Interview with Tina Gregorič and Aljosa Dekleva

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

Dekleva Gregorič Arhiteki explain how a generic system becomes very specific through collaboration and prefab design.

Tina Gregorič and Aljosa Dekleva have been operating out of Ljubljana Slovenia as an eponymous architecture firm since 2003, making wide use of interactive systems, virtual and physical. They’ve also seen rapid change to both: Slovenia joined the EU, for one, and the Flash technology they employed on their recently redesigned website became obsolete, for another (Aljosa: you couldn’t see it on any i-devices!). In studying up on Slovenia in preparation for the interview, there was much I had to imagine. Interviewing them, however, I realized precisely what makes their practice so fascinating is the very uniqueness and adaptability of their context. We talked about some of their projects and how open source architecture can make architects relevant to global society again.

Paperhouses: I wanted to start by talking about the 21 for 21 prize you were awarded for achievements in the 21st century. How do you perceive that distinction? Is there something more forward-looking or future-oriented about your work, in your opinion, or since we are currently in the 21st century, was that more about being aware of what’s going on at this moment?

Tina: Architecture is educated in the past but we’re always working for the future and the process takes a long time. 21 for 21 selected very different practices so I don’t know why we were chosen, but I can guess it’s that we don’t develop any specific style, considering instead each program, or problem, or task separately. That was good about this award because it compared not just different approaches by different firms, but also different projects from within one practice.

Aljosa: I think it’s also due to the fact that in the news and world developments, any discussion on any level, professional or whatever, is moving from the individual and individuality toward community and collectivity. Be it in the Internet, with social tools enhancing social relations, bringing them to the foreground of discussions–whether it’s the girl who commits suicide after being bullied on Facebook, or say the problems of Syria. In our work we are concerned with this collectivity and the user is a central part of architecture. This might be why we were selected for the 21st century.

Ph: That ties in really neatly with Paperhouses, this idea of crowd-sharing and collaborative creation.  As a partnership, how do you start that process of design? And then using your practice to design larger projects like the Cultural Center of EU Space Technologies, where you collaborated with three other firms, how do you manage that actual collaboration process?

(KSVET photo by Tomaz Gregorič)

Aljosa: We always think of the architectural process, which is research-driven, as a discussion first. So when the two of us start working on a project we approach without individual preconceptions. It’s actually a very good tool for a proliferation of ideas. You start by doing a wide research-response, and use discussion to narrow down ideas. We don’t do it just as a couple, either. There is usually included an architect  who is in charge for the specific project in the office, so often, we are a three-part group in our office.

Tina: I also think this collaborative aspect of architecture production was always there. Just that historically in let’s say the last two decades it started to melt from the obsession with one architect, or one star architect or ego, which started centuries ago and continued in the 20th century. But architecture was never done by one person. Never. It’s just that for some reason it is now finally OK to say it is collaborative, and perhaps feels more democratic to allow ourselves to express jointly. We were actually happy to explore that collaborative moment also 10 years ago in RAMTV at the AA in London. “Negotiate my Boundary!”  was an intensive project and huge part of our life when we were five architects, conceptually very powerfully unified, trying to do one master’s thesis together. This is very emotional memory of RAMTV and a really intensive year. Aljosa and myself also figured out then we could share an office, so we started this firm. From there, it became easy to work together with three other firms on the Space Center that you mentioned.

Aljosa: KSEVT was a very interesting moment because the motor of the project, of everything–the funds, the location–was actually an artist (Dragan Živadinov), and being an artist, he is maybe more sensitive to the changes of society from individual to collective. In this way he challenged us to either do invited competition, as usual, or to do a collaborative work. Each of the four participating firms has two partners so in a way it was actually eight people working together. We started to work on the ideas, the proposal, the way we do individually in the office: in the form of a workshop. Then when the project evolved to more technical work we just divided the work. The fact that four architecture firms managed to do one building influenced public relations when the building was launched to society. It was so positively accepted someone actually said this should be a model for politicians. This showed collaboration can really work and can bring out unexpected positive results.

Ph: I actually think the most interesting unexpected result is that in the process of doing collaborative work you actually teach yourself new tools of productivity and efficiency.

Aljosa: Exactly.

Ph: The building became a PR vehicle as you say but to what extent is the impact or the design of that building or your work in general influenced by Slovenian identity?

Aljosa: In terms of that project, identity was a central issue. The project was conceived to promote and celebrate the work of Herman Potočnik Noordung  (Slovenian, born in 1892), who in 1928 wrote the book entitled The Problems of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor.  So imagine this book is still central in the discussion of space travel even today. The popular part of the story, that you may be familiar with is that through the book and screenplay of Arthur C. Clarke for Kubrick’s movie 2001 – The Space Odyssey, you see the inhabitable space station, the wheel that  is actually based on the Potočnik design from that book! They took his design to be part of the screenplay of the movie. Noordung drew hundreds of sketches describing the ways and thinking about how people could live in space. Understanding the idea of Noordung’s inhabitable wheel we have set out at the very beginning that the Space Center has to be round…

Tina: As you mentioned (in email), Slovenia is not just topographically diverse and rich but also culturally and climatically. We have three different climates in this extremely small piece of land. The more alpine climate and topography collides with Mediterranean climate, and the Eastern part the Pannonian plain. We as architects, in such a particular country, are able to identify these explicit diversities. We are constantly aware that we have to respond with the design differently in an alpine region of Slovenia than some 50 km in another direction. Same goes for the materials and also for the character of the users. This diversity helps us understand projects in other regions and parts of the world. Like in this project in Portugal we could understand the task, because we related it to the more Mediterranean living conditions. The more extreme case was the house in Maui so we had to go there to experience the place, because we couldn’t cope with this super weird environment without relating to it beforehand.

Aljosa: Super nice environment. (Laughter)

(Cliffside house in Maui, photo by Cristobal Palma)

Ph: That is a gorgeous home. I was particularly fascinated with comparing the Maui house against XXS House. Can you tell me about those projects?

Aljosa: They’re actually very different in terms of who they were designed for.

Ph: I can imagine!

Aljosa: The Maui house was designed for a family who needed a home to socialize in with friends, because in Maui if you want to go out, it’s not like going out for a drink in central Europe or in San Francisco. As opposed to here in Ljubljana (XXS), the house was designed for my parents, who actually live in the countryside on the Italian border. My father likes jazz and my mom likes to go to coffee in the square in the urban context, so this is actually their urban holiday home. So both projects primarily reflect the very different context of user behaviour and needs.

(XXS House photos by Matevz Paternoster)

Tina: This is crucial, actually. We did a lecture where we compared these two houses, because they’re so radically different. It’s easy to present the same approach to the question but the questions posed were so different and the contexts were so unlike. So first, the XXS house is the holiday-home. The second one is very specific home for a family. This is a crucial starting difference.

Ph: How ironic, the Slovenian family living and socializing full-time in Maui, versus your parents using an urban setting for holiday.

Tina: That is interesting what you say, because what we claim is to have two different sets of conditions and very different reactions; if one is holiday and the other, primary. This is a major difference. This is also something we tried to address in our Paperhouse. If you design a home, you should design for a specific family with their specific needs and allow that family to make their house with their own hands, or with someone else but nonetheless, to allow them to participate in the making of their home. However, people are usually not so eager to experiment with homes, so it’s much easier to work on holiday homes, because all their frustrations, feelings, et cetera… they can contain them in a primary home for everyday use, and then experiment radically on their holiday homes, which have the temporal use.

Aljosa: But they are also very similar. Materially are both strong reactions to the local conditions and materials you can find. In the XXS house we have used terrazzo flooring and for kitchen counter top because there is strong tradition of this Venetian flooring technology in Ljubljana because of Jože Plečnik’s architecture…

Tina: The most famous Slovenian architect.

Aljosa: Yeah, and he designed quite a lot of urban settings where terrazzo plays the role of “artificial” stone. In Maui we used Ipe wood and it gives completely different flavor. In both projects we were trying to be very honest in the  materials. We try to show the original nature in everything so we don’t paint anything. Everything is primal.

(Photo of XXS interior, by Matevz Paternoster)

Tina: This question of the context which we try to understand not only as a typology but on the technological level and material and climate level, by relating to all these contexts, these projects became so different. The concepts of the roofs clearly respond to dialectic climate conditions. In XXS minimized with snow holders vs XXL roof of the Maui house that provides the essential shade. The Ipe wood on the roof became very gray and really chromatically bland with cliffs all around. But inside, the wood didn’t gray. Starting from the same material, over time the house became different. We like that kind of patina. The mortar on the walls was made specifically out of a recipe including local sand. It was done just for that house and further emphasises the local context and additionally connects indoor with outdoor.

(Cliffside house in Maui, photo by Cristobal Palma)

Aljosa: It’s kind of yellowish, and we would never paint anything yellow, no? (Laughter) Taking the sand from the beach, you have this chromatic scheme you’re used to seeing in Maui around your home.

Tina: Also, the material we used for the façade of XXS was a reference to the house we demolished. It was the same material (fiber cement panels) used in the service house we replaced, so we wanted the new house to remain that service appearance, within the larger setting, because it’s a heritage protected environment. We wanted to connect to the history of the demolished service house.

Ph: I want to go back to something Tina just said that I thought was interesting, how people are more willing to experiment with their holiday homes because they get to be a little freer with their ideas. Do you think that’s going to be the case with your Paperhouse?  Because you’re leaving it up to them to experiment?

Tina: Actually what we were thinking, since this is open source after all, that we would like to see architecture as such to provide homes. Not just extraordinary objects in nice surroundings, which is usually for holiday homes. We aim to provide for both possibilities. We thought of defining a system that could allow someone to do a very unconventional holiday-home in a very specific landscape, or to be able to somehow within that system, allow typical forms of living in another setting. We tried to explore both sides of this thing. In relation to our obsession with the ability to design a very small house, a very small home, we were thinking first of our Paperhouse being small, and if you need a bigger one you can assess it out of more units.

Aljosa: The thing with Paperhouses is that of course we don’t know for whom it’s going to be built. Since our process normally begins with the user, this is going to be quite a challenge. We figured out we need to make a system that can adapt to the specific things that will differ with each user. In a way you start with the prefab idea, the prefab house. But actually we are doing prefab design. Prefab means that it’s limited so you have to provide a variety of designs to address specific needs for user we don’t know. This is going to work with a tool of scenarios, allowing for the thinking of possibilities of what our Paperhouse could be.

Tina: We intend to allow a generic system to become very specific through the open source. How it reacts in different landscapes, geographies, materials, programmes and with people. We aim to see a series of substantially different houses, which would demonstrate the highly personal needs in diverse settings.

Aljosa: So in a way, you start off with a simple proto-house. But with all the decisions and different possibilities of what you can do with basic volume, you achieve different specific results for different specific users.

Tina: Context matters so much to us, we’d really like to address how in this agenda. How to go from generic to specific in this open source architecture. Because making specific houses is not a problem for your clients is regular. But in this completely other setup, it is an important issue.

Aljosa: Prefab design.

Ph: It’s a great distinction, prefab design.  Lastly, you were talking about the process of working with clients, but what do you think of open source as a means of sharing information, and how it evolves through sharing, as opposed to moving back and forth without change.

Tina: I think that’s one of the best things about the internet. It allows so many great ideas to evolve, firstly, and then to send them where it is needed. Back to this idea of doing Paperhouses, we don’t see a problem of authorship because we have much bigger problems to deal with as architects. We just saw this wonderful video of Shigeru Ban for his incoming architecture students, called “Architecture is useless for society.” (laughter) He explains that if mostly architects design for privileged people, people who already have the means and the grounds to build something, you as architects just empower their own ambition. It’s nice for an architect to have something else to offer; to offer a really smart design for people who would never address the architect directly. Here’s the potential for something in open source architecture that can really affect a lot of territory. Because at present, you have a little bit of exclusively good architecture but 99.5% of really damaging the environment. I see this as a kind of positive move, to test if there is still a need for architects in this world. Just beautiful buildings are not enough.

Aljosa: I also see open source as a tool of widening the discussion. This becomes a tool for widening the discussion to and throughout the world.

Read more about dekleva gregorič arhitekti at their site, and follow all of us on Facebook or Twitter!

Previously, Paperhouses talked to Panorama arquitectos