The Children Playground Workshop at SAW11

by Aneta Vasileva, 29.11.2011

Photo: Mihail Novakov, EDNO Magazine

We hadn’t organized a workshop so far. The Children Playground Workshop at Sofia Architecture Week 2011 was our first one. It turned out not that difficult and a fun.

Lazy though we are, we made some efforts before — made a site, launched an online survey and started mailing to our American friend and co-organizer Thomas Kong, an architect, a Professor and a father.

How We Started

Children playgrounds in Sofia irritate us to extremes (especially after we started using them as parents). Yes, they are insufficient number, they are dirty and of low quality, but that’s not the worst. After long and tiresome discussions and after we analyzed the play of our children, of our neighbours’ children, of the cousin’s and of Thomas Kong’s in Chicago, we decided that the main problem is that children playgrounds are boring.

In the 60s and 70s playgrounds were experimental field for cult figures among architects and designers, but after contemporary safety regulations were set, suddenly the play spaces were restricted to several uniform (and usually factory-made) equipments over rubber flooring with impeccable safety ISO.

Playable sculptures from the 60s. Similar to them are the so familiar in Bulgaria concrete turtles with holes.

And this happens all around the world, not only in Bulgaria. But especially in Bulgaria because it’s the easiest.

Factory-made and certified children playgound equipment in USA and Bulgaria. There is only minimal difference.

The Survey

The survey we addressed to the parents and launched it 2 weeks before the workshop. It was filled in by 384 parents. The results turned out so intriguing that we decided to take them out in a separate post (expect soon). So far we’ve showed them only to the participants in the workshop (before they srated work).

There was one opinion in the survey: Why every newly-built children playground is just a square with a fence? This standard way to do everything is certainly not the best for our children and their education.

Then Thomas Kong told us about the informal children play in the big city and sent us pictures from Chicago. And everything fitted in.

The Participants

We invited architects, designers, landscape architects, but also parents who are not “in the business”. For several hours we wanted to get together users and professionals and make them play “creative” in several teams.

The Program

We decided to set the following task: make a standard formal playground by using the informal, spontaneous play of children — e.g. stepping on shafts?, climbing on crooked tree branches, balancing on curbes, shoveling fallen leaves, jumping on tree logs, etc

We picked three children playgrounds (neglected) in Sofia which cover three main types:

  • small playground in the centre of the city (Doktorskata Garden)
  • playground in a park (Borisovata Garden)
  • playground in a panel residential complex (between the apartment blocks in Druzhba 2)

The task? had two main points which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Make a list of plays you’ve seen children spontaneously do outside the playground (jumping in puddles, walking on curbes, etc)
  2. Following the list, try to create a play-scape (not just a play-ground) on one of the selected sites

Present your ideas by sketches and text.

The Workshop

We were very happy with the people who came — they were positive, made good teams, created nice playgrounds. There were architect/designer-mothers, “pure” architects and designers and “pure” parents (according ot our slang).

The participants. Photo: Mihail Novakov, EDNO Magazine

Thomas Photo: Mihail Novakov, EDNO Magazineно

The children on their turn formed such a nice improvized playground by cardboard boxes which proved that the ideal children playground indeed doesn’t need to cost a million bucks and still be fun for 4-5 hours

The Results

Here what we had in the end:

Doktorskata Garden

This playground is difficult — small, many passers-by, the old equipment removed as dangerous and only one sandpit is left.

The design of the team which worked on it included:

  • wooden climbing platform, suspended so as to let children pass below
  • amphitheater with wooden logs for climbing and sitting on as well as holes for hiding (inspired by the amphitheater in front of the Planinarska Pesen mountain hut at Vitosha which is indeed cool and children adore it)
  • main things to do with this structure — hiding, climbing, swinging. Yet it can also be used for shade in the summer. To sum up — a clever and functional thing.

Borisovata Garden

This playground at Boprisovata Graden (where there are more playgrounds and more popular) is so unknown it can be defined as underground. Yet it is big, sunny, with enough trees and useful remains from the socialist landscape design like artificial hills, a hole, one wooden camel-slide and several shattered wooden dogs.

Two teams chose to work on this one. Both made use of the existing structures and even upgraded them. Which only comes to prove that a flat, fenced playground is far from desirable.

Option 1 Play with senses:

  • play with water with surprise elements
  • play with the different scale of the playground equipment — child scale, hyperbolized scale, etc
  • musical instruments – xylophone with legs and similar
  • play integrated in flooring
  • play with light

Option 2 A Trip around the world for children:

  • a desert — created aroud the camel and the existing semi-circle hill in the terrain. There will be a sandpit, puddles-oases and other attractions
  • volcano — around the existing hill. There will be different kinds of flooring, slides, places for bare-foot walking and climbing
  • a jungle — with rope park for climbing and swings in a separate, fenced place
  • a wall for drawing — with exotic plants and animals
  • animals for riding — around the existing dogs
  • an Arctic ocean (for children over 12 years) — water feature with structures for jumping, climbing and moving

Druzhba 2

Tha playground in Druzhba 2 Quarter is typical for the panel housing establishments in Bulgaria — rectangular, surrounded by trees. But it is very big, sunny and the trees are grown enough.

The design decision was a funny and cheap play with the terrain:

  • by excavating and piling up of the terrain different play and age zones are formed — a concave zone with logs for the smallest children, holes in artificial hills with ropes for climbing, a skateboard zone, labyrinth with places to walk on curbes, balancing and hiding
  • am orchard with tomatoes, parsley, etc — with educational purpose, but also to fit in the typology of the panel complex
  • different uses of natural resources — lighting features with sun batteries, collection of rain water for watering, etc

The Questions

During the presentations there were passers-by who asked And how will you maintain those playgrounds of yours? And how much will they cost?, Who will risk making them?

These were the questions which provoked us to prove that such design decisions can be realized at low cost and without high maintainance. And provoked us even further to find someone to risk making them.

So we get started. Officially.

If you have ideas how to make the difference with the municipality Green Systems (who are responsible for the children playgrounds in Sofia), don’t hesitate to write. Meanwhile, we will depend on the sound private initiative.

WhATA interviews the Colombian architect Alejandro Piñol

by WhATA, 2.06.2009

Alejandro Piñol is a young architect from Colombia. He designed Villanueva Public Library, together with Carlos Meza, German Ramirez and Miguel Torres.

How comes that a Bulgarian architectural blog interviews a Colombian architect, living in Madrid?

Well, we stumbled upon Villanueva in Archdaily and featured it in a post about stone facades in Bulgarian. We liked the gabions very much and also the frank, cheap and real sustainability of the building situated in a poor, conflict-striken region.

Alejandro, in his turn, stumbled upon our blog and not knowing a word in Bulgarian asked us to translate the post for him. We did so (here is the post in English).

It was a wonderful chance for an interview and we, enthusiastic as we are, jumped over it. Our second chat-interview (first one was with Bjarke Ingles from BIG)

Alejandro turned out to be our kind of guy — wears Camper, believes in the social role of architecture and likes sustainability. It was a fun Friday-evening interview. Thanks, Alejandro!


WhATA: Tell us something more about you — favourite brand of sneakers, most hated architect, best live concert you’ve been to?

Alejandro Piñol: Camper sneakers, pricy but simple. I cannot read anything about Zaha. And José Gonzalez is a music machine without comparison with a plain acoustic guitar.

WhATA: Super :) We invest in Camper too

Alejandro P: Ha ha

WhATA: You have graduated Javeriana University in Bogota, right? How did you come to live in Madrid?

Alejandro P: Well, I’m half Spaniard so I took advantage of this. Also, because my brother who is an artist lives here and we wanted to collaborate and live together for a while. A third reason would be that I’m preparing to move to the UK but I wanted to work a little in Spain, just to taste the water, but the water is already to my neck…

I got out from the Javeriana school and immediately began working with a fellow, doing anything that would come across us. It was mainly interior design and its construction. I learned a lot.

Then we moved on to try our luck by participating in contests with other friends, and luckily we won on our first try (note WhATA: The Villanueva Public Library).

In the meantime I was offered a part-time teaching job to freshmen students of architecture at the Javeriana. It was a dream job because all I had to do was tell them how I was doing in my professional daily life in a class named “Introduction to Architecture” (of course plus some readings and all of that)

WhATA: Aha… Where is it more exciting to make architecture — in Colombia or in an European country? Have you built something in Spain?

Alejandro P: Yes, I have built here, nothing like the library, of course. Nobody my age could build something like that here, in Spain, mainly because everything is so tied up together. When we won in Colombia we didn’t even have our own computers…

Here I’m learning different things and carrying on big projects where I collaborate but they aren’t mine. What I do have built is rather small but mine, again retail and interior design.

So for me being here is like a fake start-over because I carry on working with my Colombian fellows and my own commissions (for example I recently finished a house in Colombia supervised via Skype talking directly to the clients and giving them “instructions” from photos they uploaded in Picassa). I have also travelled to NY for an interview and that sort of multi-scalar activities.

The adventure keeps on going but in a different fashion, may be it’s more exciting back in Colombia because through the work I’ve re-learned things I thought were “made of stone”, those old professional attitudes and people’s resistance to alternatives in architecture.

Colombia is delusional but without it everything kind of flows and there seems to be space for chance and invention, that’s adventurous. Here in Spain may be too but my gun powder is wet for the moment.

WhATA: No computers in Colombia, but good architecture. That’s a dry powder :) As far as we read blogs and architectural magazines… We come under the impression that in Colombia architecture is used as political and social remedy. Your Villanueva Public Library is part of a programme by the Colombian Ministry of Culture to build edicational and cultural centre in a region of political unrest and guerilla fighting. Do you see some actual result of the “healing function” of architecture?

Alejandro P: Yes. The initiative to re-conquer public spaces with cultural facilities, landscape architecture and educational projects is driven by the need to regain the general public realm, which is deeply eroded because of the conflict, so architecture has played a major role and many architects have engaged this task.

I think that architecture has the responsibility not only to meet this but to overachieve it by going even further, further than the architect himself and reaching a hand to the real people, to the real situation of every single project, not just throwing designs and entering contests hoping to win with a render. This whole issue can only be successful if architecture and everything that surrounds it are willing to risk a bit more and be more optimistic. There’s nothing more terrible than fear and censorship and that has to be taken down too.

WhATA: Can an architect build his career on public competitions in Colombia? Do you have problems with competition corruption, lobbies, etc? (‘Cause here, in Bulgaria, we do, a lot)

Alejandro P: Well, from our experience I can say that the architecture competitions are transparent, the official institutions in Colombia are trying hard to build a design democracy and as a result the architecture it produces varies in result. Regarding lobbies I can also say that of course there’s always something smelling funny in the kitchen, but architects are far away from that.

It is possible to build a career on competitions, absolutely, I know a couple of architects that in the turn of 5 years went from small local offices to the cover of Abitare (or something like that) or gained the attention of Iwan Baan (note WhATA: One of the most influential architectural photographers. Not only shoots the best and the stars, but also discovers good architecture).

So things that aren’t so tied up together offer these shortcuts. I see the disorder as possibility, if you move a little bit faster you can oversee the mess and focus on your work.

WhATA: So that’s the reason why (thanks to public competitions as well) so many good Colombian buildings have been circulating the web… congrats! Villanueva Library is a fine example of sustainable architecture in the right way, just where it is needed. Was sustainability part of the competition brief or it was your idea because of the tight financing and harsh reality in the region?

Alejandro P: Sustainability never was part of the competition, and I should be honest, we didn’t intend it to be “green”, we intended it to be “local”, and that meant logically local materials and local handwork, all in the simpliest building possible for the rectangular site we were given.

Five years ago the word sustainability wasn’t part of the Colombian agenda, I think it isn’t as of today, maybe because it has become the token for “new” architecture. Villanueva’s intention was more intuitive.

Vanguard isn’t on the image, it’s on the values, and public architecture values are function and technique. Villanueva’s strong ideas are precisely there and the image is almost a result.

WhATA: What is the climate in Villanueva? How did you ensure thermal insulation and construction stability? Drop something more about construction of wall, drainage, layers of the wall?

Alejandro P: The moment you set foot on Villanueva you understand its climatic conditions. It’s very humid and the sun hits you vertically. It can be Arizona-dry with sudden heavy rain.

[Pastes a photo:]

I’m uploading a 5 a.m. photo from one of the many rivers that descend from Los Andes mountains to this valley of sun where Villanueva is.

The essence of the building was to always keep it open and never, never, have a direct window to the outside. The water demanded a special roof design and we had to collect the water in different areas to disperse the rainfall, and in the perimeter of the whole building we created a natural drainage surface left as a garden.

WhATA: We like your photo material about the library because you present not only the result, but also the whole construction process. This is both useful and fair. Not directed images of a dressed-up building, but the bare truth behind the curtain. How did you get along with the local workers? Was it fun?

Alejandro P: Fun? It was a lesson of a lifetime.

WhATA: :)

Alejandro P: I was there from the moment there was nothing, in the middle of the local workshops we organized to build the wood facade and the gabions (both our “inventions”) and in the end giving a tear-drop speech

[Pastes a photo of the library — a fish-eye 200º picture of inside:]

This is my, our, opera prima and I think the building and it’s reception are giving us more than we expected.

WhATA: Worth it :)

Alejandro P: Yup

WhATA: Ah, btw, have the locals already nicknamed the library – e.g. the shed, the bunker, whatever?

Alejandro P: The local used to call it the “prison” because it had no doors or windows and it seemed to be wrongly oriented.

Now I don’t know how they call it, but I have checked the local web page and many events of the town are taking place there: cinema projections, meeting points for lessons, starting points for festive parades, etc

It’s a cultural meeting point, may be because it’s a library but also because of it’s gigantic shaded plaza, which is a popular architectural element.

WhATA: You did simple but efficient details of both the walls with the gabions and the timber construction. How do these details stand the time?

Alejandro P: It’s too early to say, but for example the stone facade is growing plants on its lower part, giving it a bound-to-earth effect. The wood facade is showing the effect of the sun, some parts are greyish but that’s normal, the wood is guaranteed for another twenty years, then we’ll see.

WhATA: Now one yellow question for finale grande. In Bulgaria corrupted thugs used to make architects design their houses in a kitsch baroque style. How do the homes of Colombian narcobosses look like?

Alejandro P: Bulgarian

WhATA: Haha, great. Well, thanks a lot for this interview and good luck! Hope we can meet some day in live

Alejandro P: Sure we will. Thank YOU and we’ll be in touch.

WhATA: Bye and have a nice Friday evening!

Alejandro P: Already did!


Several days later Alejandro mailed us 135 photos of the construction site, of details and interior views of the library.

Scandinavian architecture in Boyana. So it is possible

by Aneta Vasileva, 25.05.2009

This house in Boyana turned out to be the new residence of the Norwegian ambassador in Bulgaria. Which calmed down fairly quickly our bewilderment what such a building was doing next to so “grand” neighbours. The house has been recently completed and there is still no one living there.

What makes it different from everything around?

  • its simple shape
  • its aged wooden cladding (as if reused or taken from the casing of the concrete elements) which counters boldly the shiny new neighbours
  • the huge overhanging of one of the volumes
  • the U-shaped layout of the house
  • the carefully designed flat roof (covered with wood to match the facade) only for the reason that it is visible from the upper street
  • the carefully designed details in general
  • the stone masonry of the fence

The official entrance to the house. Representative rooms are situated in huge overhanging.

The aged wooden cladding changes its pattern. At some places it looks incomplete. The guard told us that the Norwegians were not happy with the execution.

The house from above. Very interesting roof, despite Bulgarian prejudice that wood is not suitable for external use unless hidden under overhanging, detached from the ground at least 1.20 m, polished, treated, used only at vertical surfaces and better all the above together.

The entrance to the residential rooms. Metal shutters are hidden in wooden boxes from the same material as the facade.

The U-shaped layout forms an internal courtyard.

The representative rooms facing the internal court. Here the overhanging is at ground level.

The fence has a beautiful, simple stone masonry, unusual for this part of the world. From the inside there are already strings for vegetation to grow.

Detail from the roof.

The bad thing is that neighbours are too close. And are always in sight.

One bewilderment still remains though. How come that the Norwegians build such a residence and at the same time provide funding for such a misunderstanding as the Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art. Please, do compare.


Found by: Plamen Todorov. Photos by: Hristo and Nikolay. With the kind assistance of the guard.

More photos

Twitter: Learning to write short

by WhATA, 14.05.2009

For some time we’ve been secretly testing world’s new mania Twitter. For those who haven’t heard, this is a site where you write what you are doing (or thinking) at the moment — under the only condition to squeeze your stream of consciousness within 140 symbols. Something like your status in Facebook, but simplier.

Why writing at two places?

We are twitting about more personal things than in the blog. We share links, announce posts currently under development… We are even more politically biased.

How will Twitter affect the blog?

Almost none. Only the regular feature “From the last 10 days” (about the things that have impressed us recently) will be more of summing up the flood of thoughts we are pouring on Twitter.

Twitter is a good writing practice

It turned out that short writing is far from easy. Sometimes a thought has to be remodelled several times to fit within those 140 symbols. Writing within constraints is creative. And often, in the end, you produce a neat short sentence which is totally meaningless.

We will be twitting from time to time and more irregularly than not. The same as with our blogging. We will try to write at least once a day, sometimes more.

If you feel like reading, the address is: twitter.com/whatassociation.

Sofia New City Centre—Zaha Makes Laces, Foster Is Eco, Perrault Makes a Mountain

by WhATA, 6.05.2009

If anyone still hasn’t heard, this week has finished the competition for a new administrative centre of Sofia. The French architect Dominique Perrault was chosen the winner among 6 finalists — 4 world-known architecture companies and 2 Bulgarian teams. The results were announced even in ArchDaily and Bustler.

We haven’t written about this competition before because:

  • we don’t find the finalists interesting. Childish though it seems, but we don’t like these particular starchitects
  • the whole competition was obviously a lobistic affair. But we didn’t want to talk about the government, it would have been a long talk
  • we were bored by the noise about the competition and we were not intrigued enough

Why write now? Because we visited the exhibitions of both the official finalists (at the Foreign Art Museum) and of the participants in the alternative competition, organized by the Chamber of Architects in Bulgaria and by the Union of Architects in Bulgaria. We have opinion to share.

Generally, we are not against foreign starchitects building in Bulgaria. On the contrary, we find it useful for the image of the Bulgarian city. We also have nothing against the idea for a new Sofia City Centre on Tsarigradsko Shosse. Although we have absolutely no idea how it could be funded, especially at times of economic slump. And here comes the talk about the government and it would be a long talk.

In fact we very kindly took a round at both exhibitions. Below follow our impressions:

Norman Foster is surprisingly mundane

His project is plain, but logical. All buldings are collected at the periphery of the site — starting from a perfect circle. Park is left in the centre.

Buildings at the periphery, park in the centre

Then he introduces the three “magnets” — EU Centre, Centre of Knowledge and Exhibition Centre which deform the initially ideal circle. This is how he makes the composition horizontally.

Then Foster introduces the sun, the wind and other eco and nature forces, deforms the structures and makes the vertical composition.

Finally, he introduces energy efficiency, wind rose for Sofia, etc and out of the modernistic box produces cascading buildings with illogical at times forms.

Zaha Hadid is a well-explaining lace maker

Unexpectedly well-explained idea, with clear explanatory schemes, white background, nice font, good information design of the layouts. This surprised us very much — and it was a pleasant surprise. From Zaha we expected complicated 3Ds on black background.

Contrary to Foster she collects all the structures in the centre of the site and leaves as much green as possible at the periphery. In this centre she makes a sculptural composition of buildings — a beautiful one, undoubtedly.

And out of the green around she makes a wonderful landscape pattern — like lace, like a texture for a nice skirt or cool sofa. Very beautiful, indeed.

But… single-mindedly selfish. Only she seems capable to design all these buildings in the future. Like a selfish spinster Zaha has pointed with her finger at a place and started making laces around.

Dominique Perrault is diligent and democratic

Babbling in a French-like manner, with loads of illegible explanations, the project is full of resarch and small, smaller and smallest tables and graphics.

He makes a solid block, then cuts it in one direction by a park and communication axis. The volumes left after the cut Perrault deforms following the outlines of Vitosha Mountain. Thus he makes a mountain in the city. A new nature, so to say.

Perrault’s mountain silhouettes. These are not buildings, but boundaries, within which buildings should fit. The reason why they are transparent on the model

Naturally, Perrault introduces the green theme as well. Part of his project is devoted on how many LEED points the new administrative centre could gather following his design.

He also makes research of the life is this new city centre — by hours and days. He combines office and residential functions and analyzes different combinations.

Part of the numerious researches. These in particular show why Perrault alters resindents to office workers’ ratio from 1:10 (as required) to 1:2 and how this alteration adds more LEED points to the project

Eventually Perault receives irregular forms (like Zaha, but clumsier) which serve as outline boundaries for the future structures to be built there. That means that what you see on the model are not real buildings, but the boundary they should fit within.

Perrault is democratic — according to his project other architects can also design different buildings from the new administrative centre, provided they keep within the outlines and follow the organization.

Example of a building which fits within the imposed urban boundaries

Fuksas is… well… vague

Makes three centres — three clear functions plus irregular park space between.

But the glass of his 3Ds’ poster was cracked (probably during transportation) and sticked with white scotch. White letters on glossy black background, cracked glass, white scotch and irregular forms — how can you take a serious look at such a project.

The Bulgarians are overcomposing

Student compositions at that. While the foreigners are making organizations, the Bulgarians are making compositions. Swirls, In&Yan, the Eye of the Universe, monumental forms and intoxication by arcs, spirals and progressions — all of them we thought were left forever in the Bulgarian 90-ies (when blue lights and silver were top of the pop)

The project of consortium ADAIS — the more serious one of the two Bulgarian finalists (photo: arhitektura.bg)

The other BG finalist: G13 (photo: arhitektura.bg)

As a principle we consider compositions in urban development outdated. Urbanists should offer a system for development and not a fixed result. That’s the reason why the project of Dominique Perrault is the best of the six above.


The Alternative Competition

The exhibition of the alternative competition was organized by the Chamber of Architects in Bulgaria and by The Union of Architects in Bulgaria as a protest against the official competition. This exhibition lacks surprises as well. We counted up to three projects that do try to be alternative. The others offer nothing more than senseless compositions and poor graphic design. But this is understandable. While the officially selected six finalists receive by 100K EUR each only for being finalists, they can pay to 3D makers and model makers. The participants in the alternative competition have done everything out of good will and with no much time and money on their hands.


More photos from the exhibition

The Stone House or something to look after for the next generation

by Aneta Vasileva, 17.04.2009

Some time ago we wrote about stone facades. Well, it turned out needless to travel all the way to Switzerland or China to find a contemporary stone house.

This one was very close, we came across it in a small Sofia village at the foot of the Balkan Mountain. It’s still under construction and seems a bit awkward and unrefined. But don’t let photos mislead you. One can tell a nice house from its construction site.

We liked the house for several reasons:

The location

The house is on a hill. It’s visible from very far away. The house is surprising, which is very cool. We are sure the locals have already nicknamed it — e.g. the citadel or the power station.

The shape

In fact we like citadels. Especially when it’s a contemporary version of a citadel. Here for example the northern wall is tilted and window frames are either huge and simple or small and in composition.

The materials

The walls struck us. All of them are made of concrete. The stone masonry from the outside is from old stones, obviously picked up from the ruins of a demolished house or windmill and reused.

It’s interesting how they will deal with the window frame detail.

Now this is a house to look after for the next generations. With so much concrete and stone it will last even if the hill is washed away. It will survive both architectural whimsies and natural disasters. Agree?

Crisis as Utopia

by Aneta Vasileva, 8.04.2009

NYTimes say, now is the perfect time to reinvent the America’s cities. Exactly now, just in the peak of the economic crisis. Like Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s and Eisenhower in the 1950s.

Utopia made in US

What is the suggestion of NYTimes? Not hard to guess: infrastructural projects, parks, public transport for LA, injecting some life into Detroit’s deserted centre, something to be done for Bronx, solution for New Orleans… Thus you can restart the economy, find jobs for the branches worst hit by the crisis, polish a little bit the image of the state as a guarding angel (which can both create beautiful and useful things and fight unemployment at the same time)...

I suppose this is a well-known recipe for economics students. I haven’t read their books. But all sounds as such a utopia (although no wonder the Americans manage to create new urban model out of the recession after all) that I wonder what would become of the Bulgarian post-construction-boom cities if someone diligently takes up reinventing them.

Utopia made in BG

I take it for granted that the Sofia underground and the highways will be finished (at some time or other).

But imagine competitions for alternative vegetation for the recently overbuilt areas in Sofia. A new pedestrian/bicycle network of alleys and parks connecting all (I mean all) Sofia districts. Some nouveau riche Bulgarian connoisseur who decides now is the right time to clear his consciousness and commissions the construction of the Sofia Guggenheim equivalent.
In Zaharna fabrika for example.

How you can make it

The High Lane Project in Manhattan is an example how something impossible at first gance can become reality.

About thirty years ago the train rails in the former industrial disctrict in Manhattan’s West Side were deserted. The rails however are a place of interest of their own — they run above the ground, pass among building, high in the air, there is a view. But a group of private property owners purchased the land below for new construction.

Deserted rails in the past

Their intentions were strongly opposed. The Friends of the High Lane organization was created which wanted to reuse the place as public open space. The battle was epic. New York mayors came and went. Newspapers commented, architects made projects.

Eventually, with the assistance of New York City Council, the project for parks and open public zones over the railroad tracks was under construction.

Today they are building a park over the tracks (Photos via Friends of the High Lane)

Now I’m wondering. Why not found some Friends of Zaharna Fabrika organization. Might bring the place to life some day.

WhATA Interviews Bjarke Ingels from BIG

by WhATA, 20.03.2009

Bjarke Ingels in BIG’s “Archicomic of Architectural Evolution”

Bjarke Ingels heads the Copenhagen-based architectural group BIG. He is OMA-bred, sports T-shirts with stamps and talks about architecture with remarkable confidence.

Though founded in 2006, nowadays BIG (and Bjarke) are everywhere to be found — win competitions, appear in magazines, blogs and the new Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. Their projects are bold, catchy and presented by witty comics, Lego models and interesting stories.

We like BIG a lot. We already reported about their current Yes is More exhibition in Copenhagen (though we didn’t manage to see it). And our reader Elena, who happened to be in Denmark, sent us pictures from the spot.

We, in our turn, asked Bjarke Ingels and he agreed to give us a chat-interview. We talked about his favourite comic books, about the Matrix, Darwin and the evolution, about natural selection of ideas and recession architecture. It was an honour. And fun. Thanks, Bjarke!


WhATA: Have you ever been asked for a chat interview?

Bjarke Ingels: No, only for an email interview. This is my virgin chat interview.

WhATA: Hope it won’t hurt. We haven’t been asked either :)
Do you read blogs? If yes, which ones?

Bjarke I: My favroite blog is failblog. I also read wired magazine’s blog and dezeen, designboom, archinect, iconographia and tons of others.

WhATA: Cool. You use a lot of comics elements in the presentations of your projects. Which is your favourite comic book?

Bjarke I: Probably Frank Millers “Return of the Dark Night” has been my biggest favorite — but definitely also Mouebius John Difool series, Letendre and Loisels Quest for the Time Bird, Manaras Indian Summer and the Monkey King.

I was excited when the Warzowski brothers (former cartoon writers) came out with the Matrix and had used pro graphic novel illustrators to make these incredible storyboards — composed more like cartoons than film scripts — and the movies are totally composed like graphic novels in terms of creating iconic images, using symmetries, euclidian shapes such as circles and spheres, and highly composed closeups with a careful mastery of foreground background information.

I think transferring knowledge and ideas and sensibilities from one media to another is a great source of innovation.

The so-called “Ren Building”, described in BIG’s Archicomic

WhATA: Do you do the same thing? Using comics style and iconography to make architectural ideas more accessible?

Bjarke I: To cheat I just copy in this passage from the Yes is More archimanga [Pastes]:

Bruce Mau once visited our office and we showed him a series of projects including a study on Danish harbour activities. He was fascinated by the study and asked us to mail him the power point as he was leaving the next day.

When he received it he replied: “No, no. I want the one you explained when we were there.” We assured him it was the same one. He said “It’s interesting. In most cases when you see architects work, it’s dead drawings and superficial images. But when you get a tour of the office or visit a building with the architect, you feel the energy and get all these little punch lines and invisible stories that make the whole work come to life! Too bad it’s so hard to capture in an exhibition, or even worse in a book!”

This is our ambition: to capture the experience of the personal visit the studio, the construction site or the building – and to transmit the energy of a face to face encounter with the architect.

Essentially we think that it is hard to transmit the energy and the often complex cluster of ideas that trigger an architectural idea and shape its design.

So we wanted — in the most blatant form imaginable — to combine images, drawings, models, statements of facts, and accounts of accidents and conflicts, opportunities and opportunism.

We do a lot of lectures where we use images and other illustrations, graphs, diagrams, drawings, maps, numbers, etc in abundant quantities — sometimes up to 1000 slides in one lecture — along with a steady flow of words and gestures to communicate how our ideas evolved.

They also contain films and music embedded in the flow of images. Our first intention was to simply transform this format into a book and an exhibition. We called it a bookture.

It got really long and it was difficult to regulate the speed. How fast you hold an image or how fast you slide through a sequence of diagrams. So lacking the element of time it got boring.

Then we realised that a comic book is all about communicating action, movement — development or even evolution — replacing composition and scale instead of time. A large detailed image inspires the reader to contemplate — study — explore — and a sequence of small diagrams makes your eyes roll over them faster.

Suddenly we didn’t have to invent something from scratch, but could tap into a well-known format very dear to us!

LEGO Towers project in the Yes is More exhibition

WhATA: You are so good in coining words — “bookture”, “ecolomy”…
We come under the impression that clash of opposites doesn’t bother you. On the contrary, you like to compromise them. E.g. BIG come from SMALL Denmark; you like both Gaudi and the famous orthogonal grid of Barcelona; ecology (according to you) is not a hippie-Greenpeace thing, but together with economy forms a new word and has new meaning as “ecolomy”. So, do you think architecture is one big compromise?

Bjarke I: We are interested in the opposite of compromise.
Our exhibition is called Yes is More — the idea that you don’t have to position yourselves against anybody else to be radical. You could actually turn pleasing into a radical agenda.

We were thinking about calling it BIGAMYYOU CAN HAVE BOTH (but my girlfriend wouldn’t allow it ;-) )

The idea is that rather than choosing between opposites, you can try to incorporate opposite extremes…

In front of the Yes is More posters

[Pastes another quote.]

The whole world insists on conflict. The media craves conflict, and the politicians craving media presence need to engage in conflict to get there [...]

What if design could be the opposite of politics? Not by ignoring conflict, but by feeding from it. […] An inclusive rather than exclusive architecture. An architecture unburdened by the conceptual monogamy of commitment to a single interest or idea. An architecture where you don’t have to choose between public or private, dense or open, urban or suburban, atheist or Muslim, affordable flats or football fields.

An architecture that allows you to say yes to all aspects of human life, no matter how contradicting! An architectural form of bigamy, where you don’t need to choose one over the other, but you get to have both.

A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.

Yes is More

Viva la Evolucion!

I should send you a copy of the comic book btw.

WhATA: That’ll be great :) So in case of architecture and ideas you are for having both (all of it) and nothing in between (compromising).
You often talk about the natural selection, the evolution and the theories of Darwin. How do you do the natural selection of ideas in your office of about 50 architects?

Bjarke I: Darwin’s Theory of evolution is based on excess and selection.

At each generation there is an excess of individuals (ideas). Only the successful ones manage to stay alive long enough to mate and pass on their genes to the next generation.

In nature it is a process of natural selection — predator/prey armsrace, adaptation to the environment, co-evolution, resistance to parasites etc… All the natural selection criteria are parameters — like the design paramaters of nature — that have generated all the diversity of forms and shapes, colours and sounds, smells and movements of the biosphere.

In the office the team produces an onslaught of ideas. Then we measure them against the design parameters that we have identified as key or crucial for this particular project. Perhaps we like the way one model performs with the program and the way another one adresses the context and then we try to couple them.

That coupling creates various mutant offsprings — some ugly, some beautiful, some succesful, some not.

And gradually, through the stages of the design, we produce new ideas, new models and gradually the design evolves through a process of creative excess and architectural selection.

The Ren Building’s model. See the comic version above

WhATA: Several years ago as young were considered architects in their 40-ies. You are one of those architects who suddenly dropped the age limit below thirty. Do you imagine yourself as a product of the construction boom or just as a bright guy with guts and luck?

Bjarke I: First of all (we are a we, not an I) we are a group of people from more than 20 nationalities and I’m happy to say that I have the privelege to collaborate with a BIG group of very smart, intelligent, passionate, talented, relentless people of all age groups, ethnic groups, religions, nationalities and genders (only 2 of the latter though…)

Secondly, when we started some years ago (I graduated in 1999 — 10 years ago!!) I was very jealous of all the 19-year old Internet enterpeneurs who became multimillionaires overnight when their Internet startup went public and got bought by Yahoo! I thought it was unfair that I was stuck in such a gentlemen’s business where you would have to wait until middle age before given the opportunity to build.

But it turned out to be a myth. And after 6 months of shooting competitions in all directions we had won 3 and had our first commission for a building.

In the end we never built the competition we won, but it got us started. And we got some other project on the way that did get built.

So of course a lot of luck — a lot of bad luck as well — and a firm commitment to make it happen.

But I’m actually mid-thirties now fyi.

The Mountain Dwelling

WhATA: We love your iconography (btw, the archicomic you’ve just sent us kicks asses :) )

Bjarke I: thx

WhATA: One last question. Do you see your buildings as icons? Do you agree with the prevailing opinion these days that the era of the icon buildings is over (due to financial crisis) and in what direction should recession architecture jump?

Bjarke I: We are interested in iconography (look at the interface of big.dk ;-) ) but to me iconic is not the same as spectacular — or loud — or overwhelming — it is rather a measure of compressing maximum expression into minimal form. To communicate as much with as few words as possible, to pack maximum performance with a minimum of gestures.

It is a form of economy of form — that you distill an idea in to its purest form.

In computergame design they use the term gameplay — that the best computergame is not the one with the most complext storyline, or the most beautiful graphics — or the most infinite environment — or the most monsters — but it is the one where you create the maximum amount of fun with a minimum of means (processing power, loading time etc…)

I’m tempted to say Less is More ;-)

In software programming complexity is defined as transmitting the maximum amount of information with a minimal amount of data.

Mies van der Rohe in the Archicomic

Essentially complexity is the highest form of simplicity. That’s where iconic is interesting to us — as the ultimate form of complexity.

And I think in the time of recession it is exactly that kind of architecture that is needed — architecture that creates maximum effect with a minimum of means. Maximum comfort with minimal energy consumption, maximum functionality with minimal area, maximum quality of life with a minimal expense of ressources.

WhATA: Thank you very much for your time and for this interview! It was a pleasure.

Bjarke I: Thank you too. It was a fun conversation.

Stone facades

by Aneta Vasileva, 25.02.2009

We like natural materials a lot. We like them even more when they are used in untraditional ways and surprise us. In general we like the architecture to surprise us.

Now we’ll take a look at some stones. Below follow two recently published buildings which (traditionally) have stone facades, but the stones make unusual impression.

Ningbo Historic Museum, China

Architects: Amateur Architectural Studio

The masonry is made of different types and colours of stones. The facade is more like an abstract composition. All volumes, however, are pristinely simple.

There are even tiles from time to time, just to add some colour.

Another facade of the same building. Here the stone composition is enriched by accidentally spread openings. (Photos: Iwan Baan)

Public library in Villanueva, Colombia

Architects: Meza + Piñol + Ramirez + Torres

The building is a typical example of eco-construction in a poor region where ecological means indeed natural and economical rather than trendy and prestigious. The library consists of two volumes —a wooden one (made of timber with controlled origin) and a stone one — with gabions (metal cages filled with stones from the nearby river).

The stone volume. Gabions are locally made.

In the construction of the library were involved many locals. Therefore both the construction and the details are simple and low tech, but very successful (Photos: Nicolas Cabrera, Alejandro Piñol)

Minimalism in Shoumen. So it is possible

by Nikolay Angelov, 29.12.2008

This is a workshop for production of sweets in the industrial zone of the town of Shoumen.

It looks like a black metal box with little concrete boxes sticking out. Yes, we like it.

Several years ago, while at university, we were fond of visible
concrete — seemed brutal, outraged all professors and
Tadao Ando was in vogue…

But I have never seen a Bulgarian investor willing to pay for visible concrete so boldly before.

As a whole there are quite a few Bulgarian investors who tend to like clean, minimalist buildings. Black at that.

P. S. A woman working there, however, was astounded why the hell should anyone want to shoot the building. Said it looked like a coffin and there is no natural light within.

Ski rental in Bansko. So it is possible

by Zhana Stoilova, 24.09.2008

I suppose this ski rental has somehow slipped away Bansko Municiaplity’s attention and luckily has escaped the prescription “to be designed in Bansko traditional style”.

The result is obvious — the only building in town with good details, contemporary material (polycarbonate sheets) and interpretation instead of imitation of tradition. The fence is made of gabions, two of the facades are clad in wood and the windows are randomly scattered.