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Man at the center - about empathetic architecture and design freedom

06 of September '21

Interview from issue 06|2021 of A&B

Iwona Buczkowska, an architect, urban planner and graduate of École Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris, has been running her own architectural studio in France since the late 1970s with much success. Her work focuses on the pro-social aspect of architecture and is characterized by an individual approach to form and users. In an interview with A&B, she talks about empathetic architecture, passion, the design process and the opportunities provided by arches in architecture.

Anna Walewska: How did you find yourself in France?

Iwona Buczkowska: At first it was a coincidence. When I was in my second year of architecture in Gdansk, a letter from the ministry arrived at the university with information about a competition, spread all over Poland, for many majors, including architecture. The prize was a scholarship to go to France and complete my studies there. I decided to prepare for the competition exam. My parents paid for my French lessons.

Anna: It's quite a unique situation for the 1970s.

Iwona: Yes, and later it turned out that this was the only time such a competition was organized. I passed the exams in kindergarten (that was the condition), passed the stage in Gdansk, then two stages in Warsaw. The first consisted of an interview in French with Professor Kalabinski. This was also a kind of psychological exam, a verification that the candidate was suitable and would be a good representative. The last stage, the most official one, took place with representatives from the French side.

Anna: Have you ever wondered why it was you?

Iwona: I wasn't the only one - there were four scholarships for architecture students. I had this feeling that all the stages went very well for me. While other majors actually had an exam, on architecture it was difficult, the questions were about one's opinions on art: architecture, literature and so on. In retrospect, I believe that our candidacies were scrutinized very carefully in Warsaw, depending on the average, perhaps on the opinions of the schools before the interview with Professor Kalabinski, that the decisions were made afterwards, and the final stage was simply a presentation of the selected students to the French authorities.

Collège Pierre Sémard for 600 students in Bobigny, competition design, 1989-1996, expansion 2006-2007

proj.: I. Buczkowska; cooperation: V. Delostal, I. Jeangeorge, G. Rebboh

Anna: You started working in your profession actually right after graduation.

Iwona: The diploma committee was attended by the investor of my thesis supervisor. Since the diploma project was considered very interesting, he immediately commissioned me with twenty apartments - a test design (feasibility study) on a scale of 1:100. It was accepted and the commission turned into 245 apartments. At that time I repeated to myself the words of my professor from Gdansk: "in the life of almost every person once a huge opportunity hits. Fate throws down the gauntlet to us. To most, especially the young, it seems that such a situation will happen a second time, but it actually never happens again." Accordingly, I took up the gauntlet. I worked three times more than was due. The project wasn't completed until 1986-1992, and the program changed over the years, so I was able to refine the concept. When I got the assignment I also had formal challenges. I had to return to Poland, return my business passport, apply for a tourist passport. It was such a va banque play. If I didn't get a tourist passport, I couldn't return to France. And if I had not returned my service passport returning to Poland even for a vacation would probably have been impossible. To avoid this, I returned my scholarship to the Polish authorities.

Anna: What was your graduation project about?

Iwona: It was a multi-functional project: residential, retail and offices. In the center of Saint-Denis, which is known for its first Gothic cathedral. My project was to be located opposite this cathedral.

Anna: The building was never built there.

Iwona: This particular one didn't, but somehow I realized it later, according to other principles, in the design of the Collège Pierre Sémard in Bobigny. The diploma consisted of a certain interpretation of the cathedral's arches. It was the period of Japanese mega-constructions. I used a double system of long-span arches. In the outer layer there were apartments, inside there were arcades, retail and offices. I believe that arch structures are the future of architecture.

Collège Pierre Sémard for 600 students in Bobigny, competition design, 1989-1996, expansion 2006-2007

proj.: I. Buczkowska; cooperation: V. Delostal, I. Jeangeorge, G. Rebboh

Anna: Why?

Iwona: The arch can have different forms and can be treated in different ways, it facilitates the suspension of ceilings, enables the limitation of bearing points at ground level. An arch can be just a parabola, but not necessarily. Arches facilitate multi-directional lighting of the space. In my projects, light is incredibly important. The interior is equally important to me. I am an architect who, in parallel to the urban design concept or the one for the landscape, starts her work with the concept of the interior massing.

Anna: This is a very interesting approach. The result of an architect's work is always the same, it's a building, but every architect approaches the realization differently. You start with the interior. What comes next?

Iwona: I have never used any scheme. The environment is a great springboard for the development of a project, because it subjects us to solutions. It allows me to find an idea for urban planning, for the organization of the building, and when you think about urban planning, you also think a little about form. Also important is the function that the building is supposed to serve, and its interpretation. My projects are very different. Each time it is a separate analysis. I conduct a parallel reflection on space, urbanism, architecture and landscape. I consider what type of interior will be suitable for a given environment, how architecture can transform the imposed program so that it is as inspiring as possible for the future user and adapted to him. I'm looking for a system to build an interior, because after all, it has to be a system. I can't imagine working without a working mockup. Contact with the material is very important. When you make a mock-up and something goes wrong, it means that not everything works. There is also coincidence in the mockup. Sometimes she falls down, sometimes you look in a different direction and you can discover other solutions.

cross-section - Collège Pierre Sémard for 600 students in Bobigny, competition design, 1989-1996, expansion 2006-2007

proj.: I. Buczkowska; cooperation: V. Delostal, I. Jeangeorge, G. Rebboh

Anna: Are you an opponent of modern techniques?

Iwona: No, but I think technology should have its limits. IT is also not being used properly. Thanks to technology, a lot of time is saved, but this time is not spent exploring new spaces, new ways of living. It is devoted to commercial activities, unfortunately. And this applies to all countries.

Anna: It seems to me that architecture has such an ambiguous social effect. On the one hand, it's an empathetic approach, that the most important thing is the person, the value of the individual is emphasized. On the other hand, it's not a democratic outlook, because the vast majority of people can't afford to have an architect design their home. Therefore, it seems that standardization is the only solution.

Iwona: Architects are not given enough freedom in creativity. Maybe it's because the formations in schools are not the best... I taught myself, so I know something about it. Or maybe because investors are mostly not interested in architecture. The reason I managed to realize non-standard buildings is that there was always an enlightened investor behind me. Closer or further away, but he enabled me to design the way I wanted. I had one limitation - the budget. My realizations involve a state investor (city or department), the exception being the last one, under construction. The residential neighborhoods I have realized are municipal housing.

House of Nature, Children and Forests in Darnétal, competition project, 2006-2011

proj.: I. Buczkowska; cooperation: C. Harmel, M. Mulak, M. Rybczynski

Modernism introduced a kind of standardization, which is absolutely not interesting in the long run. Up to now, the scheme reigns: a corridor, a kitchen, some couch in front of the TV, a living room and that's it. And an apartment can be something completely different. When one speaks of empathetic architecture, one has in mind such design, in the center of which is a person. When designing a building, one thinks about the future user. These places are meant to inspire, they can be multi-level with varying heights, multi-directional elevations, where corridors are virtually non-existent or limited to small areas, light can also be zenithal, ceilings and roofs do not have to be parallel, apartments can have their own terraces and gardens: additional space that increases the square footage of the apartment, very valuable in times of pandemonium. Thought must somehow escape. It has to be creative. Space can facilitate relationships between people. Provide some opportunities to meet or not. Not necessarily for touch, which is just fine with covidu. We all see each other, but we don't touch each other. For me, preserving this visual contact with another person on the scale of an apartment, a building or on the scale of a neighborhood is a very important element. According to Italo Calvino, people want to observe and be observed at the same time.

Anna: It's about preserving the interpersonal relationships inside and the social ones outside.

Iwona: Yes, it is that interaction. With man, but also with nature. It all has to function together. From one space to another in the most light and elegant way possible, without any clashing.

House of Nature, Children and Forests in Darnétal, competition project, 2006-2011

proj.: I. Buczkowska; cooperation: C. Harmel, M. Mulak, M. Rybczynski

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