Architecture Should Be Appropriate and Achivable

architects Zoran Boševski, Boris Fiolić
interviewed by Ante Nikša Bilić, Vera Grimmer, Maroje Mrduljaš

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Interviewed in Zagreb,  18th February 2009


Studio BF is one of those valuable Croatian architectural practices which intelligently bridged the transition from the socialist social system of the late eighties to the new socio-economic environment of the 1990s. Studio BF is an important protagonist of the Croatian architectural scene of the middle generation; they developed their expression through a creative and energetic attitude towards the transitional circumstances within which they acted. Studio BF has systematically executed an evolutive conception of a competitive architectural office development where especially talented authors worked or have worked, authors who are ready to deal with projects of all scales and programmes. This is manifested in the successes of Studio BF in current competitions and in their realizations, which inherited the experience of modernity in expression, but which also reinterpret contemporary tendencies.


ORIS: You started your careers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You are two of the ‘transition leopards’, meaning that you are two of the first architects who started thinking within the free market context. You had no experience working in big socialist offices, but established your practice working as managers, architects and co-investors, all at the same time.


Boševski: Those were the grey years, a struggle of an office that has come of age to survive.


Fiolić: In the late 1980s, there was mostly residential construction, usually socially oriented, and only investments by the state covered large-scale architecture. We won first prize at the competition for the Zelengaj housing development, that was nevertheless significantly different, and we didn’t have to comply with those standards since this was a purely private investment. If it wasn’t for Zelengaj, we wouldn’t have started so early.


Boševski: Those first projects initiated by housing cooperatives were a paradigm of all the future so-called urban villas. From the early to the late 1990s, housing construction was based on urban villas. There were no constructions of large residential complexes; there were no constructions of anything that had any hint of wider meaning.


ORIS: The theory of urban villas was raised as a topic in the 1980s, as a consequence of the Berlin IBA. The idea was to redefine the typology of housing and so forth. You continued on the theoretically already established model that you developed further. The competition for Zelengaj took place in 1989. It is interesting that in the late 1980s, still in socialism, new models for financing housing construction started to appear.


Boševski: Housing cooperatives are not new, but they were the only ones which started making a different typology…


Fiolić: Those were the transitions from a social economy into a market economy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s housing cooperatives were a first step towards building an apartment to sell it, which is a pure market category. In the mid 1990s, with the dawn of mass construction of housing buildings of smaller dimensions, apartments truly became a market category, so the architectural work become much more directed.


ORIS: Urban villas were built in Zagreb’s green areas. They were a sign of an interest in the social constellation, since there was an interest in higher-standard housing that was not practised until that time; it wasn’t present on the market. People started striving towards values and customs of the middle class that were however transformed in the 1990s due to realistic economic inability, but this desire for Western standards in the late 1980s hinted that society had started to change. A similar trend can be seen in interiors, because the interior projects of the 1970s and 1980s gave up on socialist egalitarianism and introduced standards and customs like prestige, or a return to a more traditional notion of bourgeois comfort. In regard to these social transformations, there is the question of urban planning. You were involved in it in your early works; you even received a prize for an urban planning project in Ljubljana. If we can make a comparison, your new project, Pavlenski Put, also requires an urban planning solution because of its size. It has 750 dwellings, close to the population of a smaller town. It would be interesting if you compared the parameters important for this project in Ljubljana that is based on another social system and paradigm, and the parameters of this new project that reflects society’s current status.


Boševski:  Ljubljana was an open competition. It was an interesting task because we were able to express our thoughts about urban planning much more freely. The subject of the competition was spatial planning, and it was interesting to us because the competition included the area of the whole of Ljubljana. We interpolated into the entire town, mainly catching some points that were important in terms of infrastructure, like the railway station and Tivoli Park. This was the time when we considered zoning to be advancement in civilization, not as a product of ideology. The same is still valid today, although this happened in the 1980s.


Fiolić: We tried to stimulate urban planning in Ljubljana through resolving certain points we considered to be able to generate a new image for the town. University Town, Tivoli, the railway station, the old town, they were all given new content and form.


Boševski:  We gave the students’ town a form of a burg. We sketched real medieval defensive walls around it, including a moat. This was an allusion to something that I am still defending today: the autonomy of universities which has to be defended even with weapons. When the university loses its autonomy, than a town is no longer a town, then it is owned by politics and big capital. It becomes the matrix of influence of capital of strength, intervention and politics, at that moment it is just a simulacrum. As far as the Pavlenski Put housing development is concerned, it is attempting to create a small oasis in one housing segment, and now it is only a question whether the housing and residential neighbourhood is still the social frame in the 21st century, or it isn’t any more. Housing neighbourhoods are rarely mentioned as a social frame, there are other social groups, business, associative and others, concerning some new affinities man have developed. And the housing neighbourhood is perhaps the only true appropriated space of the town, like in Vicente Guallart’s Sociópolis project in Valencia, with its the Sharing Tower, where there are possibilities for community due to the very dwelling structure. Our project is trying to find at least a part of that community, and we hope that the inhabitants will spend time in the greenery area, that is the maximum we can expect there. It is a commercial creation. Beautiful or ugly, it stops being so important to me in housing architecture. It is much more important whether the corridors or common staircases are something where people truly socialize and live like they used to on the stairs of towns or houses, or if this is no longer the case.


ORIS: Like, for example, in concepts by Team X.


Boševski: Yes, and also in 20th century Russian architecture, but that’s another ideology, the ideology of collectivism, not community.


Fiolić: The space of such a high-density site becomes a space of social contact. We tried to bring people out, and give them something they will have together, apart from the 56 square metres they own. It is perhaps one of the rare attempts in Croatia. The investor and the buyers considered this to be an added value of the dwelling.


Boševski:  We have one portion of the house where we deliberately left a free ground floor, for indoor gatherings. We fought against it being turned into a bar. There used to be an obligation of having at least a storage room for prams or space for the tenants’ council. This should not be a total exploitation of space, the investors are not concerned by the regulations, and shouldn’t be, but as far as I can tell, it is of no concern to politics either, or any institution or science, it is not critical in that sense at all. There are no sociological analyses of the latest housing developments at all. That issue is almost completely disregarded, there is just the analysis of supply and demand, and that is not how you build a community.


ORIS: Mono-functionality could be resolved through hybrid structures, but these structures are then not a result of some socio-economic thought, but are made only if there is a justification for them on the market. Lifestyles and living habits change, the structure of the family changes, there are increasingly more households with a single person or single-parent families. Such issues should be taken more into account in the sense of flexibility, possibility to participate and so on.


Fiolić: Yes, the latest projects are in a way market-transformable. The buyers increasingly buy gross square metres; you no longer buy an apartment. This is a significantly variable category. It is definitely different if you make a Pavlenski Put with a number of 56-square-metre units, and it is a completely different thing when developers sell gross square metres of an open dwelling. It is necessarily connected to the construction and structure of the object.


Boševski: That’s one theory, and there is another one that asks why it should be necessary to transform the environment when people today are proclaimed to be nomads, infinitely mobile and adaptable. There is a concept that seeks solutions in standardization. The things are resolved through standardization and political decision making. Some think that tax policies should discourage, for example, a man or a small family living in a huge flat. A community should be standardized with its centre, kindergarten and school, with people of different generations, requiring that particular kindergarten or school, passing through it at a particular time.


ORIS: Housing as a hotel.


Boševski: That’s right, that kind of housing where an apartment is a single unit – a commodity through which you can fluctuate. Some economists agreed that this brings huge savings of resources.


Fiolić: That is quite pragmatic, but we have to accept that horizontal mobility in Croatia is non-existent. I think that the transformability should be more adjusted within a single framework. That means that a man can transform his life within a certain framework. In America, apartments are rented, while here 90 percent of them are owned privately.


ORIS: That of course is a complex sociological and cultural issue, because the American way of life is relatively different to the European, regardless of the influence of globalization. Housing is still a basic existential need that is least affected by globalization processes. It seems to me that the tradition lives and survives here longer, and we should accept that as a fact within the design process. In the spirit of these contemplations, I think that architects are taking a bit too much liberty in the interpretation of social dynamics, something that has its roots in modernism, perhaps even earlier, in utopian, enlightenment movements, from St Simon and so on. The architect as an urban planner designs the social community, but that is not the architect’s role.


Fiolić: The architect is a mediator, he is definitely not an initiator; he is a mediator, trying to unify everything into a whole.


ORIS: The impulses can truly come from architecture; architecture can offer certain models that support various processes.


Boševski: The architect can greatly help investors not to fail in their desire to make a profit. We tried to help: Pavlenski Put had the permitted site coverage coefficient of 3.5, meaning that you are allowed to raise a building with 3.5 times the square metres of the site area.


ORIS: That’s a very high density.


Boševski: That’s huge density, but that number was fascinating to investors. Because of it we had to convince the investor for 6 months in order to reach a 2.76 coefficient. It was like stealing money from somebody’s pocket. But investors too are getting educated, and they see that if we had accidentally made 3.5, we would have the same or less sold apartments than if we had made 2.76.


ORIS: How is it possible to have such coefficients in Croatian urban planning? Metaphorically speaking, these coefficients are suitable for Manhattan, not for Špansko.


Boševski: Fortunately, we no longer have them today, but in the 1990s there were mistakes in Zagreb, like for example in the districts of Trnje or Trešnjevka. That is clearly a toll that a society in transition has to pay.


Fiolić: The design process always starts with urban planning. Urban planning is the starting point, first the macro, and then the micro situation, and only then do you reach something. Micro urban planning in design in Croatia is only a thought, not a part of integral thinking about space. Especially in Zagreb, the Master Plan (GUP) sets certain coefficients. These are very general texts, there are no micro designs.


ORIS: Regardless of all the urban planning problems, you demonstrated throughout the 1990s that it is possible to achieve high-quality housing solutions with the notorious urban villa typology.


Boševski: Yes, but we are currently working on other typologies, like towers. We have a whole series of issues, like the stipulation that the building’s ground floor cannot exceed 4 metres according to the GUP, or 4.5 when it is used as an access road. In the competition design, we have towers with 38 or 39 floors and the entrance hall height of this exclusive corporate building has to be 4 metres. This means that you have to make a horror of some sort. However, there is an exception; the Master Plan says that it can be higher if there are technological requirements. Now you have to explain that the technology of the entrance hall of a building requires a 7-metre-tall sculpture by Džamonja. You can get a confirmation of your design from the Master Plan if you write it down in your project. Because of negative experiences, it is much easier to put a ban on something.


ORIS: Bans always lead to impoverishment.


Boševski: Or to tricks of all kinds. We’re world champions at that.


ORIS: I’d like to return to housing typology. I think that POS (State-subsidized Housing Programme) as a state subsidy eliminated typologies that are a reflection of Dutch typologies. I can’t tell if that typology changed even the slightest in the 1990s, or in the last ten years, compared to the 1950s and 1960s. Regardless of the fact that we constantly speak of some other ways of life and that the entire society has changed, housing has remained relatively unchanged.


Boševski: That is correct. Also correct is the opinion by architect Lenko Pleština: you have the old dwelling type for a man who requires state of the art typology in gadgets, mobile phones, in everything, he drives the latest product of the industrial automobile.


ORIS: When you look at some panoramas of Zagreb from the 1930s, you see some buildings with old-timer cars parked in front of them. The buildings are very much new, they were either a bit too fresh, or there was a defect, a disproportion. They were then an update compared to these cars, they followed that trend. The social structure required that.


Fiolić: Today, nothing has changed significantly, only the structure of families living in that flat. You lose the classic 3- or 4-member family; the flat loses its number of rooms. There are a lot of young people living out of wedlock, and a lot of women live only with their children. Something has changed here in the structure of the family, while nothing has changed in the classic dwelling structure.


ORIS: If we talk about flexibility – the stricter the definition of function in the apartment, the less the flexibility. Hence, if everything is defined up to half a square metre, and if the distribution by rooms and other things is so directly standardized, then the flexibility is less. If the dwelling structure is more open and neutral, the flexibility is greater. This does not mean that the walls have to be mobile or sliding, it means that the dwelling organization is set differently.


Fiolić: I absolutely agree, but when you build apartments for the market, it’s a category of apartments in which you have to have defined positions, like for a bathroom or a kitchen, so this becomes quite disputable.


Boševski: We are currently designing some examples with services made in advance, completely unrelated to the number of rooms. We make 3 to 4 outlets more to keep the flexibility higher. It is interesting what the Swiss are doing, I saw some examples of their state-subsidized housing. They have prefabricated pre-stressed structures, 10 by 10 metres in size. The apartments do not have a single load-bearing wall inside. The distribution is very simple, with a very sophisticated façade due to their noise prevention and energy saving regulations. Here, these dwellings would be super-villas that only the super-rich could afford. There, it’s a standard. There are only those two toilet block facilities, so people can plan the placement of partitions, very simple, participation. All services are in the floors, there are no sockets in the walls. A square metre costs approx. 2000 Swiss Francs, which is quite reasonable for their circumstances. As far as a standard is concerned, it seems that it is much more inappropriate to make such small dwellings of 58 square metres, than offer an unequipped flat of 100 square metres.


ORIS: Apart from housing, you also started with interiors. Were they helpful in your future work, or were they more a hindrance? Usually when people leave interior design and hit the big scale, they tend to get lost, because they cannot achieve a good balance in that relationship.


Boševski: Interiors are also very hard, hard like designing a chair. It’s a universal problem you need to solve, and then you see all your weaknesses. Interiors show how weak you are.


ORIS: How much the matter resists.


Fiolić: Yes, because it is so concrete, and if you manage to pass that, it can help you a lot. I am fascinated by Siza and his Expo pavilion in Lisbon – lathe frames, including lattices and screws. All the studs were designed almost rudimentarily, and in contrast with that we have the technologically demanding hanging structure of the concrete awning. This passion for designing details speaks of the broad nature of his thinking. It seems to me that an architect has to pass through that.


ORIS: Perhaps Scarpa is the best example of that.


Boševski: He’s likes the essence, he did not make any big projects, but it’s a world that opens a lot of other worlds.


ORIS: What is the role of experimental tendencies and an investigating attitude in architecture in your work, exploratory in the sense of exploring the structure, texture and so on? As an example, we could take the hybrid object in Ribnjak where you react to the quite complicated city environment. Is that what you would essentially like to focus on, but the circumstances made you, perhaps not by your own will, focus on housing constructions?


Fiolić: We grew up on housing projects, and in recent years this field of activity has expanded. Our housing activities are currently on the decrease, and we have more and more other buildings. If we talk about exploration, we are trying, I have to admit, to make one step further. We are currently designing two schools, hotels in Zagreb and Dubrovnik, an orthodox church, a lot of office buildings, in other words, a wide variety of projects. There is always this connection with urban planning; it’s been our concern since our early works. As the functions and buildings change, so does the attempt to research materials, structures, façades, and building structures in general. One of our projects is currently being built, a trade school and gymnasium in Sisak. We are more and more resolving structural problems on an extra large scale. We became fascinated with structural engineering; it can really carry an architect away. These new skyscrapers we designed are buildings that have their own structural laws, involving structural engineering that we never studied, nor did we have the slightest idea that we would ever be doing it. It is always interesting if in every new project you try to switch off your HAL 9000.


Boševski: When we talk about the Zagreb Airport competition, we discussed how we could make a new structure and apply adequate technology. People are a little led astray here, they look at the SANAA’s Glass Pavilion project, but no one read that the glass, technologically speaking, travelled the whole world over only to return to Toledo. That is all right, that also has to exist, but in a way, I think that we should try to express ourselves in a cheaper way. Very pretty things can be made out of very simple materials. In other words, we should return to architecture that is decent and achievable, not just some gap between wishes and possibilities. It takes a lot of drawing and effort to achieve. It is much easier to build a house and wish to apply some hi-tech technology that somebody else invented.


Fiolić: As far as the airport is concerned, it’s an almost paradigmatic principle of competition that happened in Croatia: for the first time, so huge, international, seductive, and yet missing the point. A building of relatively small dimensions attracted the world elite. The competition inaugurated technologies that have absolutely nothing to do with this country. I’m not speaking about the competitors, but the consideration and selection principle. It created an illusion that everything is possible, when actually nothing is. It is crazy that an entire society thinks that what is done in London and Tokyo can be realized in this country as well. I am not sure that experiences can be transposed so easily.


Boševski: Why should I show someone who comes to our airport for the first time, the technology from Finland, air conditioning from Germany, floors from Italy, why should my presentation show that I am much more technologically advanced than I actually am? The main criticism we received for our work was that it was too modest. Come on now, why shouldn’t modesty be a virtue?


ORIS:  I think that Foster’s airport is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful one he designed.


Fiolić: That’s correct, it is poetic, but I am sure that in 6 months he would know how to transfer that into a very exact project that can be built, they can do that. We don’t have any high tech, so technology is not our resource, but only an area for which do not have any respect.


ORIS: Is this what you said leading towards creation of an identity that will be created even with limited funding?


Boševski: Yes, perhaps the best word for this is suitability, for that which would be most suitable to us, in identity, economy and everything. One should defend one’s profession fiercely; it could be attacked and criticized from all possible aspects. When you can justify it in a whole lot of aspects, it seems that it has a positive shift in a social and material sense, and in the sense of suitability. The Spanish or Norwegians perhaps have such a relationship to these issues.


ORIS: Because they have a long and continuous tradition that evolves, without interruptions like the ones we had in Croatia.


Fiolić: It is hard to escape a suit you’ve been wearing all your life. I would gladly put on a different suit and live in New York.


Boševski: Diocletian’s Palace was located anywhere else, it might have been torn down as unsuitable, rigid, with some sort of Gothic circus made because they had the money, because they were a big naval force on the Mediterranean. You can admire Venice, but it’s fortunate that we have this as well.


ORIS: The budget of the town of Hvar in the 15th century was one-twelfth that of a Venice palace.


Fiolić: This scale still exists today, they are always the same.


ORIS: As students, you were very proud of the fact that you managed to get to work as a tandem. At the time, all projects were made more or less individually. You had to talk professor Šegvić into letting you work together. Today, teamwork is an imperative.


Fiolić:  Architectural education has to have a dose of Luddism. What does that mean? That is what late Professor Šegvić had. Architecture was discussed only in context. I hope that the curiosity that was sparked in us then will never leave us.