Proactively working for a better tomorrow

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At the recent 47th Zagreb salon – architecture and urban planning, they were awarded special recognition for the WellHotel in the Terme Tuhelj spa complex, a large program of expansion of the 4-star conference and wellness hotel. The award, given for their first large project to be completed, was immediately followed by the annual “Viktor Kovačić” prize for the most successful architectural work in 2012. It was definitely a good reason for an interview with two young architects, Marin Mikelić and Tomislav Vreš, of the mikelić vreš architecture practice.

Ever since establishing their practice in 2007 they have been researching various typologies in projects of equally varied size and scope, ranging from individual residential projects, social and public spaces to tourism. We talked about their award—winning hotel, but we also touched upon their professional beginnings, their current projects and building sites, such as a kindergarten in Krapinske Toplice and Aromatica, a country villa in Istria, as well as projects yet to be done, such a school sports hall in Dubrovčan in Zagorje. We also discussed the unrealized projects, discontinued at a certain stage while still on paper, including various competition first-prize winners, such as the “controversial” Kaptol redesign project proposal, the Bačvice hotel and the Brodarica area redevelopment in Split. We wanted to hear what they have to say about their favourite field of work in the unavoidable context of the current situation and about the position of architects in the society, but also about more cheerful topics. Read about all these topics in a wider view of architecture and urban planning, presented below.

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Award-wining Well Hotel in Terme Tuhelj_ photo I. Dorotić

First of all, congratulations on winning the prize and on your first large scale, successfully completed project. What was the beginning like, how did you actually start working together?

M: The practice was established in the early 2007, and the way we did it was rather unusual, different from the start of any other practice I know. I had worked in a number of practices in Zagreb, and Tomislav had worked as a freelancer when we both concluded that we should start something of our own, although for different reasons. We had known each other for a short time only, after being introduced by our mutual friend Hrvoje Vidović, and we actually had not worked together on any project before we started the practice. Each of us was of course familiar with what the other one was working on and we decided to try and work together. We had no idea where that could take us, but the idea of a joint practice seemed an interesting one. We did not know whether we would end up working on joint or separate projects, we did not have any pre-defined agenda…

V: We simply realized at a certain point in time that our views were compatible, while we also had mutually complementing qualities. Maybe we have learned something from each other over the recent couple of years.

To what extent were competitions useful in making your practice recognized at the time of the competition “boom” that many young architects used as a chance to gain recognition?

V: They were definitely useful. We participated in numerous competitions, and we were successful I think because for instance in Split, we were awarded three prizes, of which two were first prizes, in the course of a couple of months. There was a period of time when we were much better known in Split than in Zagreb (laughter). At that time, during the first two to three years, we had a number of smaller assignments, all of them very interesting but not profitable. As competitions were literally the main source of financing for us at that time, we were able to invest enough time and effort in these projects so as to do them just the way we thought was right… When I think about it now, I find it difficult to see how one can start a new practice now when the number of competitions has dropped drastically and lack of projects has made competition much stiffer.

M: And competitions were a very good thing for us for a number of other reasons. We honed our skills in certain aspects of the work required, such as pace of developing and presenting ideas, we increased our visibility as competitions showed results while frequency of our presence ensured continuity in our work.

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Urban and architectural competition for the Brodarica Urban Area in Split_ 2nd prize (1st one was not awarded)

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Urban and architectural conceptual design competition for the Kaptol area redevelopment in Zagreb_ 1st prize

Have competitions, and the continuity, visibility and presence you mention, brought new contracts and orders?

V: Although we had won a number of first prizes, nothing happened afterwards, i.e. there were no commissions. The only exception was Split where we were awarded the top prize for the Bačvice city project, which included plans for the new sports grounds with a stadium and we were commissioned to do the Detailed Urban Plan. Although our project came close to being accepted, the current City Administration has stopped it. On the other hand, the competition for the Kaptol area redesign attracted a lot of media attention, with the media stressing the alleged conflict between architects and conservationists. However, the project was also stopped after the first meeting, which was not even held with the City Administration, even though they were the ones who had initiated the project, but with the Church.

M: We were awarded another first prize in Split for the Bačvice hotel competition in the summer of 2007. This was a project for a small ’boutique’ hotel with only about 20 rooms, located within a specific historic area full of century-old villas. Following the competition completion, the site was sold to another investor, and the project has been put on hold for the last five years.

V: It was actually the first competition we did together, and that is maybe why it is one of our dearest projects.

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Urban and architectural conceptual design competition for the Bačvice hotel in Split_ 1st prize

What are the starting points in your work? It seems that you often had to start from either a strictly defined programme as is the case in competitions, or from a specific location, such as a complex existing context, as is the case of the Well Hotel. Do you see restrictions as inspiring and to what extent, do they help in designing „better“ buildings?

M: I think restrictions make us better, as they force us to think and devise solutions going through a number of options. It is easier to define actual problems and then look for their creative solutions. As regards the ‘tabula rasa’ situations, in my opinion they are better tackled by architects who start work on the basis of a predefined theoretical basis and are then in the position to examine or channel their architectural solutions towards the implementation of these theoretical principles. I myself find it more difficult to start from an empty surface.

V: It is not even clear what an empty surface means. Each plot of land always has certain restrictions or qualities. For instance I found the number of restrictions on the hotel project excessive (laughter). To a certain extent, things that are a given can certainly act as encouragement. Sometimes this means accepting them, and sometimes they make you take the very opposite position. Both are just reactions. In most of our projects we had to deal with strictly defined parameters, and examples are both Kaptol and Bačvice projects. The Well Hotel, for instance, not only came with restrictions but was also located in the area under conservationists’ protection. But the cooperation that continued throughout the project design phase was assessed by all those involved as very successful. Obviously, these complex situations agree with us, although it is not true that we did not do any projects that were so to speak starting with a ‘tabula rasa’.

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The Well Hotel, Terme Tuhelj,_a scale model

Can you tell us more about your work methods, as well as about the starting point we talked about earlier? How do you approach design, how do you start a project?

V: There are no set rules. In most cases, we first go to see the site (laughter). There is no doubt that the context is key. It is not always the same thing, sometimes it is a physical part, topography, construction surrounding the site and the like, and sometimes it is on a completely different immaterial plane. Defining the context by means of different criteria makes it possible for us to experiment with various concepts. Although, most often we play with a number of ideas but then go back to the initial one. The two of us function well together, we are complementary, but we use rather different methods, especially when starting a project.

M: Tomislav is more intuitive, while I like to devise a system, to analyse, to rationalize (laughter). On the other hand, I think this is good, as neither of our approaches is ideal per se. It may happen that, after a lot of analysis, an intuitive suggestion takes the project in a certain direction, and sometimes the intuitive click is followed by conceptualization and all the other things.

What are the tools you use in your work and do you think they influence the outcome, and here we include computer software, scale models, research, and co-operation with other architects or artists…?

M: We actually do use all the tools available, not always the same ones, we actually assess which method is the most suitable one for the task at hand – sometimes it is a scale model, sometimes we do modelling, other times we use neither of those two. Ideally one should use several tools simultaneously, explore various possibilities, but the selection of the work method depends on circumstances, and maybe most of all on the time available.

V: As is the case with most ambitious practices, we spend a considerable amount of time on the initial stage of project development, maybe even more than we can afford to at this project stage. We develop scale models for almost all projects, we use them to test the concept internally and not as part of presentation to investors, and it has happened already that these scale models make investors conclude that we have too much time and that we actually want to play (laughter). The investors may also get the impression that we have our own ambitions as well and that we are not only working to satisfy them.

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Second zone_ presentation of the practice as part of the lecture cycle ’4×6′ at the Zagreb Architects’ Society

We have already mentioned location and context as important starting points in your work. To what extent have you been defined by the specific site location of your first project, where a number of your subsequent projects were located as well? We are talking about the region of Zagorje, of course.

V: We were probably more affected by the fact that we had to finish a large project in such a short period of time than by the fact that such a number of projects were located in the Zagorje region. I am of course talking about the Well Hotel.

M: I would not claim that these projects defined us in any way. I would not even claim that they were contextualized to that extent, in the sense of certain regional character of architecture that would impact our approach or our work in general. We started a project in Zagorje without any prejudice just as we would in any other region.

V: In addition to projects in Zagorje, we have some 10 projects on the coast. For instance, there is currently the Aromatica country villa project being completed in Bale in Istria. The fact is that we actually had the smallest number of projects built in Zagreb, to be exact, just one unrealized family house, if we do not count competitions.

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Histria Aromatica country villa in Bale in Istria_ a photo of the construction site and a scale model

Zagorje has defined you in the sense that it has helped you build your identity as architects, it has helped you define your own recognizable style, it has brought publicity and new commissions, and all that because of the projects on sites within the radius of some ten km.

V: I would not say it is about the style. Due to the region’s specificities, almost all the projects have an active and very clear relationship with the topography which is directly connected to their concept. Probably the best example of such ‘groundscape’ approach is the Bedekovčina graveyard extension, meandering downwards with green slopes literally integrated in the terrain.

M: Favourable publicity that we gained relatively early on was the result of a couple of our projects that were both interesting and skilfully presented and so it became widely known that we were capable of completing projects relatively quickly and skilfully, which had obviously not been the experience in the region before we started working there. We are pleased if we can be credited with raising standards. Obtaining permits, participating actively in all the project stages, building relationships with the investors, these are things an architect should know how to handle well, and all these things contributed to a good impression. So other commissions were mostly the consequence of a chain reaction, as people knew what they could expect from us.

V: Local community and the people who live there actually do follow us with a certain level of interest. Without being pretentious, I think we have changed certain things there, at least to some extent, and even more so with smaller projects for local communities than with the hotel project.

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The Bedekovčina graveyard_ chart and photo of green slopes

To me the most interesting idea seems to be that the power of a building’s identity may shape the identity of a rural community, this is where I see development potential for a small community, that is what the question about how you were shaped by the projects you did for that same community was about.

M: This is very important, especially in case of larger buildings in smaller communities. For example, by adding the building of a school sports hall in Dubrovčan, we were able to create a school square, the only articulated public space in that community. The terrain denivelation was achieved with a number of smaller stands for 300 persons, while the hall has glass surfaces that „open“ towards the surrounding area so that the space can be used not only by the school but also for other local events. At the Well Hotel site in Terme Tuhelj, we designed an open auditorium in the very centre of the complex, which was not part of the brief, and the auditorium has the form of a half-sunk amphitheatre and can be used for various purposes by the hotel conference centre, but is also suitable for all kinds of public gatherings, as it is accessible from outside. This very space was recognized by investors, users and professionals as the most important value added to the project.

V: This is not our explicit standpoint, but we as architects do tryvery often, either consciously or subconsciously, to discover the possibility in any assignment to work to some extent on the possibility of public use, on providing access to persons who are not exclusive users of the building’s basic purpose. In smaller communities this approach can make a considerable impact on the context, both directly and in a more general sense.

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Extension of the school sports hall in Dubrovčan_ a school square as a community public space

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The Well Hotel in Terme Tuhelj_ auditorium for public gatherings added value to the project

A kindergarten in Krapinske toplice is currently under construction…

V: This is our first commission in Krapinske Toplice. It was started by our written reaction to the project of extension to the existing kindergarten. We pointed out a series of deficiencies, violations of laws and regulations and pedagogical standards, including the design of kindergarten units without any natural light source. Our response also contained our donated conceptual design proposal, where we demonstrated that the brief can be implemented in a quality manner irrespective of all the complexities of the location. This reaction changed the course of events considerably, and later brought us the commission for the new kindergarten project on the location where construction works are soon to be completed.

M: The new kindergarten building is a ground-floor building with an indented floor plan whose cross-section follows the shape of the slope, so that every unit is at its own height. The layout branches into five arms that are positioned so as to create outside spaces of various characteristics. This project gave as an opportunity to actively impact the programme but also the land plot size, making it possible for us to implement this very specific solution, which would have probably been impossible in an urban setting.

V: Work in Zagorje has given us the opportunity, generally speaking, to participate actively in the very programming together with investors, and sometimes also in the location selection.

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The Maslačak kindergarten in Krapinske toplice_ photo shows the building site and the floor plan

The idea of active participation is without doubt an interesting one, as architecture is actually a service industry that should meet complex demands, including relationships with investors, location specificities, materials, legal requirements, programming ……

V: Yes, but we are not always successful in having it our way. In the case of the Well Hotel, we said from the very beginning that the number of rooms should be decreased because of the location limitations, but we were not able to convince the investor. On the other hand, there were situations where we detected certain problems and offered solutions outside the project brief, for example, there was lack of parking and public space in the Krapinske Toplice hospital project. Although nothing has yet happened regarding the issue, the overall response has been favourable.

M: This is the result of acting in context – detecting certain situations that may result in interesting solutions and projects.

You were involved in researching differences in scale, when you did the design of lights in the prize-winning hotel. How did you manage the change in scale of work and how did it actually happen – was it because you are passionate about design, as is the case with many architects, or was it triggered by budgetary constraints and some other down-to-earth reasons?

M: All of these to some extent, actually. The brief included the hotel interior and the budget was limited, while both the investor and we had great ambitions. And so when you understand that your ambitions cannot be fulfilled by selecting items from a catalogue as the budget cannot allow it, you resort to your own design. So most of the hotel room furniture was designed by us as it had to be made to measure, and then we decided to design some of the lights as well. We know we could not afford designer pieces that would be acceptable to us by their form and would point out the aspect of the space we wanted to see pointed out, so then we, young as naïve as we were (laughter), started designing lights as well.

V: The lights certainly represent an interesting object to be designed by an architect. I would personally not dare design a chair, because I think I do not know enough about it. A lamp was an extraordinary opportunity for us to test our abilities as designers. It is interesting that it turned out to be cheaper for the Well Hotel investor to have everything made to measure than to build in ready-made products.

M: Also the investors encouraged the design because they were favourably impressed by the fact that there would be unique furniture pieces in their hotel and they wanted us to design absolutely everything, which was simply impossible in the given circumstances. (laughter)

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The Well Hotel in Terme Tuhelj_ interior_ photo I. Dorotić

But it sounds great: Gesamtkunstwerk. Steven Holl says that he would like to design every single detail in a house, if he had the choice, as he believes that it makes a direct contribution to the quality of architecture when the scale increases.

V: This is fully legitimate, but it depends on preferences and on capabilities. In the case of the Well Hotel, there was simply not enough time to ensure a major presence of designers in the story as the whole project had to be finished within a period of 3 – 4 months. The exceptions were carpets and signalling, which were done by designer Tatjana Petric.

M: I do not think that an ideal model of work would mean that the architect does everything. Here this proved to be the only possible way, given the circumstances, but I would have loved to have seen more persons from various professional fields participating in the project, if we had had the opportunity and time to coordinate them in a smart manner, so as to see interaction among professionals develop its full potential. I believe that other people can do certain things better and I would love to have them participate in order to have a better-quality end product. I believe that there are people who can design lamps better than we have done it.

V: You think so? (laughter)

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A lamp designed for the Well Hotel interior

You have also worked in the field of urban planning. Would you say the field has been unjustly undervalued and what would you say is its position today? Is it a question of lack of project designer’s interest or of political background, legislation, economic potential…?

V: As a practice we got more involved in detailed physical planning, where the scale is closer to architecture than to urban planning. To cover all the range from physical planning to designing a lamp might be too much (laughter). I think that it is difficult to make any plans right now, as there is no clearly defined position, either locally or nationally, about what physical planning should actually focus on. This is best illustrated by the current drive to legalize almost everything without any clear criteria. The question is actually whether there is a will and a wish among the users of space, including citizens and politicians, to have it developed in a purposeful manner. To conclude, when there is neither will nor strategy, it is not easy to discuss physical planning.

M: Lack of any kind of concept is the main problem. It is also true that we live in a poor country, but what is an even bigger problem is that we live in a country with serious bureaucratic barriers to whatever one wants to do, starting from urban reparcelling.

Let’s talk about the position of architects in Croatia today. How do you think the award will help you, i.e. will it impact your position on the market, apart from the fact that it means recognition by the profession?

V: There is no doubt that it is important and that we are pleased to have our work recognized. As regards the market, this is unfortunately not how it functions. Based on my experience to date, new contracts are almost always won following recommendations and not awards.

M: The most important thing about awards is that they mean recognition by the profession, by those who understand what you are doing. It is of course good to have people talk about the award, and it is now easier for us to get in touch with new clients. As a rule, a frank relationship and a dialogue with the investor usually mean good results and new projects, new investors.

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The KL house in Krapinske toplice_ programming scheme and drawings

So, would you say that the key to success is a good relationship with your investor and a true indicator of success is the user satisfaction?

M: Your relationship with the investor is key because it brings new projects but also because it determines the successful outcome of the project you are working on. One of the projects we like most, the KL family house in Krapinske toplice, is an example of good cooperation. While we were designing the house, the investors were living in Cairo, and we mostly communicated by e-mail, and the house was redesigned three times because of physical planning restrictions, but in spite of all that, the investors were very actively following each detail of the project design. It was interesting to see that in spite of all the changes the basic idea of the house remained unchanged. We were all very satisfied with the end result of the design process, and we hope to be able to assess how successful this cooperation was very soon when the actual construction is scheduled to start.

V: Trust is key in our relationship with an investor. When the KL house project was completed, it was obvious that the investors were satisfied with the result as their comment was that they were familiar with every detail of the house and would not want to change anything. Favourable user feedback upon project completion is definitely, together with the alignment between architecture and the social context, the most relevant indicator of the project’s success rate.