

Khirokitia is located on a mountainous hinterland; as customized by Neolithic Levantine voyagers, thus creating one of the first Aceramic (pre-pottery) proto-urban settlements. The long occupation of the settlement and the ample documentation of its cultural phases facilitate the study of the evolution of this society and the expansion of Neolithic culture in the island’s environment.

Khirokitians have constructed an enduring cultural identity, a common sense of belonging, as portrayed by the archaeological material culture. The data about early farming practices and the introduction of the primary domesticated cereals and legumes, together with the food-producing techniques, transformed the dominant human prehistory into a sedentary (non-nomadic) society. Thus, it positively indicates an organized community, by means of signified “ideal” connotations and boundaries.

Serra (PA): How do you perceive the exhibition’s social sustainability principles as applicable to modern architecture and urban planning, both on Earth and in future space settlements?

Petros: Mankind has long dreamed of leaving Earth and exploring outer space. The advance of technology in the 20th century turned that dream into reality. Space flight has radically expanded our knowledge of the world around us. But just as ancient explorers were drawn to the sea, we are drawn to the universe.

How can we take on the first community dwellings of the Cyprus Aceramic Neolithic khirokitia – and use it as a stepping stone to address issues of social sustainability within a humanistic and cultural context, set on the platform of a newly built environment that will be created on Mars? Operating under the premise that social sustainability can be attained through means of collaboration and common awareness, the exhibition will aim to activate spaces in a three-dimensional and temporal manner in order to induce values of social and egalitarian participation.

Accepting different groups of people is very important for democratic societies to flourish, along with multicultural education. The ability to provide the opportunity for different groups of people to have active participation within the general community is an important factor that can help solve some of the issues mentioned above. The basic principles for multicultural education are the exchange of information and experiences; communication, elimination of racism, growth of sensitivity, solidarity, collaboration; and general respect for multicultural education.

Mars offers a fruitful geography to test design narratives that further an agenda of social sustainability.

Social sustainability is mainly concerned with the creation and maintenance of the quality of life of people within a society. It gives emphasis to the protection of the psychological and physical health of all people, encourages social cohesion, and provides education to people who in turn can contribute to society as a whole and develop relationships within it. Confronting individuals equally provides equal opportunities to all while giving more emphasis to those in need encourages and educates diversity, and provides social cohesion between people with different statuses. Eventually, the quality of life which has to do with basic needs, is cultivated on a personal, group, and community level.

Serra (PA): How do you see your work in the Cyprus Pavilion contributing to broader conversations and debates within the field of architecture, and what impact do you hope it will have on the discipline more broadly? What results do the curators intend to achieve via the display of this work and how do the curators expect visitors will engage with the exhibition?

Petros: We answer the Biennale 2023 question for the new ‘Laboratories of the Future’ by taking Khirokitia’s autonomous social sustainable settlement and projecting it into a possible future habitable planet. Can we use the ecological practices, farming technologies, and the social paradigm of the Khirokitians to start over a new society on another planet? Could the possibility of moving to Mars provide humanity with a new kick-off? Could Mars become, as Lesley Lokko describes, a new ‘Laboratory of the Future’? A cross-disciplinary team of Architects, artists, space engineers, and archaeologists/curators is called to challenge the notion.

The curatorial team’s proposal foresees establishing a “New Laboratory” of the Past and Future, as an immersive reflection of humanity; a space simulation/room/center/chamber/workshop where architecture and art will be in an incessant dialogue. Our proposal takes you through matter, time, and space.

Serra (PA): The Cyprus Pavilion mainly focused on anthropology, space exploration, and the role of technology in creating future architecture on Mars. Could you speak more to this aspect of your work, including any specific technologies or innovations that you are exploring or implementing?

Petros: Living by the example of Khirokitia: A voyage channeled by the stars can take you anywhere… Indeed, this describes the voyage of the early Neolithic travelers from the mainland to the coasts of Cyprus. These courageous wanderers were searching for their future homeland. They have been undeniably successful in their pursuit, as seen from today’s archaeological record, but how about today’s wanderers/scientists/space navigators?

Could this specific architectural community provide the leading edge when designing for Mars? May the primitive paradigm of the Neolithic period model the future of the communities? Could the new settlers/scientists, in the course using the current knowledge and technology, be sufficiently competent and dexterous, thus successfully bringing to completion a future project of community living on another planet? Will this be the solitary salvation of humankind?

Khirokitians were curious and persistent, as we are today about exploring planet Mars. Yet today, humanity ought to carefully design and implement the best cultural and scientific practices of the earth as they are required, to survive on a non-friendly for humankind planet.

No specific technologies or innovations have been either explored or implemented. The proposal is strictly based on social sustainability and how one can either question it, understand it, or perceive it!

One Question to Sum up the exhibition finale is written on the wall: Should We Build-On our Cultural Heritage when Moving to Mars?

Serra (PA): Thank you for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to share or add?

Petros: The exhibition is split into 4 spaces:

Space 1: Khirokitia- The Dawn Of Civilization: Projected on the wall is an animated video of Khirokitia showing the architecture and also their way of living.

Space 2: Khirokitia To Mars: In this space, the viewer enters between a large 2m high architectural sculpture and a projection of Mars on a low circular 1.5m diameter stainless-steel form. The 2-meter-high vertical mirrored stainless-steel architectural structure/sculpture stands could be interpreted as an upright field of asteroid stones and boulders. The viewer is standing and looking below at a new habitation site, suspended between these two opposite vistas, an awareness towards our today and perhaps giving a sense of where humanity is heading. Projected is a video with images of Mars’ landscape, sandstorms, frozen lakes, etc. taken by NASA.

Space 3: The Path Towards The Future: Under the open sky, a second, also 2-meter-high mirror stainless steel architectural structure/sculpture is placed. Geometry reveals how the world is made of cubes. The Cube, a symbol of Perfection, as well as, pure mathematics uniting Plato with geophysics. On the viewer’s path, one side reflects the large (threshing) sculpture, which he/she had passed to get to this one, into an open sky viewing an architectural form of absolute purity and symmetry while continuing his/her journey into the white empty expanse of the future.

Space 4: Laboratory Of Reflection: The entire floor is now covered with the same stencil of Cypro-Minoan syllabary repetition, and expansion. Mirror syllabary reality is being stretched to occupy not just the surface but the space itself. A performance takes place during the inauguration ceremony at the Cyprus Pavilion. It is a performance by the two artists Lia Lapithi and Nikos Kouroussis, titled “Time-Matter-Space”. The two artists walk at the Neolithic site of Khirokitia with a mirrored cube on their heads. The two seeming astronauts dressed in space suits, having flight luggage in hand, walk among the Khirokitia ruins. A full circle of their journey, ‘From Khirokitia to Mars’. The video will be projected on the wall during the exhibition.

One Question to Sum up the exhibition finale is written: “Should We Build-On our Cultural Heritage when Moving to Mars?”

We encourage you to stay tuned to ParametricArchitecture for detailed updates on the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023.

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