Alexander Dumarey

VRT News journalist helps design Bulgarian pavilion at Venice Architecture Biennial

The Bulgarian Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Biennal will have a distinct Belgian touch. The winning design for the pavilion is based on a series of photographs taken by our colleague here at VRT News Alexander Dumarey. While in Bulgaria Alexander took a series of photographs of empty school buildings. Now he has been asked to assist a team of architects and graphic designers that are working of the design of the Bulgarian Pavilion. The Venice Architecture Biennial opens to the public on 20 May. 

It is only the second time that Bulgaria is taking part in the Venice Architecture Biennial. The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture organised a competition to select a design suitable to represent the theme chosen for the biennial “The Laboratory of the Future”. “Education is the Movement from Light to Darkness” was chosen from a total of 34 projects that were submitted. The Bulgarian team led by the architect Boris Tikvarski drew their inspiration from a series of photographs that were taken by the VRT News photojournalist Alexander Dumarey.

Alexander is pleased with the recognition that is being given to his work. "I have been working on this photographic project for a long time, so I am glad that through this it will reach a wide audience. I have been to Bulgaria 10 times since 2016. When I am there, I take photographs of empty school buildings. The project gradually grew because the number of empty buildings there caught my attention. In the meantime, I have taken thousands of pictures, of which some have been published online. By chance the architect Boris Tikvarski saw some of them. He contacted me just after Christmas and things have moved quickly since then”. 

One of the images from the first draft of the Bulgarian design.

In less than a month three Bulgarian architects and a graphic designer have drawn up the plans for the Bulgarian pavilion. Alexander Dumaney’s photographs have guided them in their work. The design is bold to say the least as it portrays Bulgaria more as a country in decay rather than as a country with a flourishing future. The empty desks and lack of children are symbolic of this.

"The empty schools show Bulgaria’s decline in a very direct way. In 15 years, the population has decreased by 10%. It is quite bold to show a country’s negative side at an international event such as a biennial. Even though it is more than ever a subject that Bulgaria has been wrestling with for some time due to a low birth rate and mass emigration. The empty schools are like a canary in a coalmine. They provide the first indication that the population of a village is drying up”. 

A controversial choice

The choice of this pavilion to represent Bulgaria at the Venice Architecture Biennial has been the source of much discussion in the Bulgarian media. “I can understand the commotion because a design inspired by buildings that are empty doesn’t really paint a nice picture of a country. But on the other hand, our design tells the story of contemporary Bulgaria in a very direct way, and I think this is why the jury selected it. The plans for the pavilions normally should remain more or less secret until the Biennial opens. However, my Bulgarian teammates have already revealed quite a lot in the hope that this will go some way to countering the criticism of our design”. 

Alexander Dumarey

Now that their pavilion has been selected the Bulgarian team can finalise the first sketches.

Alexander Dumarey says that "My series of photographs is completely ready. Now I am going to continue to follow the research for the design. It will be a mammoth task to get everything ready for the opening on 20 May. Compared with other countries the budget is very limited, around a tenth of what the big players have, and we only have three and a half months to finalises the design and build the pavilion”.

"The aim is to make everything in Bulgaria and then to transport it to Italy. This will be an enormous logistical operation. I will be going to Venice to see the final result and I of course be following the progress of the project. My photographs will be displayed at the architecture biennial and that makes me very proud”. 

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