Near Montenegro's most southern town Ulcinj sits the former saline "Bajo Sekulic," a completely artificial, man-made biotope which has taken on almost global importance as a crucial node in the migratory patterns of birds. As such, the Solana Ulcinj is the front line of all kinds of conflicts: between nature and culture; the local and the global; economy and environmental awareness.
The Project Solana Ulcinj, commissioned by Dijana Vucinic and the Ministry of sustainable development and tourism and curated by Bart Lootsma and Katharina Weinberger, is the Montenegrin contribution to the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of the Biennale di Architettura. The Montenegrin pavilion hosts four projects outlining four different sustainable futures for the Solana Ulcinj, developed specially for the Biennale by four practices: ecoLogicStudio from London, LOLA form Rotterdam and LAAC from Innsbruck, while a fourth project will be decided following a national competition in Montenegro. The project is accompanied by a series of three symposia in Montenegro and in Venice.
With a surface of 14.9 square kilometers Solana is one of the largest salines in the Mediterranean region. It is a completely man-made, artificial landscape which, founded in the nineteen twenties, turned into a biotope of global importance. Looking for lands suitable for industrial salt production, the Monopoly Management of former Yugoslavia selected the area around the Zoganjsko Jezero lake, in the delta of the Bojana-Buna River and close to the Adriatic Sea. At a height of 253 meters above sea level the plateau can become hot and there is a constant wind. These conditions are favorable for the evaporation of water, which is essential for salt production. Between 1926 and 1934 the first salt pans, buildings and machinery were constructed and in 1935 the first salt was harvested. Over the course of its history, the size of the area was increased several times.
The aftereffects of the last Balkan war, notably the international embargo related to it, the falling apart of former Yugoslavia and the political and economic transformations in Montenegro afterward caused the Solana Ulcinj to go bankrupt in 2005. The salt production was no longer protected by a state monopoly and the value of salt on the world market had drastically decreased, with most of the world’s salt now coming from China. Therefore, the industrial salt production the Solana had focused on was no longer profitable. The Solana Ulcinj was privatized and came into the hands of a few major stakeholders. Ever since, the status of the Solana has been unclear, which explains why it is in urgent need of renovation and reconstruction today. Its future is torn between the commercial interests of the current owners and the international pressure of conservationists, supported by the EU, to turn it into a nature reserve. The government of Montenegro tried to turn the Solana into a protected area by law but the decision was partly revised by the constitutional court, while at the same time the ownership of the Solana is disputed in Commercial Court.
The Solana Ulcinj is an unreal man-made artificial and abstract landscape, in which only a few machines stand out, which look like huge donkeys made of rusting steel. Far away, in the background, one can see mountains topped with snow. These are the only elements that define the place, forcing one’s gaze to focus on small or even tiny plants and animals. Some are only visible through a microscope or binoculars, but here, undisturbed by any other distractions, this is exactly what makes them fascinating. As such, it is a landscape with a high cultural value. More importantly, the process of salt production in a series of salt pans produces a great diversity in chemical conditions. This not only lends the Solana a great colour palette, but also great diversity of conditions for different flora and fauna. When the sea water is pumped up, small organisms and shrimps come with it. Fish and and other animals feed on them. This is the main reason that the Solana Ulcinj currently houses 250 of the 500 kinds of birds that live in Europe for longer or shorter periods every year. Of those 250, 70 are protected under the Bird Directive of the European Union. The Solana Ulcinj is a resting place for protected bird species on the Adriatic flyway from northern Europe and Siberia to Asia and Africa and vice versa and a wintering or breeding place for others. A special sight is the appearance of the Dalmatian Pelican and the Greater Flamingo. Therefore, in principle, the Solana Ulcinj meets all the required criteria to be listed among the most important protected nature reserves in Europe.
As the saline has been out of use since 2012, sea water has not been pumped up for a number of years, and there has hardly been any maintenance performed on the extremely vulnerable infrastructure of dikes, buildings and machines. All infrastructure for bird watchers, like a museum and the watch towers, has been destroyed. Poachers enter the area relatively easily and shoot protected birds. Pending definitive decisions, the Montenegrin state and the city of Ulcinj together have taken a series of provisional measures to avoid the worst, but it is clear that this situation is far from ideal for many different reasons.
The Project Solana Ulcinj addresses the Biennale di Architettura 2016 theme “REPORTING FROM THE FRONT” by reporting about this crucial project in Montenegro, which is caught up in struggles between the local and the global, nature and culture, tourism and sustainability, economy and the social realm. Project Solana Ulcinj wants to offer spatial strategies that may guide new syntheses for these conflicts. As the Solana Ulcinj is currently torn between conservation and economic interests, it finds itself at an impasse. It is therefore crucial to develop new plans for the future of the saline which are both ecologically and economically sustainable. The Project Solana Ulcinj takes the challenge to come up with new proposals of how to save the important ecological position and the unique cultural qualities of the landscape, while at the same time enabling and regulating economic interests in the area.
To generate a public debate in Montenegro, four practices are selected. All four of them represent very different positions in the field of landscape architecture and sustainable development. This will give new input to and thus enable to open up and speed up the decision making processes around the Solana Ulcinj. It will also stimulate the debate about architecture and landscape architecture in Montenegro and establish an international exchange.
The Cloud of Saline Species / LOLA Landscape Architects
LOLA Landscape Architects, a Dutch practice based in Rotterdam, wants to increase the current biodiversity in the Solana Ulcinj even more in their proposal “The Cloud of Saline Species.” They do this by activating and differentiating the salt sedimentation system in order to generate more life, more diversity of life, and new ways of experiencing the beauty of it all. They introduce more pumps in the saline and propose to pump up salt water all year, instead of just in the hot season to which the industrial salt production was originally limited. Their idea is not to produce more salt, as the Solana could never compete in price with Chinese salt, but to produce salt of a higher and more specific quality, which can be sold for higher prices. Therefore, a smaller part of the Solana Ulcinj would be used for this salt production, and it would use the latest robot technology for harvesting. The real reason for the year-round pumping is to attract even more different kinds of birds, also in periods where there are not that many present right now. These new species are attracted by a larger differentiation of the different fields, which entrepreneurs, hotel owners and farmers can use for different small scale leisure activities (bird watching, floating on salt water, mud baths) or production. The existing buildings would be redeveloped for leisure activities and only a few selected buildings and machines with specific functions (floating sauna, watchtowers, overnight stay cabins, etc.) would be added. A new path system, including new waterways, would make the edges accessible, while the core would remain inaccessible.
In the exhibition, the richness of the new, upgraded ecosystem would be demonstrated through a pyramidal cloud with 1000 laser cut contours of all species that could live in the new Solana Ulcinj, from microbes and shrimps through plants and birds to predators and finally humans. In this project, it is assumed that the (national) government of Montenegro owns the Solana Ulcinj, activates the main pumps and does basic maintenance, while encouraging and coordinating local private parties to take entrepreneurial initiatives for production or tourist activities, to increase the biodiversity and to improve the local economy.
Solana Open Aviary / ecoLogicStudio
London-based ecoLogicStudio proposes to take the artificial territory of the Solana Ulcinj, which was shaped in the twentieth century by industrial and mechanical processes, to the twenty-first century by means of the latest technologies. Their project “Solana Open Aviary” proposes to literally turn the site into an aviary without a net, where birds and humans can explore close interaction “without being forcefully enclosed in a confined envelope; this is made possible by digital bird tracking technologies, hi-resolution satellite earth monitoring and robotically driven land sculpting.” “Open” refers in this project just as well to open systems, open source technologies, and the “open” networks of sites defined by migration. The project connects all scales, from the intercontinental scale of bird migration to the molecular scale of the salt and other chemicals that define the special landscape of the Solana Ulcinj. On the largest scale, ecoLogicStudio shows that the Solana Ulcinj is part of a larger network of other salines in Europe and northern Africa, which go through similar problems. These habitats may be scattered over many different countries, but they are all parts of a larger project when it comes to preserve the global bird population and its complex migratory behaviour. Therefore, ecoLogicStudio propose that an international NGO, with international funding, should be in charge of these places.
In collaboration with ESA, ecoLogicStudio show the latest analyses of Sentinella2, a high resolution monitoring satellite, which can reveal biochemical processes on the ground and in the water. This reveals the Solana Ulcinj as a landscape that is inextricably the product of the combination of human agency and local biological life. Similar conditions to the ones that appear in the Solana Ulcinj appear in the surrounding landscape, which might enable to virtually enlarge the field of the biotope and thus increase its capacity. At the same time an increase of the range of activities in this area enables economic development on a local scale. The tectonic of the Open Aviary becomes literally a combination of the geological tectonic and human interventions in the skin of the earth. It becomes a robotically fabricated artificial but highly differentiated landscape, capable of attracting an even wider variety of bird species and accommodating all kinds of new programs, from research to leisure and from sports to healthcare.
Coexistence / LAAC
With their project “Coexistence” Innsbruck-based practice LAAC present an animation that transcends the current reality in a more poetical and architectural way. Together with the Viennese firm artfabrik, they have made a complete 3D laser scan of the whole landscape of the Solana Ulcinj. The digital material of this laser scan, which is incredibly detailed, forms the basis for a series of digital metamorphoses, in which nature constantly morphs into technology and the other way round, constantly blurring the boundaries between nature and artifice, suggesting the possibility of a coexistence of the two. Proposals for a new museum on the site and partial re-use of the existing buildings complete the project.
The fourth project will be selected from a competition among Montenegrin architects.
To enable an optimal exchange between the Project Solana Ulcinj, regional, national and international audiences, three symposia will accompany this fact-and-potential finding mission.
The first symposium, “THE BRIEF” took place in Ulcinj on February 12 and 13. Here, the participants in the project will be briefed by regional, national and international experts in the fields of planning, ecology and sustainable tourism. The symposium was open to the general public and it was visited by a crowd of local inhabitants, people from other parts of Montenegro and politicians.
The second symposium, “REPORTING FROM MONTENEGRO” will take place in the Montenegrin Pavilion in Venice on May 29. It presents the Project Solana Ulcinj for an international audience in Venice, addressing this years Biennale di Architettura theme.
The third symposium “THE DEBATE” will take place in Kotor, Montenegro, between July 20 and 24. It presents and discusses the results of the Project Solana Ulcinj for the national and international audience of the KotorAPSS (Kotor Architectural Prison Summer School).