Architecture is a Process of Reflection

architects Aljoša Dekleva, Tina Gregorič
interviewed by Tadej Glažar, Vera Grimmer

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Interviewed in Ljubljana, 2 June 2014


The first joint work of Dekleva Gregorič Architects, the xxs residential house in the old Ljubljana neighbourhood, drew a lot of attention, but also revealed the significance of programmatic, conceptual and material factors which will characterize their complete future oeuvre. Their method of work is exploratory and discursive, among other things inspired by the postgraduate course at the Architectural Association in London. The discussion within the team provides the basis for the search for the parameters which will define the project. Their urban and residential projects deal with the relation between the public and the private, with the special focus on offering the possibility for social interaction; the interests of the user always being in the centre of their work. Dekleva Gregorič Architects do not aspire to have a recognizable style – every new project presents a new challenge to them. Their design process results in unusual, unexpected and, finally, original solutions.


ORIS:Let us begin by reminding ourselves of your early work, which was first acclaimed internationally and later nationally – the xxs house. It was significant from several aspects – programmatic, material and contextual. When we speak of this project today, we could say that it almost seems as a manifesto. Do you feel as if this work has defined your future work?


Aljoša Deklava: This super small house was actually our first joint building, and the beginning of the Dekleva Gregorič arhitekti. My parents wanted to implement their idea of a piede-à-terre in Ljubljana and my father, an architect, decided to take the role of the client. It was the first time, after returning from our master studies at the Architectural Association in London, that we started to collaborate on a project to go on site. We continued from our previous research or developed certain topics anew which were, and still are, central to our architectural thinking.


ORIS: At the same time, that object almost seems as an object of perfect design, such as, for instance, a Brionvega radio.


Deklava-Gregorič: We still perceive the xxs as a tiny summary of most topics we have been interested in; confronting the obvious and acting beyond standard, challenging the use of materials and exposing their natures, structuring the volume – in relation to the program, light and the multiple conditions of the context and of the heritage preservation. The house is located in a very specific environment, just off the centre of Ljubljana, on a tiny plot with demanding edge conditions, a very strict program, rigid definitions of heritage preservation, and its particular service history with service type of materials. The selection of materials, their treatment and details are crucial in establishing a contemporary attitude respecting the heritage. The relation towards the tradition needs to be profound and multi-layered as tradition has to be preserved, but also re-thought with contemporary approach. The analogy with the design object is possible due to the scale; the small dimension of the building demands for even greater attentive treatment of details. The site was delicate and the house was small, which means that every individual screw has been carefully reflected with the knowledge and ambitions we had ten years ago. We have been learning the craft of architecture by doing it. From the beginning our office has been operating by the mode of never separating research and design.


ORIS: Can you say something about your relation towards the modern tradition, considering the fact that your father Marko Dekleva was a member of the Kras Group? What was the meaning of the Kras Group for your development and the development of contemporary architecture in Slovenia?


Aljoša Deklava: I think that architecture is always a matter of continuity. Since the world is physically determined, it is not happening only in the space, but in the time frame, as well. Space is a temporal phenomenon. The Kras Group also existed outside the office – they would often spend time together, connected to Karst region and Trieste, etc. I was growing up in Karst surrounded also by other group members Vojteh Ravnikar, Matjaž Garzarolli and Egon Vatovec. At that time I came to some completely immaterial realizations, such as the perception of Karst as a Mediterranean area. Having the postmodern tradition on one side, I was very interested in the modern tradition of Slovenian architecture on the other side – late modernism of the 1960s and 1970s, which was very locally specific. This contextual modernism is what we often refer to in many aspects.


ORIS:  It was the generation of Edvard Ravnikar and his students Savin Sever, Oton Jugovec, Stanko Kristl, Milan Mihelič….


Aljoša Deklava: I was fortunate to begin my studies under professor Kristl at the Faculty. He was the last to teach of that generation. We have studied Ravnikar, Plečnik, and, naturally, – Viennese Otto Wagner and Semper. You can see it in the details: we deliberately stick to the principle of expressing the true nature of the materials, and the visible principle of their application.


ORIS: The relation towards modern architectural heritage is also significant, as you have just mentioned, as well as the events which took place before the office was founded, such as dealing with modern architecture. The, so called Evidenca, wherein Tina participated, was founded at the Faculty of Architecture, and then there was the Negotiate My Boundary research. During your studies in London you also dealt with Modern Architecture – Smithson, Corbusier, etc…. It must have influenced your work.


Tina Gregorič: It was important that we have been intensively researching and attempting to preserve some example of late modernism in Slovenia while still students; Aljoša by his efforts to preserve Gvardijančič’s petrol station in Sežana, and me by trying to rescue from demolition Sever’s building Učne delavnice in Ljubljana. Sadly, both buildings were demolished. This act led to a comprehensive research of evidencing and evaluating modern Slovenian architecture between 1945 and 1970 named Evidenca. We continued to concentrate on certain chapters of modernism with the research at the aa, first with team10 and the Smithsons, and then with Le Corbusier, as part of the Negotiate My Boundary! master’s thesis. All this research was very important for the shaping of our relation towards architectural theory and design. Recent research of Kristl’s work with Tadej Glažar reveals his effort to re-establish humanity and poetics in modern architecture. Here we again reconnected, as the human and social aspect of architecture plays a significant role in our work.


Deklava-Gregorič: This generation is a continuous inspiration to us and a warning we must not ignore. We perceive our local architectural heritage as something multi-layered and experimental; therefore we are constantly exploring it. We refer to it so much because we like to learn from architects inventive on every possible scale (From the spoon to the city as Ernesto Rogers claimed), and in every step of their design process avoiding catalogue selection or standard solutions. We are aware of the fact that the period we are working in is over-determined with applicable EU regulations, standards and catalogues, but we repeatedly attempt to challenge them in each project. Relating again to Peter Smithson. In our interview he clearly stated that architecture is a craft, and one can only become an architect by working in architecture. Additionally, he explained the importance of reflections and the importance of writing towards building, where the consequences of the building generate thoughts, and the reflections are then integrated in the next building.


ORIS: Your research relates to specific tasks. You try to optimize some typologically common architectural tasks, such as the semiprivate-public-private relation in the housing estate in Perovo with the aim of improving the quality of life in the houses. You also introduced a certain morphology in the form related to the mountain landscape, the Kamnik Alps, etc.


Deklava-Gregorič: Perovo housing project was a task difficult to accept because of our belief that architecture and urbanism have to be closely connected and developed simultaneously. We were invited to the competition, where the master plan has already been defined. The ensuing process was an attempt to challenge the bold suburbia master plan by architecture. We systematically structured the volumes with cynical exaggerations of the masterplan rules to define specific identity and provide the privacy of the future homes within the new community.


ORIS: The structure of the community with respect to the preservation of privacy slightly reminds me of the ideas of njirić+njirić at the European Glasgow project. Does Njirić’s method seem close to you in a way?


Tina Gregorič: I met Hrvoje Njirić as a student in an international workshop, later I was his assistant when he was a visiting professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana, and he was a co-mentor of my collective housing diploma project. With all these collaborations I truly learned a lot. The redefinition of collective housing was a crucial European obsession at the end of the 1990s, and later also the research topic of our master thesis Negotiate my boundary! Therefore it was only natural that the intriguing European projects of njirić+njirić should influence our way of thinking.
The book Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism (1963) written by Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander significantly influenced our systematic approach to design, the relation between private and public, and all gradations between semipublic and semiprivate. Although the book is more than fifty years old, one can relate to its definitions, to its structured approach, and its call for smart parametric and systematic process in architecture. One develops the parameters of the system, so the architectural design arises through the system, instead of being a result of an intuitive gesture. Relating our work to that of Njirić we understand as a compliment. The strength of his thinking is reflected in his critical writings, drawings, teaching and buildings; the questioning and the re-thinking come first, as well as the accompanying diagrams. That corresponds with our belief that architecture is primarily a process of reflection.


ORIS: You named the project in Karst Contemporary Village. It was developed at the same time as the Perovo housing estate. What did you want to express with the project? Why was the project, which was not commissioned, developed?


Deklava-Gregorič: In this project we were able to propose an urban strategy. Unlike Perovo, with a precisely regulated generic suburbia masterplan of high density, the most important thing here was the urban reflection of the rural environment. In this region everyone has been doing whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted it. The project is a critique of those realities. The terrain is tabula rasa, so to speak, it is not the extension of the village. As a reference to the historical Karst villages, we wanted to stress the importance of the compactness of the village structure. In that sense, it is an attempt to design a cluster of houses, a contemporary mini-village, where you could either spend your free time, or live and work … Each house is positioned on the edge of the walled-in courtyard, same as a traditional Karst house. The courtyard becomes the main element, not the house. The yard, the void is the centre of living since the climate allows it, whereas the house is a sort of infrastructure. We designed the house as a thickening of the wall. In that way we defined what was private, indoor as well as outdoor, and what was public, to create the atmosphere of a traditional Karst village. We have also tried to develop a model of community self-control, unlike the models of uncontrolled developments that we, as architects, have to face every day. We suggested that all house owners also become the owners of the areas between the walled houses, areas intended for infrastructure and common activities – a corner for collective growing of vegetables, or a mini children’s playground. Thus every intervention in the area had to be mutually agreed on. It is a model of organization through ownership.


ORIS: You designed a metal recycling plant, which was a completely functional and unappealing task. In Tomaž Brate’s words, you did it with a contextual relation towards the cultural landscape of Karst. Were his words a poetic interpretation of this project or did you feel it in a similar way as well?


Tina Gregorič: One should be reminded that Aljoša comes from Karst; he grew up in this landscape and understands it well. He followed the development of the Kras group and their Vremski Britof project, which Brate wrote about a lot. The topic of the wall in the Metal Recycling Plant project in Pivka is related to the project of the contemporary village. Tomaž Brate’s words are, of course, a poetic interpretation, but it is true that we carry certain landscapes in ourselves. We believe that architectural interventions in the landscapes and culture which we are not familiar with are very questionable, since we do not understand their complex layers. Aljoša understood the role of the wall in the landscape, and the relation to the enclosed production space. The crucial task of the project was the definition of the wall. This immense production plateau required careful placement in the environment ensuring as little earth work as possible, as well as the lowest wall possible. Additionally we placed the two small volumes next to the wall, and on the wall. Again, relating to the of Karst typology.


ORIS: The great topic of duality can also be seen in the project. The office program has been executed in light metal, and those of the service program in heavy concrete. Does it go beyond functionality?


Aljoša Deklava: Poetic reflection on how to reveal through this project the process happening behind the wall played an important role. At this metal recycling plant different metal materials are being separated; iron, copper, brass, etc. The materials are then being isolated and processed for industry. The duality of the two buildings expresses the context of material separation process of the plant. We conceived them as two completely identical entities in dimension and shape and, at the same time, with two radically different materials, from structure to cladding, responding to two completely different programs. The generic programs which are necessary for any industrial process are materialised in concrete, a heavy duty and long-lasting material, as this service building easily allows for change of the programme to another industrial production. On the other hand, this office program, very specific to the recycling, and which would change in case of modification of the industrial process, has been completed in metal–which means that it can be recycled on site at any moment.


ORIS: On several occasions you have emphasized the importance of the context in the process of developing architecture. You are also well connected internationally; if we look at your cv, we can see international awards, lectures, exhibitions, publications, teaching activities. Your fields of activity go way beyond the local, Slovenian environment.


Deklava-Gregorič: We both studied abroad and have thus become aware of the fact that we are actually residents of the world and architects of the world. It is extremely important, however, to know where your roots are, where you come from. This international aspect you mentioned is central, as coming from such a tiny country we have to constantly rethink our research and design in relation to international excellence. It is not enough to get national acclaim for your work. Every architect needs to carry the responsibility for his actions, while building a part of our planet with each project on the level of its necessity, as well as quality. We always need to be self-critical; it was accentuated in the whole educational process in London – at the aa we constantly presented our projects in front of an international jury. We had to review our solutions, and constantly search for better answers. That is why architectural thinking is so important to us; it is something which needs to be cherished. We both graduated from the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana, where we had received a solid base; from a good educational system, but we wanted an international experience. When we arrived at the aa, our eyes did not have to be opened, because they had already been opened as we knew what the architectural topics we would like to explore deeply in the course of our studies are. We started meeting different students and teachers of diverse backgrounds, knowledge and approaches, and that was one of the biggest qualities of the School; besides the amazing library, workshops and access to key architectural figures; our horizons were widened through the process of challenging everything. With our colleagues scattered all over the world the international experiences become significant to understand different modes of operating, positioning and teaching architecture. The aa network works in the field of lectures or education, but new clients arrive through different channels.


ORIS: The house on a Hawaiian island Maui is thus a product of a different network. We mentioned Kras and the specific features of a different location. How did you approach that task?


Deklava-Gregorič: Naturally, we were looking forward to designing a house in Hawaii; at a very exotic and beautiful location, but prior to any design decision we travelled to the location. We were approached by our friends Robert Stroj from Zagreb and his wife from Ljubljana, who had been living and working on Maui for years, and wanted to build their own house there. This house was designed for friends, while the xxs was designed for the family. It is important to build trust between the clients and the architects. You need to understand the specifics of the future users and their way of life. It is usually an extensive and complex process, and it somehow seems easier if the investors are friends or family members. We have learned from Alvaro Aalto, Sverre Fehn and other important architects that you had to feel, breathe, and spend intensive time on the site. When we first stayed on Maui, we studied the climate, rough and salty microclimate, the wind, crucial for the whole project, the sun, the rain, and the incredible ocean view, in addition to spending time with the family and learning of their passions. We also studied the local civil technology since we had to adjust the materials and the building technology to the environment of this faraway island and the remote site. The context is not limited only to physical characteristics; the social aspect is also important. Our clients were Europeans who lived on the island, where there is not much public space for meeting friends. So, the house has a double role of a family home, and a socializing venue. Several times a year it becomes a small hotel, and recently it adopted an additional purpose – a working space. The systematic approach to the design of several houses under common roof has allowed for all these transformations. A house which you inhabit during the entire day, where you live, study and work gains additional importance in the family life in relation to most single houses built for families with 9 to 5 work and school rhythm. There was nothing on site that we were used to as European architects; there was nothing built, only 100% of nature as far as you could see; 50% in blue, and 50% in green colour. The inclusion of nature into the house is mostly reflected in the fact that the house has no façade. It thus has a fifth façade; the wooden clad roof which is blended into the colours of the cliff. The sensitive, natural material definition was crucial for the project. Local materials were used and exposed in their primary nature or treated with natural substances, either the ipe wood used throughout the interior and the exterior, or the beach sand used for the mortar. Allowing them to get the patina of raw microclimate was substantial within the thinking of the alternation of the house image in time. The starting point for the design and the atmosphere was actually the client’s reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s house on the ocean cliff (Walker Residence, Carmel, California). We tried to implement their aspirations within the project.


ORIS: We talked about the importance of the user. The house designed in small scale, for family and friends, enables direct, fruitful and predictable communication. In your urban projects, which cannot be separated from architecture, such as the redevelopment of the Tobacco factory area or the University Campus Livade projects, you intend to encourage the interactive life of the community which will be using the area. What are the chances of such reflections in reality? Do you have any experience in that field?


Deklava-Gregorič: Tobacco was a utopian project; the current situation – the project is on hold – is relatively simple and evident. The competition was issued for too many square meters, and there was a lack of crucial educational program. We proposed the network of tall slim residential towers with mixed-use bases, and a specific corner landmark relating to the industrial heritage. Our role was to make valuable system of the public spaces for all future users: residents, employees, shoppers, or passers-by in this large urban development in the centre of Ljubljana. Instead of creating a grid of the streets, we generated a network of mutually connected and functional triangle squares, in addition to the major square. Furthermore, we positioned semipublic playground on each roof of the tower base solely for the people who lived or worked in the tower. Such gradation of outdoor public and semipublic spaces might encourage development of the community. We deliberately maintain a certain degree of naivety as we believe that it is possible to stimulate certain interaction of the users. In recently completed collective housing units at Brdo in Ljubljana, we emphasized a series of outdoor public spaces and introduced shared interior spaces to boost residents’ interaction while forming a set of smaller communities as part of a larger neighbourhood. The shared spaces are systematically situated on top of every entrance. Initially, the client (National Housing Trust) was not convinced with our suggestion of shared spaces. Now it turns out to be the main argument of future dwellers for buying a home and the client turned extremely supportive. Once again it is clear, how the design can add surplus value. Shared public spaces for multiple-use do provide the possibility for birthday parties, indoor playgrounds for wintery months, gym or any other activity. This, almost ten year old project, was again predetermined with a fixed master plan, and a systematic three dimensional erosion of the predefined volumes was applied as a creative critique of the existing master plan with generic volumes in terms of size, height and their arbitrary position. This concept of sub-structuring the volumes is further reflected in the material expression: the initial envelope is defined with the local clay colour brick layer (as a precise material reference to the former brickyard on the site), and the cut-outs with balconies in dark render. A clear systematic approach to the organisation of these 185 dwellings was developed to allow for an array of 17 diverse flat types differentiated in terms of size and internal arrangement, in order to address different altering needs of future residents. The system allows joining of smaller flats or separating of larger units, before, after, or during the construction. This feature of joining smaller apartments into larger ones was, indeed, used during the construction period.


ORIS: All these reflections and adaptable systems are actually intended for the future; we see the ethical attitude of an architect, which is obviously very important to you, probably more important than a formal expression.


Deklava-Gregorič: Absolutely. We believe that it is the basis of the reflections on architecture. It is this systematic approach to architecture in the design process which enables integration of subsequent changes, and it is crucial for the survival of architecture and its harmonised development with the changing needs of the user, the community, the location, the region… The University Campus Livade Project has been conceived as an open network with its set of rules and parameters to facilitate changes and enable the gradual process of construction. While developing its, almost completed, first building, we already used this system to incorporate the current needs of the client – University of Primorska.


ORIS: Your project for the Monument for all victims of war is architecture in the sense of Loos.


Deklava-Gregorič: That is very nice to hear.


ORIS: How did you make the decisions regarding the outer volume and the interior?


Deklava-Gregorič: We decided to collaborate on this project with artist-friend Matej Andraž Vogrinčič. Initially we focused on the reading of the site and its role within Ljubljana’s major historical park&square. We instantly realised that the immediate surroundings of the monument are more than inappropriate to host this significant and sensitive reminder. With such visual cacophony as the monument background we decided for a radical approach. There was a possibility to create nothing; only a performance with the message that this was not a suitable area for a monument. We could have done nothing or everything. We opted for everything. We treated the monument as one large silenced house filling the empty void and defining the square perimeter. As a monument, it should have gained a dichotomous function as a sign on a larger urban scale, and as an introverted memorial space, a space of remembering and meditation. You would enter the space through a tall and extremely narrow passage to experience and understand the anguish and sorrow of all victims and their families. This path is needed to enter a huge captured void – a cut-out from the city life – a mute room enclosing the existing trees with the sky as the ceiling. There were crucial references to James Turell and his Skyspace projects, Philip Johnson and Mark Rothko and their Rothko chapel, Alberto Burri and his Gibelina among many others.


ORIS: Your project is multi-layered; it is not only a monument, but a wide urban intervention. One of the important elements of your work, which can also be seen in your other projects, is collaboration: your mutual collaboration, the collaboration with your team, the collaboration among generations, with local and international experts, and the collaboration among various professions. One project, also a result of collaboration, needs to be emphasized – ksevt. We know that architects are individualists, egoists, but a new kind of collective work was definitely necessary there.


Deklava-Gregorič: We believe that the topic of collaboration is very important. Architecture is too complex to do it intuitively and individually; there are too many factors, problems, complex elements to be tackled only by a gesture of one architect-artist. We agree that it is better to collaborate than just to compete. When you establish a relationship and mutual respect, architectural reflections flourish, and the decision-making process is complex, but different. Decisions are more objective and far less individual. A fairly radical experiment in that direction was the collaboration of four Slovene architectural studios, Bevk Perović arhitekti, ofis Architects, Sadar + Vuga, and us for a design of ksevt – the Cultural Center of European Space Technologies in a small town of Vitanje in Slovenia. The task was to merge the community centre with research and exhibition area dedicated to Herman Potočnik Noordung, one of the first theoreticians of space travel. Noordung’s spatial diagram from 1929 of the habitation wheel as the first geostationary space station generated the basis of the collaborative concept design. Since the strength of Noordung’s statement was something to admire and celebrate, it was obvious to embrace it as the starting point.


Aljoša Deklava: I do not think, however, that the model of an architect as an artist, creator, and author is wrong. It is a completely legitimate model which was always present, and which will always be present. I simply believe that this model often has predictable results, whereas the collaboration through dialogue, however, mostly has unexpected results. We have been practicing this approach for years with different constellations within the theoretical and the practical domain. The importance and the necessity of collaboration sometimes reach beyond the studio, but day to day we collaborate with our team within the office, where each project is developed as a set of questions and possible responses.


ORIS: Tina, you will be able to introduce this team approach in the teaching at the Vienna University of Technology.


Tina Gregorič: As a professor I will try as much as I can to integrate my positive educational experiences into the process of education at the tu Vienna. Two issues to begin with: the emphasis on teamwork, and the necessity for collaboration and constant presentations to international jury. These are small structural upgrades to education process, but crucial to allow next generations of the architects to develop the ability to collaborate and rethink spatial and social issues every time.