Interview with Adam Hatvani, Spora Architects

Architect Profile / Architecture / Culture / Europe / Interview / Open Source

“If your project is unsuccessful, publish it on the Internet anyway.”

SPORA is Polish for “large.” The eponymous Hungarian architecture studio is certainly big in its endeavors. The relatively young team of designers is also relatively populous (with four partners), and operates in a comparatively new market–one fomented by the internet in a country that's only been contexualized by Europeanization and globalism in the last decade.Their footprint in the international scene has been the massive public work they've done on Metro4, a subway system redesign involving no fewer than five firms. Spora is also Latin for “seed” and implies new growths.We spoke with founder Adam Hatvani about Spora's work, and the folk anthropology of architecture in the 21st century.

Paperhouses: You’re developing the Metro 4. What a gigantic project! How is that going? How is designing public works important to you? How is it unique from other commercial or residential projects, in terms of work process? When so many new firms start within a personal network, what’s it like to jump into such a large government commission for a relatively young group of architects such as yourselves?

Photo by: Istvàn Polonyi

Adam Hatvani: We designed two stations in the M4 project that will hopefully be ready later this year. It’s been nine years of slow work.

You could say the history of this project is the history of our agency as, in fact, this project is the result of Spora’s personal relations. One of our partner archtiects, Orsi [Orsolya Vadász], had taken part in a winning architectural competition with Palatium Studio, who in return involved the rest of us. Five offices were involved in the design of ten train stations.

This is a community project; what the design of public spaces is all about. This is very important. It may well be underground, but it is not “just” a subway station, it is Public Space.

This was an unusual process given all the players involved. The entire engineering system was actually determined by the subway project management team, without participation of the architects. We simply designed the structure for a pre-determined system intended to expand the line. The creation of large underground spaces reflects precisely this evolving stage. So Fővám and St. Gellert Square resulted in a kind of Piranesi space. Of course, we got a lot of criticism because these spectacular spaces were created with no apparent function! Nonsense! What we did was “raise the curtain” to show the structure and space of predetermined building technology. We took advantage of embedded potential.  It was a long and instructive process, we have learned a lot from it.

Although the project is built for everyone, our client–the public–had no face. It had an intangible identity. This means that you, as an architect, get a very important role in the process of communication, you have a social responsibility. While it’s incredibly difficult, it's also liberating. It is totally different from a residential or commercial project, where the client is much more specific, more tangible, and obviously has specific expectations.

Ph: How does Hungarian identity figure into your work, as a somewhat culturally unique country nestled in the EU? Do you think this has informed the way you approach design projects?

It may be difficult to define what Hungarian identity is in the templates, as we endeavor to look at ourselves from the absolute outside. Yet it is undeniable that environment plays a role. A consultant on the subway project put it best when I made a foreign point of reference: “Magyarország nem külföld” or “Hungary is not the rest of the world,” which in practice means that we can not do it…. It’s a very depressing, defeatist phrase. Actually we fight every day against this idea. Maybe this is Hungarian identity?

At least since Hungary joined the EU we no longer talk about what’s going on “abroad.” From an architectural point of view, it certainly opened the narrow cultural scope under which we lived, but the general public, policy-makers, and even most architects still do not see or understand what is happening in Europe or in the world. We only perceive a faint outline of the many options available. For us, it was essential to break away from the past. Hungary opened up culturally and architecturally to the world through the internet. The rapid dissemination of information created a lot of positive outcomes. The metro project, for instance, became quickly known through publications, online publications, and this has given us an opportunity to take advantage of the flow of information and to take part in the professional international circuit.

PH: I’ve heard a bit about your teaching in Venice this Summer to a large class, but what’s it like to experience different forms of Europe? What was the teaching experience like?

I was in Venice this summer as a visiting professor at the WAVE 2013 workshop. It was very interesting to actively participate in the education of another country. I had the impression that architects and architecture students are the same, no matter what, we are all one family!

But it was also interesting to experience what it is like when there are more than a thousand architects working on one problem, in this case the future of Porto Marghera. The results exposed differences in attitude and culture. I was new to this and had 80 students working simultaneously. It was a great experience!

Ph: Conversely, what do you think about designing for a global audience while demonstrating the specificity of a residential design (Paperhouses)?

I have not much experience in this, so far, since I mainly design in Hungary. In all the work we plan, we strive to see the finished product within a framework. Of course, you always start with specific project realities: client, location, program, etc. But in the case of a virtual global audience the end-result will in most cases be some “specific” version of the “generic.” Despite the specificities of construction and architectural language, the reality of the internet is that everyone will be very well informed and able to see and follow others…

This is what we call a “VW Beetle duality.” Ubiquitous yet unique, one can never decide what’s more significant. The Paperhouses project will be very interesting in this duality. The client and the location, normally the grounding aspects of the program and the design, will be unknown. You rely on our own experience. This makes it very interesting and unique as well.
From the beginning, the question was how to simultaneously be simple and special. The easiest way to work was to remain generic. I will say that for us, the process of finding architecture in the general is actually about what is to be shared and understood; what can be used in open source.

Ph: Can you tell us a bit about the house you’ve designed for us? Your concept appears to be a floating house but can you explain the thinking which inspired this and how it is significant to you? It could be seen as a statement about conventional residential architecture but what do you think?

The house is a result of experience. The program followed the most generic model–living room, three bedrooms, etc–which is typical here in Hungary. The plot is your typical suburban land form, probably very similar to other places in the world.

If you think about it, open source architecture is an important prelude to folk architecture. In the past there was a popular method of construction, type of house, mastery of building materials, climate and location. All of this knowledge was freely iterated upon in construction. Most houses were built with people’s own hands, by so-called master craftsmen. The pattern was the neighbor's house, architects were not hired!

The “download” is an open source instruction for the construction of a house. The project can be understood as a modern interpretation of vernacular architecture.

Our basic idea is a longitudinally organized house (similar to a traditional Hungarian farmhouse) , with lower level common spaces, and then the bedrooms like in any private home today. The entire ground floor has a solid base (concrete structure), on which the upper level is mounted (wood, steel structure), almost afloat. This system has a strong core, and provides great variation opportunity to expand in the longitudinal direction, for example, the rooms are interchangeable, or new rooms can be added, etc.. This is a very simple formula, widely used and of which there are many variations.

Ph: What is the design process for you as a partnership? Do you brainstorm as a group, or does one generally come up with an idea and the others help extrapolate? What is the brainstorming/design development process like with so many members of your design team?

In the past, ideas were developed together, but we now have much less time, so typically we develop one person’s idea. Either way, the process is similar. We work as a team. If the group speaks as a single voice, each reinforcing the others’ ideas, then something is created that could not have happened individually. Of course, this form of teamwork is not always possible… sometimes we cancel each others’ ideas and the process is made difficult by conflicting points of view, in which case it moves forward very slowly. Basically, people are different and that is usually good for the projects. This is a time and energy intensive design method, but we cannot do it any other way. It is very important that at the end everyone is happy with the results.

Ph:  I’m fascinated by how you all came to starting this practice at a relatively young age (in 2002 the youngest would have been 26, the oldest, 34). What led you to come together and start a firm so relatively early in your careers? Does it change anything in your client relations?

Photo by Tamàs Bujnovszky

We all had started at different architecture offices. I worked with Tibor Dékány on a design competition. We won and the office was founded, with only the two of us. It was very important to create a fundamentally democratic office like the ones we saw around us. As for the other office it lacked the openness of global architecture. We felt trapped inside a traditional office structure, we would have drowned. The other people came later, initially friendly relationships based on co-operation. The fact is that everyone accepts the agency's philosophy.

Orsi joined us for the subway project, when we got it, which determined the framework of our operations. Our goal was to achieve experimental architecture in Hungary, and although we found little understanding (and still do), that was the strategy we followed for all design proposals. Despite the increasingly protracted subway project, our main public commission is now complete. I recently ran out of projects in Hungary, so I am trying abroad, and am doing some private work as well.

Ph: What advice do you have to young architects looking to advance their careers, given some of the labor statistics on how the job market has shrunk? And how do you think open source or online technology will help?

They have to be open-minded. Hopefully, open source and other online methodologies will help them because I do not see another way. When we started the office, there were a lot of competitions, comparatively speaking, so we were proactively looking for projects.

Also, if you have an unsuccessful project, put it on to the web anyway. The more it is published, the more people get to know your work. This is a sort of open source activity! You will see it enter a kind of circuit, and many will follow your example. This is a valid business model to start and has widened our global audience, for one.

Ph:  What do you think of open source as a means of sharing information, particularly in Architecture, which has so much to do with authorship?

In a short period of time the scope of this question has broadened and construction terms have changed. Sometimes the question of authorship and the architect is important and other times not at all. If you look at it over the long run (historically), authorship is absolutely unimportant. Perhaps it may even cause unnecessary tension and injustice, often unnecessarily restrict the client.

Many architects live from the copyrights of a particular project, but there is really not a lot of intellectual content in the typical case. What is this copyright after all? It is mostly a legal category, not a lot to do with architecture. Open Source is a little closer to reality and the real-life practice in which the profession operates.

The Internet boom accelerated information flow and exchange. A web-published “original” idea is very quickly cloned, transformed, and often the same idea is shown at the same time by many authors. When we narrow this down, the question emerges of who is the 'original' author? It’s hard to say… It then becomes more important how the idea is applied and in which manner it is unique and specific to the project.

Of course it is important to know the author, but there is a lot of information out there. I think we must find a balance that does not erase the author's rights, but takes into account reality and goes in the direction the world is developing, towards a common knowledge. My best attempt at it is the Paperhouses project.

Find out more about Àdàm and Spora Architects here. Tell us what you think of folk architecture on our Facebook page!