When my father visited Yugoslavia, back in the days of the Soviet Union, I was just a kid. I don’t remember the year that this event occurred or how old I was. What I do remember, however, are the stories of almost mythological nature, about the wise and cheerful tribes of the Titoland.
At the time I, naturally, accepted my fathers disposition and presumed that Yugoslavia and the Baltic nations of the Soviet Union where worlds apart. However, when I first arrived in the United States, I almost immediately encountered a completely different perception of my own heritage. Mostly inspired by the ignorance towards Eastern European culture and geography, many Americans often thought that Latvia was one of the former Yugoslavian states. What at the time seemed like a shear coincidence (Baltic and Balkan to a layman might sound very much the same), later on became a somewhat whimsical lesson in the Wester perceptions of the Eastern Europe. While any self respecting national of Baltic countries would be appalled by someone confusing the norther region with the similarly sounding Balkan nations, for me it was a curious case of mistaken identity. Was my Latvian heritage in some ways comparable (linked?) to that of the mythical Yugoslavian?
While in grad-school, I had many opportunities to encounter fellow students from the former Yugoslavia. Once again, often perceived as a group of folks that originated “from the same background” by fellow non-Eastern Europeans, we did find many things in common. Yet to me, most of them still retained a somewhat mythical presence, severely different from that of my own. I believe that it was their keen ability to see past propaganda and “smokescreen” of the contemporary social vices and interpret them in the most unimaginable ways that seemed somewhat unattainable for me at the time. Immune to the insecurities of stardom, sincere, humble but with an enormous sense of self-value and ambition. Collaborations with some of them taught me much and gave me the sense of confidence that the straight-up Western ideology often failed to inspire. After all, if to the Westerners we appear so similar, are they all that mythological?!!! Or the other way around, if they where mythological, was I mythological by the shear association?
That was before I met Lea and Toma. Their visit and lecture in 2005 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design seemed a somewhat long-awaited re-affirmation of my suspicions about the Croatians – resilient people who look to the past only when they are committed to making a better future. Their work, often based on ancient as well as modern archetypes, is firmly rooted in the desire for improved typologies and perceptions of thereof. However, the desire is not based on the creators ego. Its based on a relationship between the creator and the user. Better yet, the process with which they engage the perspective user is the key to their work. Each and every project that they have done has been an OPEN public competition. Their persona is well hidden behind the work that represents their thought process. Their ideas get recognition before the identity of the creator has an opportunity to be noticed.
Siting in the kitchen of my apartment and listening to their “behind-the-scenes” re-cap of the presentation I had seen that day at GSD, I could not help but try to think of ways to capture their story. Their explanations where so calmly clear and simple, yet their references where so exhilaratingly complex and “loaded”. Desperately trying to draw upon the confused “Baltic – Balkan” identity fluke, I was secretly plotting to capture the essence of their process in order to share it with fellow “Balt’s”. But nothing came of it. Perhaps, due to the seemingly impossible task of translation (from Croatian to English to Latvian) and the fear of the consequent loss of the trail-of-thought, but mostly due to lack of my own initiative. But then, life happens in the most unexpected ways.
On a sunny afternoon, looking for an inspiration in the vast collection of the GSD library, I almost literally ran into Lea and Toma in the lobby of Gund Hall. Now, mind you, it had been more than six months since I had visited GSD. Whether it was just my sense of timing or something else, there they where, after five years, once again, at GSD and with a slew of new and exciting work. But most importantly, they had a copy of ČIP magazine with an article about their work…in ENGLISH! These news also coinciding with an offer to do a blog for A4D seemed like just the right opportunity to start of the discussion of regionalism, identity and the realm of possibility that is “out there”. The article, inspired by recognition of Studio UP by the comity of the Mies Van der Rohe Award, elegantly captures the essence that I desired to capture for a long time. So, without further ado, Studio UP:
Lea Pelivan and Toma Plejic (STUDIO UP) were this year’s recipients of the prestigious Emerging Architect Special Mention granted every two years by the Mies van der Rohe Foundation on behalf ofthe European Union for their GYMNASIUM 46˚°°09’N/16˚°°50’E project in Koprivnica. As the winners themselves stated at the awards ceremony, held this May in the Barcelona Pavilion, the prizeis as much an acknowledgement of the quality of the contemporary Croatian architectural scene as recognition of a particular piece of architecture. With this award Croatian architecture has managed to enter the European Union before Croatia itself. Studio Up’s own formation as practice has paralleled the rise of the Croatian architectural scene. The competition which resulted in GYMNASIUM 46˚°°09’N/16˚°°50’E was one of the first trickles of what would later become a flood of public competitions unseen in most European countries in recent years. The following discussion with the winners aims to discover the particularities of StudioUp’s formation and design methodology while at the same time providing a general insight into the last decade of architectural production in Croatia.
ANATOMY OF A PRIZETHE EUROPEAN UNION PRIZE FOR CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE AND THE EUROPEAN UNION EMERGING ARCHITECT SPECIAL MENTION
During this years ceremony, Sheamus Cassidy, the Program Manager ofthe European Commission for Culture, emphasized the importance of the award for the European Union as a way of promoting a form of pan European Culture while at the same time reinforcing the diversity that is Europe. During the ceremony Francis Rambert, the president of the jury, explained the Awards role not just as a beauty pageant but as a kind of rallying point forthe urban values of the European Union. He also emphasized that both the Prize and the Special Mention exhibited an ability to generate public urbanspace in peripheral contexts, a challenge he feels that many European cities are facing today. Based on both of their comments it is interesting to examine the anatomy of the prize from a geographic and political perspective. Eligibility of projects is based on the location of the architectural practice and thework itself: eligible countries include all of the current members of the European Union, official EU candidates, and members of the EEA and EFTA. Interestingly enough one of the most significant centers of contemporary European architecture,Switzerland, is not eligible. Most of the architects were awarded for works in their home countries, with the exception of the two super-stars, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadi
d, who each won the Prize for a commission outside of their home countries. More Prizes and the Special Mentions have been given for projects in relatively small towns, with only two Prizes and one Special mention given for projects innational capital, in Berlin, Oslo and Ljubljana respectively. With one exception, that of the Kaufmann Holz AG Distribution Centre in Bobingen, Germany, all of the prizes have been awarded for public buildings of various types. German architecture has garnered the most recognition over the past decade, withone Prize and two Special Mentions being given for architectural projects in that country, with Spain a close second with two Prizes, one from the godfather of the Spanish architectural scene, Rafael Moneo, and from the future in heritors of his crown, Mansilla Tunon. Slovenia was the first “New European” country to receive a special mention, for a project by Bevk Perovic. This year’s winners share at least one common trait; they are both from countries outside of the European Union.The Special Mention seems to have had the desired effect of launching for at leastsome of the young practice’s careers, with the most significant impact experienced by Jurgen Mayer, the 2003 winner, for whom the Mention, given for his first realized project, ensured a number of commissions in Europe and abroad.
STUDIO UP DISCUSSION
Ivan Rupnik: How did Studio Up start?
Toma Plejić: Where do we begin? From the point of enrolling into the university in ’95, after the Operation Storm, when our formal education began. Yes, we came to our admission tests over a pontoon bridge and began our studies after the Storm. The situation gradually beganto intensify, things changed. We were no more the war generation. We had no benefits during our studies, but had all the consequences of war. The war generations studied in a certain rhythm, leisurely, but we started normally, standardly. Our studies lasted until 2001 and we graduated with the fall of the Twins.
Lea Pelivan: This context of the war and subsequent recovery should not be presented only romantically and pathetically. In this period positive atmosphere emerged. This was an important change of directionin the society. Previous context changed, and a new reality was underway. The atmosphere was activist.
Plejić: It was like regeneration, a step forward; new moving energy and new investments. However, the continuity of generations was disturbed.
Pelivan: This continuity of (architectural) generations was not interrupted by the war. I think that it was broken much earlier, by the beginning of the 80s. In the period when society and economy started to crumble, a crisis began, which was manifested everywhere and thus evenin architecture.
Rupnik: Can you describe your experience at the Faculty of Architecture in Zagreb. Which are the special characteristics of this institution?
Plejić: The Architectural Faculty in Zagreb is a kind of platform, an excellent polytechnic platform.
Pelivan: The technical (engineering) university basis encourages the student to a specific kind of thinking. You haven’t received entirely structured knowledge, but a method and instruction how to get the information and process it. This is maybe a deficiency in comparison to highly organized institutions like the ETH, but on the other hand this makes you aware that tomorrow you will be alone. Everything you actually need is around you and you have to be a researcher andauto didact. You build up your own experience and references. The Zagreb faculty actually functions through several persons. To me, Andrej Uchytil meant a lot during the first year, later Igor Franić,Tonči Žarnić, Veljko Oluić, and at the end of my studies Helena Paver Njirić and Hrvoje Njirić with whom we did our integral work, industrial domestics, our first joint project.
Rupnik: Did you have the chance to learn about the synthesis between technical knowledge and some additional experiences at the university?
Plejić: Oluić and Žarnić are lecturers we communicated with most, their pedagogical project was specific. They provided us with agentprovocateur handouts, knowledge complementary to the one of our polytechnic faculty – early texts by Coop Himmelblau, Formalhaut projects,Braco Dimitrijević’s installations, Diller+Scofidio’s installations and set design…
Rupnik: In Barcelona, at the award ceremony, there were quite a few questions about the so-called Croatian architectural scene. This pedagogical project might be an important part of creating that scene?
Plejić: Absolutely. Žarnić and Oluić are two university professors who have charisma and a pedagogical project.
Pelivan: They are both completely devoted to education. They have always been there, open for conversation, neglecting the working hours and the limitations of the syllabus. They have created a network of people. In all major offices there are collaborators who went through this additional “schooling”.
Plejić: On the one hand you get this technical, neutral, polytechnic basis, while on the other you have the parallel world of agent provocateur.
Rupnik: This relationship of prominent pedagogues and their creation of an architectural scene very much reminds of the still not sufficiently explored project by Drago Ibler, who in the same way managed towork through his students, although they acquired the technical basis somewhere else. However, after your graduation in 2001, you entered a different context. What did this transition look like?
Pelivan: We graduated from the university in 2001. Next year we started to work with Hrvoje Njirić as freelance architects. This was an interesting experience. We also worked with other architects, of which we would like to single out Vlado Krstulović with whom we collaborated on many projects, among other things on a business apartment for a car dealer. There were no realizations, but this was a cruel introductionto reality, a shock treatment.
Plejić: It is important to understand: when you leave the university, you are in real time tic-tac, tic-tac. You learn from mistakes, there is no pardon, you are responsible for consequences of your actions, the good and the bad ones. Hrvoje had high standards, so that we could also learn a lot about the operative aspect how an office functions. From that perspective it is easier for us to compare our rhythm with the one of our employees-collaborators. However, as for our beginnings, we simultaneously tried to start a series of projects in Split, but none of them was developed further.
Pelivan: During this year we understood that we need our own references before turning to the market, so that people could identify us with some specific approach and not just reach us through relatives and friends, which can sometimes be tricky. Then we decided to design our competition project for Koprivnica.
Rupnik: It is interesting that during that time you learned more about the structuring of an office on the one hand and the work on competition projects on the other, but not about constructing buildings, which is an experience expected when you work for an already establishedcompany. How did these experiences help you establish your ownapproach to planning, especially in regard to team work? How did youget your commissions?
Plejić: At that time, although there were no open construction sites, Hrvoje simulated tension. We were very disciplined at work. For example, a draft for a family house was developed during one whole year, with dozens of models, different spatial solutions, facade variants, constructions, electricity and plumbing. We worked intensively. We enjoyed it. We understood the project as our own, which is very important, only in that way you can be satisfied and give your best.
Pelivan: The greatest shock
when compared to the university was the time when you had to make decisions and the intensive daily work rhythm for a competition. The way of thinking is specific, you need to conceive new tools and methods. You get a large experience of teamwork. We have learned a lot, this is an experience that we recommend to everybody. Now from the employer’s position we notice that for the people we employ at our office the hardest thing is to get used to the pace of work and decision making, team work, especially in competition projects.
Rupnik: Since 2003, from Buzin and Koprivnica, you almost exclusively worked on public competitions, a large number of them. What emerged from that type of work? Which earlier experiences, from the university and in collaboration with your colleagues, were important to you in the development of a new work method?
Pelivan: To us competitions are much more than merely “shooting on the goal”. Through competitions we develop our experience. They are workshops within real parameters in a short period of time. They are very beneficial even when we do not receive a prize. We learned most by doing competitions that we lost.
Rupnik: During your university time, you got agent provocateur handouts;where from do you get additional inspiration today, what feeds you?
Pelivan: I think that we get the maximum out of daily routine. We are not looking for attractions, life is attractive enough as it is. It is not art, it is the origin – the real thing. You can find inspiration by turning around in the street and looking at the city behind you.
Rupnik: You pretty often mention some contemporary movies, for example Jim Jarmush’s or David Lynch’s?
Pelivan: They are other people’s experiences through which you can acquire a new view of things. As if they accelerated your own experience or sensation, they add colour, smell or sound to it. In this way notes by other authors become references for setting up new, common understanding, almost at instinctive level. They simply facilitate communication in a project.
Plejić: If we take Buzin as example, we made the complete project from just one painting by Chris Marker, La Jetée. From this painting we actually understood that we had to create a city-planning solutiont hat is very readable, in which an individual would feel on equal footing with supernatural elements that are not on human scale.
Rupnik: In a way this megaron-like clarity emerges from your polytechnic schooling, but it seems to me that you added some kind of director’s spirit to that, an interest for some kind of life choreography?
Pelivan: The choreography of life is the basic starting point. We are tying to create structures which do not try to be recognizable throught heir form, but through new lifestyles, “new memories” which open new possibilities. How successful we are in this, time will show.
Rupnik: Earlier you had to design envisaging a possible life in so-called megarons. Now that Koprivnica and some other structures have been executed, how do you see that life, are you interested in feedback?
Pelivan: We are interested in feedback. The work of the architect does not cease at the moment when a structure is built. Architects mostly expect that they will be consulted if someone plans to mount air condtioning to the house front. We would find it much more interesting if the high school principal would contact us when he wants to organize an event at school or when he wants us to present him additional features of the structure he uses, but this unfortunately does not happen. The development of such interaction between the architect and the user obviously needs more time. However, we are here and the principal is also here… you cannot make many large steps at once.
Rupnik: I am especially interested in the direction of some characteristic lives in your projects and how you manage to achieve this with relatively standard architectural elements?
Pelivan: The structures that have this kind of activity in them are in a way liberated from the aim to be masterworks. We design themto be neutral, to serve as infrastructure, a machine within which life happens; they are not a frozen work of art. We are open to users’ interventions in architecture and therefore I think that architects should dismiss the thinking about architecture through polished-up presentations in architectural magazines. We have learned a lot about this on Split examples by Gotovac and Radić. Their houses were actually ready to accept everyday life. Our houses are like that. They are not perfect. They were subjected to time, interventions, and the Mediterranean. We would be happy if in 150years a small city would be built into our high school.
Rupnik: I think that this is very important, that a project is willing to open itself to interventions and reading by general public, but that on the other hand it is not burdened by some hermetic messages, that it does not use a too specific language. This was maybe the greatest problem of post-modernism – the attempt at creating a clear and universal historical language hindered the development of new ways of communication and appropriation. Koprivnica is, for example, anotation of a potential clash, but this clash does not exist within the structure, it happens in its usage. The same could be said of those Split examples – they did not carry a language of the “Mediterranean”, but they were willing to challenge it and receive it from the users. At the award ceremony in Barcelona you said that this was not only your prize, but a prize for the entire new Croatian architectural scene. Can you explain this relationship? What is specific in the Koprivnica project and what is specific of the Croatian architectural scene today?
Pelivan: Specific, unfortunately also maybe unrepeatable, is that two young people without references are entrusted with a project like the high school in Koprivnica. A stable city government is important, headed by a young, ambitious mayor, which enabled the realization of the project. But let me take the opportunity and return to the beginning of our today’s conversation: to the state of general euphoria of a society that again builds up and “directs” its lost everyday life, so that because of lack and weakness of established life profiles such a society permits new forms of coexistence (e.g. of sport and education). Unlike the large part of world practice, we are still in the position of building a life “infrastructure” of a small state.
Rupnik: How will this prize change your practice?
Plejić: This prize is the end of one cycle. Now we are at some kind of crossroads, a new beginning.
Pelivan: Red and blue pill. This prize has given us a brilliant confirmation, without it we might have lost our edge, we would have compromised more. It is as if in a way we became more faithful to ourselves.
Plejić: The prize tells us that we have to return to the state from 2003 and work from the beginning, or like in the song by U2, Brian Eno andDanny Lanois… restart and re-boot yourself, you’re free to go…
Rupnik: Until now all your commissions came by way of public competitions. Like you explained, public competitions have a specific rhythm, they require a specific work mode. At ČIP Talks, Joshua Ramus presented a different approach to work, collaboration with the investor from the beginning, the result of which is visible only at the end ofthe process. Would this work mode be interesting to you? Is this at all possible in this context?
Pelivan: This choreography will have more players.
Plejić: Actually this is set design and directing in one.
Pelivan: We do not have such investors yet. Architecture is primarily a discipline of communication, especially today. Architects and engineers are some kind of problem-solvers.
Plejić: Today our work is
based on the commentary of the program. When you read and analyse the program, you structure the design, by manipulating the program you create added value. In this model that you mentioned, everything can be changed and the outcome isuncertain. This can be interesting if you create a program and tasks, and if there is a very creative network of people who support that technically. Sounds exciting, but we did not have such an opportunity yet. Maybe sometime soon.
Rupnik: In a sense, at least in Koprivnica and in some other competitions, good organization was important for your work, for success; this is also some kind of collaboration. We spoke about changes, but you also value the relationship to heritage,to the authority of some architects. How important is that to you?
Pleić: This is actually very important to us. We are bound to our heritage, it is an obligation. For example, our recently finished projectin Split is in some way a homage to the architectural scene of Split, to architects who have built the city, who contributed to Split’s ring where our complex is. We have discerned the precise sequence, the rhythm of construction along that ring – groups of detached multistorey and elongated structures – and interpolated a group of miniskyscrapers. We used the existing elements of the context, i.e. heritage– the material for the facades of Radić’s skyscrapers – cement plates; with sheared rasters we refer to Fabris’s group of skyscrapers. Our internal bridges are similar to the porch under the “Chinese Wall”by Frano Gotovac, and the entire project is actually a reference to Berislav Kalođera’s ambitious idea from 1958 to connect the south with the north of the Split peninsula through a series of open squares, which is brilliant. However, these plans were changed, two monasteries were built on that stretch, so that today this idea cannot be realized; it is impossible as a whole and can be achieved only in some parts. We have spatially condensed the essence of this promenade idea, from the south to the north, in our parcel.
Pelivan: It is interesting that people have recognized this idea right away, already during construction time. As soon as the fence was removed, people started to pass through the house. In the design phase, this was a very risky decision: will it function at all, because houses with internal communication have not been too successful up to now.
Pleić: The private investor, Oramont Company, has along with permitted facilities and in addition to the urban front built an entire system of public spaces – a series of Mediterranean gardens, promenades, pedestrian bridges, and public loggias. Together with the investor we have set high standards of public space. The new law that treats every roofed-over space in the same way as indoor space would make this project impossible, so that similar situations will unfortunately be impossible to repeat.
Pelivan: Commercial spaces in contact with open public pedestrian areas can have a part of this open space at their disposal, in a way they will bring their activities into that open space. This is also a kind of choreography, by means of architectural platform characteristic life is created. In this case, the private investor, and not us, has recognized this possibility. It will be interesting to see in what way will this structuregive an answer to our diagram in five or six months, in what way will these different commercial amenities organize their open-space activities. It interests me for example what roofed-over public space means to a lawyer’s office.
Plejić: Back to the question: we really feel the past.
Pelivan: A house by Drago Ibler can still send shivers down my spine.