How architecture can make people happy
Maciej Jakub Zawadzki – one of the most talented architects of the young generation, head of the self-established MJZ Studio. This year he is also a jury member in the Mazda Design Contest. In the interview, he speaks about the role of tradition in architecture, his design process and usual work day. He also shares his outlook on modern architecture and suggests how it should be designed in order to be able to match the rapidly increasing mobility as well as make its users happy.
Igor Gałązkiewicz: We live in a world of everything, parallel to everything, on almost every level. From ideas to products. How to find your own language of design in a time when everything is possible and there’s an unlimited number of sources of inspiration?
Maciej Jakub Zawadzki: We have a rule in my studio – before you draw your first line, you have to do the homework. More than half of the time in every project is spent to do thorough research. This is how we know what the technological possibilities are, for example. Our task as architects is not to create them, but to skillfully use them. Development in some areas is really fast which is why you have to constantly follow how far the boundaries were pushed.
– Maciej Jakub Zawadzki
Another reason for such an approach is the need to have a wider outlook on modern architecture, and to analyze the current ideas and their execution. It’s not about copying – it’s about something completely opposite. In the time of globalization, people often come up with similar ideas. We want to avoid it and we’re always striving to make our projects fresh and truly innovative.
However, in order to create something really unique, in the creative work we’re trying to forget about our habits and common ideas. Each project is started with a “blank slate”. We’re doing this to avoid thinking with analogies and to get to the essence of the problem or question and dissect it – taking and improving what’s valuable and rejecting the unnecessary.
Is architecture a technological or an artistic discipline for you? Or is it equally distributed between these two areas?
MJZ: As we have not finalized a lot of buildings yet, I once heard that we’re more in the field of “virtual architecture”, as “architecture” is about building objects. I strongly disagree with this. In my opinion, building is what the construction industry is for, however different programmes – government and EU programmes for example – often include our field into the industry. We’re here to create great buildings. Best ones that can stand on a piece of ground, as they will be standing there for years to come, and the phrase often repeated in society “okay, but at least there’s such a facility in the neighbourhood” is not enough.
That is why we need to pay attention to the process of developing a concept because this is when we create what’s most important – the idea. Here, we really can talk about a kind of artistry. The final effect should not only be functional to its users but also be valuable to the surroundings – it should interact and harmonize with them. It also should have an element of beauty, of course.
Unfortunately, in comparison to foreign standards, the conception phase of a project is still undervalued and plenty of studios wants to get to the technical part as soon as possible. This part is incomparably more financially appealing. However, there are positive changes happening in this field as investors are more and more aware that standard solutions may not be enough given how fast changes happen.
A good example to support this thesis is an order we received some time ago. We were supposed to create a new skyscraper in the centre of Warsaw, in the place of an already existing, barely ten-year-old building.
My former studio – Bjarke Ingels Group from Copenhagen, only had 8 realized projects and 50 employees when I was working there. They subscribed to the aforementioned approach. They did not build anything that was simply proper architecture. Currently they are working on some of the most interesting projects such as 2 World Trade Center or Google headquarters in the US.
What are the key qualifications of an architect today? Don’t you think that in the recent decades they have not only changed but also widened?
MJZ: We’re renaissance people in the 21st century. Speaking seriously though, I think about it often when we take on another unusual task. In my career, I have designed a lot of unique objects, having no previous knowledge on how they operate.
Air traffic control tower with a residential penthouse in Łódź (SDA Architekci), incineration plant that has the biggest year-round skislope in Europe on its roof (BIG Architects), or an eco-friendly petrol station for a big oil company (KAMJZ Architekci), which in the course of a few days can be fully changed into a big station for charging electric cars. Such diversity needs a variety of competences. Such diversity needs a variety of competences.
It’s also a great responsibility and we take it very seriously. We’re not limiting ourselves to the Internet, we go into the field, talk to future users. We thoroughly study the technical conditions and the local law which is why we do not have to go back to basics in the more advanced phases and it’s difficult to surprise us. I would have never thought that I’d become an expert on petrol stations and the first architect in history to work with one of the biggest oil companies in the world. But there you go! Now even when I’m on vacation and I’m refueling my car somewhere down the road, I’m taking a look at how those objects are built. You can call it a professional quirk but I think it’s fun not to keep standing in one place, but learn new things and develop myself.
In the age of progressing virtualization, when realities keep overlapping, authentic, sensual dimension of experience is a very important part also in the reception of architecture. How do you think it should be designed in order for its consumers to find joy in it?
MJZ: After a series of failures connected with the creation of luxurious housing estates without facilities such as playgrounds, schools or health care in the master plans, developers really changed their approach. Currently, a very popular trend among investors, and rightly so, is to design not only with tenants or users in mind, but also taking into account the neighbourhood. For many designers those are standard assumptions. However, creating solid foundations is missing from the design process. It’s replaced by loose assumptions and prognoses. Architects like to speculate about other people’s tastes, but everyone has a different one. In order to serve people best, as we are in fact providing people with a service, we need exact knowledge – this is why I created a research association, Laboratory for Urban Research & Education (LURE), which operates in the vicinity of my studio. There, we’re cooperating with town planners, historians, sociologists, psychologists and major universities – both private and public, which provide education in related fields.
We’re measuring the demand for commercial projects, but the sensual dimension of the reception of what we’re creating is based on the same principle. Buildings, their form, colour and even smell affect the consumer in a certain, often complex way. We have to try to look from their point of view, to better understand how they will experience the space we’re creating for them.
Looking for example at design of the Kazakhstan Memorial, it’s clear that you interpret traditional codes through very modern forms. Is tradition, continuity in architecture important for you? Do you think that context, canon, can constitute a balance for the modern, highly-technological design, allowing it to keep its humanistic dimension? My question is also related to the fact that one of the leitmotifs of this year’s Mazda Design contest is looking into the tradition and its modern interpretation and reinterpretation.
MJZ: It’s not only while working on such symbolic projects that we’re trying to answer the question in my studio: could such an object, in the proposed form, be built in any other place in the world. Each of our projects is tailored to its location. Not only to its climate – in Astana for example, the temperature was -50°C during the on-site inspection, but also topographic or urban conditioning, economy, as well as culture.
Kazakhstan is a completely different world for a European used to certain street proportions – what’s striking in the country’s capital are the gaps between buildings. What seems like a town-planning chaos, is really rooted in the local nomadic culture, in which there’s always been a lot of space. And this is what’s important – we did not want to erect a statue for ourselves or the government but to propose a project that serves the residents as well as makes them proud.
What do you think about modern architecture, how do you assess its condition? Is it a source of inspiration for you?
MJZ: I’m thoroughly fascinated by Swiss and Japanese architecture. I don’t only mean the minimal and subtle aesthetics but also the respect for another person as well as for architecture as a craft and as a profession of public trust that is connected to a sort of calling. It’s completely different from purely commercial design which is visible worldwide as well as in Poland, where plenty of studios race for the biggest amount of realized projects and number of employees. I much prefer the first approach from this corporate mentality.
What is your philosophy of design? What’s the essence of architecture for you and what are your key inspirations?
MJZ: It may not be the most important thing, as some people say, but what’s extremely important is the path to the final effect, rather than the final effect itself. There’s no other discipline as open for other fields of applied art as architecture. To design a hospital we have to empathize and know the needs of a doctor. When we designed a large playground next to an elementary school, we were thinking how the caretakers could effectively take care of a bunch of quickly moving children who outnumber them a dozen times. The key inspiration are people, and of course, nature. It’s not only about organic or landscape forms that are in fact often a great inspiration. However, when we design and build something somewhere, we need to remember that we’re taking a fragment of nature which has always been there. It might sound trivial, but you really need to approach this responsibly in order to balance the loss in the so-called green bloodstream.
Architecture is the art of process - intellectual, design and aesthetic alike. How important the process is to you and how does it look like?
MJZ: During the research phase, we start from checking the location on the map. We have a series of satellite photos thanks to which we can see how the location looks like and how it has changed throughout the years. It makes us think. Afterwards, we’re trying to get as much information as possible about the surroundings, the city or country in which we have a chance to work. Economy, politics, history, local tradition – those are the next areas which we’re thoroughly studying. At the same time of course we’re building urban models, usually in two different scales, as nothing can show better than a mock-up how our form influences the context. We’re quite proficient in using 3D software but that form of presentation is very close to us as it clearly shows the shortcomings and the advantages of one form over the other. From the many options that we create, by way of elimination we choose the final versions which are thoroughly developed later on. From those final versions, the best one is created. If someone has a different opinion and leans towards a different option, then we will definitely find the info in our material and explain why this option will not work as well in a given space.
Modern cities are dynamically transforming structures – aesthetically, socially, as well as in the aspects of town-planning and transport. They need to adjust to increasing mobility, style and way of life. What role in your opinion does architecture have in this process?
MJZ: A very good example is our concept, Filling Station of the Future, which is a petrol station from the future that we have just finished up as a construction design so that it can be realized in south Warsaw. It’s an urban structure that’s adaptable: it’s not strictly defined but rather prepared for various scenarios of city development.
We’re able to adapt it to the changing conditions on the Polish roads and if there’s an automotive revolution then the station will still serve its purpose one hundred percent. We should create solutions that have the potential to be further developed, not closed concepts.
What is the synonym of mobility for you? Do you have any associations with a certain means of transport or is it more a mental issue for you? I’m asking because one of the Mazda Design contest categories is a project of a Personal Mobile Unit for moving around in a city.
MJZ: Mobility for me is connected with moving in a variety of ways. In the past it could have been understood in a more traditional way, but nowadays we have Hyperloop - transport capsules traveling through tunnels, drones which can transport people, and an underground network of tunnels narrower than the ones know from the subway, where quick transport is being tested.
Where do you think does the uniqueness and potential of the Mazda initiative come from? What does the contest, except for the prizes, can give to the designers and architects? (The contests has three categories connected to architectural planning, design and graphic design).
MJZ: You can see that Mazda looks to the future. The mobility of tomorrow seems like a futuristic slogan but it can arrive faster than we think. It’s good to be prepared for when it comes. In this presentation of the development of modern technologies it wasn’t forgotten that, paradoxically, it caused a return to a search for what’s unique and exceptional, so to the traditional industry and manufacturing techniques. It’s good that apart from architecture, the designers can send in their works in the categories of design and graphic design, and being evaluated by Maja Ganszyniec, Anna Grużewska, Kevin Rice, or my favourite graphic designer Edgar Bąk is a pleasure in itself.
I also think it’s very interesting to invoke the Japanese tradition of Kodo as well as the concept of “beauty of an empty space” in the use of light and shadow. The prizes are important, but such a lesson might prove to be useful in the entire professional path of the designers.
Is architecture your passion that you can lose yourself in or at its current stage is it more project management?
MJZ: Abroad I used to work on projects from the morning until the early morning next day. We were always at the studio on Sundays, sometimes also on Saturdays. Since I have my own studio, I have less time for the projects, because I have to manage the office. Thanks to a good organization of work and a number of employees limited to approximately 12-15 throughout the year, I know everything about each project. I counted it not long ago, and it turns out that I have five jobs because I am not only the head designer, CEO and proxy but I also do the administrative work and choose employees. It’s a weird time for a medium-sized studio.
And, almost two years ago, my most important “project” was born – my daughter.
Before we finish, please tell us how does the usual day of the architect, Maciej Jakub Zawadzki, look like?
MJZ: I write back to emails drinking my morning coffee. Later, I drive my daughter to the nursery. When I get to the studio, there are printouts of project proposals on my conference table, which were prepared by my employees earlier. They need to be properly graphically worked out as we have to choose the best solutions for details in a few projects in a short time. At the end of the week I also receive reports on my email, so that I can check the progress of the works during the weekend and set a direction in which a given subject should go. That’s how a regular day looks like, though, and there’s really few of them. That’s why I cherish every moment in the office. There’s an intense period ahead of me: I begin May with a lecture, opening an Architecture Triennial in Sofia, only to go to Venice soon after where I’ll have another opportunity to show our work during the Architecture Biennial. Next, there’s of course the Łódź Design Festival, where on 26th May we’ll be presenting awards in the Mazda Design 2018 reVISION contest. I can’t wait!