The Architecture of Empathy and Unity

architect Maruša Zorec
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Tadej Glažar

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  Interviewed in Ljubljana on 23 October 2013


The entry of Maruša Zorec to the architectural scene was neither loud nor spectacular but thus more impressive. It was a small masterpiece of atmosphere – the chapel at the bottom of the Franciscan Church at the very heart of Ljubljana. In her subsequent work she made significant contributions to the issue for construction in context. With respect to the existing architecture, Maruša Zorec affirms the paraphernalia of her time by connecting the old and added layers. In her projects, such as the castle at Ravne or the music school on the estate of the castle in Ormož, Maruša also offers the possibilities of communication and togetherness. Her teaching style, characterized by activism and empathy, at the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana, continues the work of her mentor Vojteh Ravnikar.


ORIS: Professor Aleš Vodopivec defined your work of unlocking the potential of historical architectures as adding contemporary architectural layers which acquire new meanings and spatial characteristics to the dialogue with the old layers. Can you tell us which processes and means of architecture hide behind this great definition?


Maruša Zorec: The processes are long and diverse and depend on each individual situation, its characteristics and information, which are discovered on the way. These are not unambiguous matters and layers do not originate only from one period. We work gradually. At first our concepts were very firm. With time we realized that old structures could seem too fragile next to the new ones we would add. Such concepts eventually became more flexible. They changed during the process of searching for an appropriate measure so that the idea of the new, the added would be confirmed.


ORIS: How would you compare the intervention in the Ravne Castle and the Music School in Ormož? Does Ravne belong to a more radical approach?


Maruša Zorec: Maybe it really does. In Ravne we started working on a large-scale building for the first time and we discovered that what we had wanted and showed in the competition – the intervention inside the old walls in a single take which, in that case, was visible in the uniform flooring and the uniform ceiling interconnected into a whole by small interventions – was maybe not quite as visible as we had predicted by the model and the plan. The situation in Ormož was somewhat different, but we also accepted some changes and realized that our concept need not be applied in a physical or material sense because the space could be the nexus. Emptiness of the space connects everything and introduces the contemporary to an old structure. That open space brings freedom among the old walls. We introduce a free plan into a relatively closed and disordered old structure, we open spaces. Appropriate organization of space between old walls is the basis for directed paths through the space. It is important to have more paths, in other words, more possibilities to use the space for different uses of the building. The situation was different in Ormož because the rooms were very different from one another. We wanted to preserve this diversity so that every room would keep its characteristics and atmosphere. The experience from Ravna showed that we even cleaned up the space too much. Therefore, in this case, we tried to preserve as much character, soul and light of the space as possible.


ORIS: Ormož is also an example of how old materials can be used in a new way and also how to evaluate the characteristics of architteture minore of the village ambience, in other words, farmstead buildings. This traditional ornament of the full and the empty in the brick wall has been realized here in a different and creative way.


Maruša Zorec: The development was gradual here as well. First, we envisioned that our intervention, the new that we would add, would be done in wood. We eventually went for brick. We had to keep the plain-tile roofing so we had the impression that there would be too many different materials. We started thinking about using brick when adding all new elements. We became thrilled with this material by chance when we saw a beautiful sample of flooring in crushed and cast brick. Only after that did we come up with the final idea for a museum, for the museum content. After the initial idea for an ethnographic museum, the community decided to open a local archaeological museum in the building. The primary element of all archaeological findings was clay. This prehistorical story gradually and accidentally united in a whole – from the way clay used to be used to the way we use it today.


ORIS: The programme element is also important. Do you find it important to be included in the creation of the programme together with the investors and do you have the opportunity to participate in the programme?


Maruša Zorec: I believe that this is always possible; I have never seen a programme as a definite fact. Namely, I think that we can offer the investor what is never included in the programme: the character of common spaces, public spaces, and semi-public spaces intended for a certain social moment. Architecture can offer that. Whichever content you are involved in, the most important is the entrance square where people gather. In Ravna our concept was based on the fact that everything was organized starting with the inner courtyard, where we tried to preserve an existing linden. Furthermore, in the case of the Naskov Castle in Maribor, this common and interconnected area is the courtyard with a walnut tree. It was similar in Ormož: the existing space provided the opportunity for formulation of an outdoor square, which we tried to pull into the entry area without boundaries between the interior and the exterior. Maybe this programme addition – to pull a public space into the interior – is a possible addition to functional demands.


ORIS: This library, the complex in Ravna exists for several years. Do you know if these social areas are still alive? What is your impression after several years?


Maruša Zorec: It depends on who gets the house. With time I have come to realize that subsequent users should be involved in the whole process so that they could appreciate the building and understand how it could be used. It worked very well in Ravna where the attendance has significantly increased. The local headmistress is also engaged in organizing public events. The library programme includes exhibitions, lectures and even weddings in the garden. They show great initiatives, they have recognized potentials and exploit them. If you open a space to the extent that people realize how they could use it, I think it will become functional. We helped with the exhibition collection in Ormož – certain micro-ambiences were developed. At least that part with the exhibition content became operational up to a point.


ORIS: You are definitely not an architect who shuts herself in the studio and does not communicate with anyone when designing a project. You are also very active at the construction site. What is your experience in that aspect, maybe regarding Ormož?


Maruša Zorec: Our projects have mostly been public. The two latest ones, in Maribor and Ormož, were completed using European funds. It was a great opportunity. Funds could be received for architectural heritage and it is exactly heritage where things cannot be clear until the very end. That is why things change during the working process. These changes on site can only contribute to the project but they require a certain degree of tolerance from all participants. In both projects (The Naskov Castle in Maribor, The Music School in Ormož) it was important for the project leaders to have a vision, not in the sense of demolition, but a vision of a new project which would provide the environment with a new quality. They accepted the changes and decisions and helped with the paperwork but we also visited the site at least once a week. I think that this presence is crucial.


ORIS: To what extent is empathy for co-workers but also for workers on the site important? How much does that contact mean to you?


Maruša Zorec: Empathy in architecture is a very important fact which is often neglected. First I have to say that I am not alone in the bureau; at the moment we have very good relations and we function very well.


ORIS: You always say we, never I.


Maruša Zorec: Our cooperation is relatively equal otherwise I would not be able to work with all the responsibilities I have. I know I can rely on them, that they help me and would support me in case of difficulties. It is also easier to bear a burden in that way on the construction site. Even dilemmas, which are not rare, cannot be solved in the same way if they are not there. The other factor is cooperation with the investor. This may even be the hardest thing; it always takes time to gain trust. And, finally, there is cooperation with contractors, which is also very difficult for us. There is no respect, contractors cannot read plans and such plans often help only us to clarify some things. We have to come to the construction site, do many things there, draw, and demonstrate. I am very happy to show the workers that things cannot be done without their positive energy. A process which involves everyone and makes everyone feel important has better results. Participation of users is also important.


ORIS: The other segment of your work is teaching – at the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana, and, for example, in Pamplona. You decided to pursue a career path as an assistant of Professor Vojteh Ravnikar. What are your memories of that time, how did you decide to take part in the pedagogical process?


Maruša Zorec: Vojteh started teaching in 1993. I was working in his office then and he asked me to be his assistant. We got along very well – it was cooperation, but also mutual respect. It was a period of learning which, after graduation, gave me the opportunity to understand the context and broaden my experience from scenography to urbanism. He was very open in his relationship with students. He gave them a lot of freedom. He believed that a true professor only guides, allows diversity, which is, in effect, really difficult. His lectures on the old – the new offered something that I am working on today. Today I am working with his former students – it is a kind of a circle which makes me very happy. Generally speaking, I think that there have been too many cut-downs at our faculty. I believe that the Portuguese can be our role model when it comes to continuity. We should also introduce respect for previous generations as a condition for good work.


ORIS: In this respect, your work has not been limited only to practice and teaching, but you have also done theoretical, historical research, dealt with the topic of Slovenian late modernism, especially Oton Jugovec. How would you put Slovenian late modernism in a wider context?


Maruša Zorec: The more we know about later modernism, the more we appreciate it. It is not only Jugovec, but above all Edvard Ravnikar and other, younger architects. Architects who were Ravnikar’s students and who were really engaged in his first projects belong to Jugovec’s generation. It was, for instance, Savin Sever whom we are studying at the moment. It was a very significant generation that managed to introduce the radical modernism in our region and connect it with the tradition, which Plečnik had already started with his treatment of materials, details. It is a completely modern architecture in its concept and very delicate and innovative in its materiality. I think that our generation is trying to live up to their success – this school was gradually abandoned. Research and promotion of the late modernism provide the opportunity to learn. It is not possible to understand it at first sight. I personally feel that I understand objects when I observe them longer: although I tend to pass by them for years, there comes a moment when I understand them. It is a long-term process. For instance, in the case of Ravnikar, it is the entire Ferant Garden complex, an extension of the high school in Šubičeva Street or an exceptionally beautiful window at Cankarjev Dom. I could write an essay about that window. Let alone Jugovec. I believe that he was even more interested in connecting tradition and modernism in construction. I think that our school has started to revive this awareness of the importance of construction in formulation and the language of architecture. Maybe we should cherish this tradition a bit more.


ORIS: The tradition of Slovenian architecture with the architect as a finder and an inventor is embodied in Plečnik. Such moments can be found in Jugovec as well as in Ravnikar. In one space partially designed by Plečnik, I am thinking of the pilgrim area in Brezje, your architecture is also the architecture of discovery. The object of an open-air altar which is being transformed is actually a discovery.

Maruša Zorec: Thank you; I have never heard anyone interpreting it in that manner, I am glad to hear it. Just this morning I was explaining to students how every person has to come to their own realization in architecture. What we did there was supposed to be hidden in order to reveal the work by Plečnik and Vurnik. In the process of looking for a solution we relied on the folding altars which lead us to the idea of an opening, maybe even a surprise and duality of that space which was initially pointing the other way. There are some disputes concerning the square as well. The open-air altar used to be situated in front of the church. In the process of searching for the appropriate location for the altar, we decided to put it on the external side and thus switched its orientation. I have found the arguments for that decision in Plečnik’s churches in Barje, Prague or Šiška. The fact that the altar was turned around has brought the congregation and priests closer together. I think that Plečnik started with it before it was officially possible.


ORIS: Before people would look at the façade of the church, the symbol of the institution. Your rotation directs the look upwards, towards the Alps, which can also be a change in paradigm. Pallasmaa writes, actually quotes Zumthor that the atmosphere of a place and the atmosphere of a given architecture instantly affect all the senses – we become aware of this atmosphere immediately, without thinking. Architecture appeals to our senses, affects our mood and, eventually, even engages our mind. When you enter the chapel of the Franciscan Church in Ljubljana, these words come true. They precisely portray this impression. How was the atmosphere created? Was the light, material or constellation of the space important?


Maruša Zorec: Pallasmaa is the best expert in the field. I think that what was at stake there was the fact that the space of the chapel is different from a daily space of the living room and that it is an important place of entry. Pallasmaa writes about it in his book – it is very important how you enter. The second important thing is by all means light in the space. The concept was developed only in daylight; the space was supposed to be dark; one window was thus placed indirectly on the side of the altar, and from a smaller, already existing opening the light falls on the font. All additional lighting is in niches, in the back and on the sides. When searching for an appropriate source of light, it is very good to observe daylight because it does not light the space completely. The third thing is the pureness of the space and material so that everything is simple and clear, that the view is focused so that the introduction to the space is important, as well as the way it is framed. These things originate from Plečnik, maybe not completely consciously in my example: how to move through the space, how to frame the view. As an architect you can even do positioning by the use of light.


ORIS: Is that description of ambience and atmosphere comparable with the way you feel in your most beautiful space? In an interview you said that you really like to go to the forest.


Maruša Zorec: Yes, that sounds very simple but the fact is that such an enthusiasm originates from somewhere. I grew up close to a big forest and a vast open space. I think that is why I am so amazed by the light – the way the light enters the space, the way it is structured; the space has to be open, unlimited. When I was a child, I did not live in an urban area. I lived in a open, natural area. There were a lot of trees, forests. It really influenced me and my whole childhood since I lived in a well-functioning community. Therefore, I think it is important for me in architecture as well. Not only nature, wood, natural materials, the structure of light, a forest, open sides, but also the feeling for the community in which I lived. As Zumthor says, when we remember where we come from, we see why we are the way we are. It is clear that we act in architecture as we feel. You can revive something which is very personal and transpose it. Therefore I think that architecture is an answer to a specific situation. We don’t realize something which is outside of us, we realize through what we are, how we see things, how we feel them. We only have to find a way to materialize it.


ORIS: So, personality, the past, the character, education – it is all very important. Do the role models play any part in it? Do you have any personal heroes?


Maruša Zorec: Certainly, but I think that you admire, observe and keep them in the subconscious, but you do not follow them consciously. You find your role models already during your studies, maybe through the discipline of your professors. In my case it was Miloš Bonča, Edvard Ravnikar’s student, then Vojteh Ravnikar as a specific conceptual school of recognizing the important in architecture and later, naturally, Slovenian modernism. I have to say that I started with Jugovec, then studied Ravnikar, and then I came to learn more and more about Plečnik, so I moved backwards. The architecture of Spain, Portugal and, above all, Finland is important to me. Aalto as well as others made me realize that architecture is not very different from nature and that the language of architecture in a way represents a relationship full of respect and that it can merge with nature. Lately I have also found Belgium interesting as a country with which we share honesty of the architectural language, comprehension of construction, honesty of the material and simplicity.


ORIS: Maybe that is an advantage of marginal areas which have the freedom not to obey the strict rules but rather to follow their intuition. Can we experience this in Ravna, in the Punkl Hostel? How did you come up with the design, also in terms of materials?


Maruša Zorec: In the last couple of years there have been many discussions and disputes concerning wood, a very significant material for our country. It is ecological, it is still readily available and it has often been used in the past. We wanted to present the possibilities it offers. The investor wanted to have, above all, a passive object, a low-energy house. We, in addition, opted for wood as the material of choice. We were fortunate that those in charge of managing the investment respected, understood and supported us, and then helped us in realization of the project. We wanted the house to have a wooden construction, and this meant that not only were the façade and construction supposed to be made of wood, but that it would be visible from the inside and the outside that it was made of wood. The context is not natural there; it is very vague and really not interesting; therefore we used two oak trees as the connection with the concept of the building. The construction was not easy because wood construction is still more expensive than concrete. We slightly extended the building and gained more beds so we reduced the investment per square meter. It would have been very difficult for us to accomplish everything as we wanted without understanding and support.


ORIS: Most of your projects focus on heritage renovation. Why do you think that renovation is so important (by this I mean active renovation, new programmes…)? If we really renovated all those objects, there would be no need to build new ones.


Maruša Zorec: The word sustainability is much abused. I like open and empty spaces and how they can be reused. The new use of an already built architectural work is one aspect of sustainability for me. It is not necessary to use a lot of material and it seems rational. These old spaces are, at the same time, extremely rich in atmosphere, spatial qualities, structure, and construction methods. I believe that renovation can incorporate all past times. This creates a specific link with our roots. It enables us to live in greater degree in the space-time continuum. Many things were torn down and had to be started all over again in our country. It takes a lot of time for things to settle and to begin to take hold. In effect, connecting the old with the new and connecting with our history and past is the essence of who we are. Before demolition people need to believe that the situation will really improve, that it will create the atmosphere, ambience and spaces where people will feel good, as if at home.


ORIS: You have recently started the restoration project on the Plečnik House. Can you say something about your method of work?


Maruša Zorec: Plečnik partly built and remodelled the house in the part of Ljubljana called Trnovo. The house is actually very different from his monumental buildings. It is of a small scale; it is a space that is truly his: private, very sensitive, delicate, fragile. We would like to preserve the original ambience. Everything new which will be developed and added should preserve the character of the rooms from the time when he lived there. The complex consists of three houses: the one where he lived, which he built and which includes two round rooms, a wooden room, an anteroom and a winter garden; a corner house functioning as the entrance. Most changes will affect these two objects, these suburban houses. We will make the entrance area, the yard will remain and visitors will be able to walk around. One area will be for holding classes, for education, entertainment of children, workshops, and lectures and it is here where his works will be exhibited. We have received the plan already elaborated for the purpose of receiving a building permit, but we have introduced some changes. Working so close to Plečnik is a slippery slope; it is actually not possible to achieve minimalism but you also cannot start from Plečnik. We are currently in the stage of searching for an appropriate measure and expression. We need to deal with organization; first of all, we will clean up the space and use appropriate lighting and materiality to achieve something for which Plečnik also searched. We have spaces of different lighting and character with diverse materials so we will try to find our own solution, neither too close nor too far away from Plečnik. This game of balance is in effect most difficult and very dangerous.


ORIS: This very delicate task and intervention is an honour for a Slovenian architect.


Maruša Zorec: Absolutely, but a great responsibility as well. Personally, this is one of my projects I prefer most.


ORIS: Maybe it would be interesting to hear something about student workshops.


Maruša Zorec: We organize many workshops every year so that students can face actual problems; ones which are present in practice. These examples have no ideal tasks nor perfect working conditions. Such an example would be the project in Slovenian Carinthia called Strojna – it is not really a village, but individually scattered farms. We did not want the area to develop in the wrong direction but for the people to find meaning in their life on the land. We were joined by our colleagues from Switzerland who work on the revival of such areas. In cooperation with the professors from zhaw (Zurich University of Applied Sciences) from Winterthur, Stephan Mäder and Max Bosshard – we started to develop a different strategic approach to these issues. The workshop was the first stage, we worked a lot with people and we are now trying to help them to continue on their own by implement our suggestions. People showed interest in continuation of the workshops, in the formulation of things, in diet change and even in renovation of the two households. Nature there is phenomenal; you walk across those bare ridges and look into the void, something can be discerned only in the distance. I had the impression that these people do not need architects; they did not have them in the past but they knew everything. I would like them to find out how important it is for them to preserve their uniqueness. It is the foundation of their future and identity.


ORIS: Do you have the feeling that you are swimming against the tide? Or is that exactly what should be pursued?


Maruša Zorec: Sometimes I really do. On the other hand, I find the confirmation for this in the space where I move around. Maybe these spaces are somewhat marginal but I see that I am not alone. It was interesting for me to hear a lecture of the Chinese architect Wang Shu in Piran. Naturally, in China they do things completely differently from us but he does not. During the lecture I realized that he was a very sensitive architect and that he swam against the tide. I think that in life it is more important to swim in a way to stay true to yourself, to do what you are. I think that is most important.