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edition 9 (233)
September 2018

From Bytom to NY

More than a passing fashion

Interviewer Anna Pakulniewicz

From Bytom to NY

We talked about architecture with Przemo Łukasik of the Medusa Group, his approach to design, as well as the work of the studio he co-founded with Łukasz Zagała, which has designed many original and astonishing buildings – and not just in our opinion. He agreed to the interview, even though it was not easy to find room for this in the diary of such a internationally jet-setting architect

Anna Pakulniewicz, Eurobuild Central and Eastern Europe: How would you sum up contemporary architecture?

Przemysław Łukasik, co-owner and co-founder, Medusa Group: It’s still the same as it always was. This is a field that is constantly striving to reflect the modern age. At least in my opinion this appears to be the case. I don’t draw distinctions between periods in architecture that were better or worse. It should still be – and I personally believe this – a mirror of the times we live in. If it isn’t, then I feel that there’s a problem, that it bears the marks of a false enterprise.

I understand that investors come to you in search of authenticity, for this very special approach to architecture that you have?

First of all, I personally don’t know why investors come to us. I can only guess at what the reasons might be. Having said that – the longer we have had this studio, the more able I am to recognise certain patterns or paths that lead investors us to. But I am also deceived by this sometimes. It can happen that by their actions investors reveal that their choice of us was a coincidence, that it was only a matter of circumstance. And I think that our clients, whichever company they represent – and sometimes they represent funds and large corporations, but they also often represent families or themselves as private investors, because we also design small things, small elements and utility graphics – should all be respected. Without such an understanding approach – or at least one that makes a serious attempt to understand – the architect has nothing to work towards. If you are an architect who doesn’t do this, in my opinion it’s a mistake, the original sin. The fact that we, our studio, make some things more expressive while others become projects that are less noticeable, restrained in terms of their form or strict architectural content, is the result of a particular form of cooperation, circumstances and the context. I am always saying that the context is a constant factor in an architect’s work – and a variable at the same time. This means that the context is the area in which we always have to find ourselves. And in this regard it is the client’s context and their financial capabilities. The context can also involve the political and economic circumstances, but it also includes factors that everyone is familiar with – the landscape, the terrain and the wider world. As you can see, there are many contexts. But they are constantly changing – like the seasons, like the sun that goes from East to West. And the economic situation is sometimes very good and sometimes it is very bad. The context is the place where we have to find ourselves. We must also include the schemes that investors bring to us and the context of the local plans in which the city has certain expectations. These are meant to ensure that we don’t disrupt the overall spatial order and the wider community. This, too, is objectively difficult because it is hard to define. However, we often have doubts that the local plan really puts the community first...

So you dont always aim to create recognisable projects, where one can see that it was clearly your work?

No, we don’t. An architect, a designer – because it’s also important to talk about this profession in a very broad context... Well, my idea of an architect or a designer is this: a person who constantly manages change. Our work is about perpetual change. You have to be ready for every element of the project and every phase of it. Because something that may seem to be finished in the form of a building permit or an executive design, is still being processed. This is affected by contemporary factors impacting modern Poland, such as the fact that we now have a contractor’s market, rather than an investor’s market, or the problem of the lack of availability of qualified personnel and how expensive materials are. And this is today’s context. A few years ago, the context was completely different in all these areas. Returning to diversity, how the project comes out is the result of many different circumstances. We never want to behave like people who know everything and who choose their clients. On the contrary. It is the clients who choose us. And when it comes to the reasons for choosing our studio, we have the growing feeling that clients are choosing architectural studios with a greater awareness – and that applies to us and the other studios. It isn’t that someone walks down the street and thinks: ‘Oh, I have an office building or a hospital that needs designing, and here’s an architect’s nameplate on a building!" People invite various studios and then choose the particular one on the basis of competitions.

Can you say that you have become fashionable?

The word ‘fashionable’ makes me uneasy. I would not like to be fashionable. I would like to be perceived as reliable and consistent by my clients. In therms of the consistency – even if the designer is stubborn, it shouldn’t all be about being able to lay down the rules and positioning yourself as the dealer. But sometimes architects dig their heels in because they don’t want to harm the project and damage the reputation of the client – they want to avoid making a mistake. In such situations I am stubborn. If my client understands this, I'm proud of it. I think that compromise and optimisation are and will continue to be integral to the profession of the designer. A good project is the best possible project. People are afraid of optimisation because they think it has to involve constant cost-cutting. And yet everyone, even people who aren’t designers, has had the opportunity, for example, to fit their bathrooms with tiles, a shower base and other fittings. And we have all had to struggle with our capabilities, the area, the budget and technical limitations – if the neighbours won’t let us move a pipe from the left to the right corner when it was more suitable for us over there; not being able to fit a corner bath tub because there was no room for it; or if we didn’t have the money for the expensive tiles we had set our hearts on. So what did we do? We are always looking for a good compromise, one that would allow us to feel good in this space. It’s the same with large buildings. And the word optimisation is an element – a very important element – of the project. The features you mentioned – reliability, good design, punctuality, optimisation – in my opinion should apply to everyone as the standard.

But when you look at your buildings, at the most characteristic ones, nobody thinks about these four qualities of your work. Instead their attention is grabbed by the visual features. Are you not always striving to achieve that wow effect?

As I said, the design is always created in a certain context and is an element that expresses the vision of the designer but also that of the investor. Our studio never tries to design something that people might call avant-garde. I don’t think we have ever drawn up such a design and we have never been asked for such a design.

What do you call the avant-garde?

Something that really breaks this classic approach, something that tries very hard to break out of new trends or break those that are accepted. I’m thinking here about conventions, materials, colours and functional assumptions. We have never had those. We like working with different projects and functions. This is not easy. Clients like to navigate among designers who already have experience in something, which is the main problem for our younger colleagues. They cannot enter the competitions investors invite us to due to our demonstrably greater experience. This is problematic. And I can see that we have just had slightly more luck because these young people are every bit as talented as we are. And the project always turns out to be a reflection of what happened in the given situation in terms of the investor and the contractor as well as on the part of the designer. Rialto The Bridge in Warsaw is our first hotel design to have reached the construction stage. In Wrocław we are working on a hotel interior and have also started the entire design work for two large hotels in Wroclaw and Kraków, that is, the exteriors and the interiors – both of which are in beautiful locations that I’m not yet at liberty to reveal. We were also happy about winning a competition for a school in Wilanów. We have never had the opportunity to design a school before because no one had ordered one from us. We tried to take part in a couple of tenders and failed to adjust our pricing parameters to the budget that the investor or the municipality had. We like to do all kinds of designs. We like to do commercial projects because we think that commercial buildings have a large impact on the public and society. We positively envy our colleagues who have worked on philharmonic concert halls, the NOSPR [Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice – editor’s note], museums, concert halls and other great cultural buildings, but we are also aware that designs for shopping centres, good office buildings or a good house for an individual client or family, is just the same, provided they are well made, can contribute to changing tastes as well as improving the quality of life of the client – and that they will start looking at architecture as something that improves their lives. This is the authentic mission we have to fulfil. When designing a concert hall, you first of all have to guarantee a good venue for concerts – for a spectacle of music and sound. And when you design a good shopping centre, you have to guarantee that the mall will be comfortable for shoppers, but that doesn’t mean that you have to recreate the streets of the towns in Provence that we love so much, but that we should love them for being authentic rather than for being full of all kinds of eclectic crap.

And what of your dreams? Your architectural dreams.

I have many dreams. I could not live without my dreams. The whole point of my life is to pursue these dreams but of course not everything you dream about comes true. However, getting close to half of these dreams sometimes gives you a sense of fulfilment. I don’t have architectural dreams. I don’t have the dream of having to build something that I invented. What the client comes to us with is always a mystery – and at the same time a lot of fun. We really like demanding projects, where the location or budget constraints are difficult. A good project does not always mean a project has a huge or limitless budget. On the contrary, the more adversities there are to overcome, the more substantial and deeper the project, which provides the designer, and finally the investor, with a sense of accomplishment. If there are limitations, then it is also easier for the client to make a decision because they can’t choose something that they cannot afford or that is not possible due to the size of the plot, its shape, its exposure to the sun or other such circumstances. So... I have no such dreams. I don’t wake up every day and think: “Ah, how I would design the NOSPR or the Philharmonic Concert Hall in Szczecin!” I think you have to deserve it.

And in Warsaw do you not feel like designing something when you see empty plots as you walk around the city?

No, I don’t. Although when it comes to the realm of dreams I must admit that several times in my life I have managed to bring about a situation that was a positive surprise for me. For example when, after several years, I was able to return to Paris or New York for a design commission as an architect – places where I had previously been a tourist or a student. I went to New York to build a loft from Bytom, where I had moved my family to the house I designed on the site of a former ore mine. This New York project was a pleasant surprise for me, although it had never been a dream that came back to me each time I woke up. So it was nice the way things played out. I never thought that we would go with Łukasz Zagała to Jamaica to design a pool for a certain property. That was us, people from Silesia, from Bytom, entering a completely different context. It was a surprise, it was an adventure – and this is also very important because designing is a kind of adventure. This adventure is often difficult, paid for by hard work, nerves and stress. However, if you do it with full conviction, with passion, it becomes easier – and it is easier to reach clients if you can present yourself to them as a designer with approaches that you have often tested on yourself. I think this is invaluable. If we invite clients to our office or they are by chance in our homes, they see what we often – indirectly – tell them about in the proposed designs, where we combine something expensive with something cheap; something cool with something warm, etc. Then it is easier for us and easier for our clients to trust us.

Which designs are you most proud of?

I am proud of many of them. I'm actually proud of all of them. I don’t have a design that I would like to disappear, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to improve something about it. The questions always arise over whether I could have taken care of something more during the supervision, if the process for reducing some elements was properly in place at the construction stage or if I could have insisted on something and persuaded the client better. I’ve always dreamt about designing on different scales and I‘m happy that this has come true. Because large projects are not projects with large budgets or large buildings. Large projects are those that feature big ideas. And it could even be the fence that I made around my home, which later became the starting point for the design of two office buildings where we used cable trays. We managed to convince a large corporation that it would be a great idea to have such an element on the façade of the building [Skanska’s Nowa Fabryczna in Łódź – editor’s note]. And it was not obvious that it would be such a positive addition. I am happy about such small things. Or, to take another example near Bytom – Kanlux, a building created out of the former canteen of a military unit, which has been called the best office building in Europe. These are such small victories. I think the measure of the success of an architect is not that their designs are popular in magazines. I think it is more important for me that the client comes back to us for another design. But the design process is often not pleasant for the client, either. They must often get angry and start scratching their heads, or they have to look for extra money, or something takes them by surprise. But when they return for the next design, it means they were satisfied, and so the sense of satisfaction from a client is probably the best measure of the designer’s success. It would be worse if, on seeing the client on the street, I had to cross over so that they don’t notice me and bash me over the head with their bag.

How many designs do you usually offer to each investor? I mean, how many versions?

Oh no, we never present them with an alternative when we don’t see the need for it. We always fought against doing this at university. When we were asked to draw up three versions of the façade, for example, this always ended up with us just picking up our pencils and colouring in the only proper version with different colours, just to satisfy the professor. And I knew what the façade was that I wanted for this project. It is the same with the client. If we see the need for an alternative or the investor asks for one and we find the right recipe for it, we’ll do it. If we see that there are no grounds for creating an additional idea for a projection, a function or a façade, then we won’t do it and will explain this to the client, saying that it would be forcing things. It often happens that our designs are not accepted immediately. We often have to step back, go back, and sometimes hide the concept in a drawer and get a new one out, because corrections to a concept only lead to one that is distorted. So whenever such a moment arises, we say: “Ok, we have exhausted the possibilities for this particular approach, so let’s leave it and see if by following a completely new path and choosing a completely new method we will end up with a better solution.” Because stroking a concept excessively can essentially contort it and turn it into a caricature of itself. ν

First Bytom – now the world

Przemo Łukasik was born in Chorzów in 1970. He graduated from the faculty of architecture at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice. He also studied at the École d'Architecture Paris-Villemin in France. After graduation he worked for such studios as P.P. Pabel Architekten in Berlin as well as the Jean Nouvel Architecture and Odile Decq/Benoit Cornette studios in Paris. In 1997, together with Łukasz Zagała, he founded the Medusa Group architectural studio. He also lectured at the École Speciale d'Architecture in Paris for a year. In his personal life, he is a keen sports enthusiast and triathlon competitor. He lives in a house he designed on the site of a former Silesian ore mine – Orzeł Biały, near the Bolko mineshaft.

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