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22 of February '22

interview from A&B issue 01/2022

We talk about urbanity with Grzegorz Gadek, co-founder of the Urban Sports Square Foundation, which supports the development of friendly, intergenerational urban recreation spaces. Skwer assists our studio [BBGK Architects - editor's note] in several design processes, making the proposed solutions for open spaces have a chance to respond to the real needs of residents.

Aleksander Maciak, BBGK
:You often emphasize that you are not an architect. Much of your experience is in web design. Where did your interest in urban spaces come from?

Grzegorz Gądek:I have respect for architects, so I sometimes explain that I never studied architecture. In fact, I've been doing web design since 1997, still in elementary school. Around 2010, it started to bother me that along with closing the laptop the effect of my work disappears. I needed variety and new challenges. Public space was a rather spontaneous choice combining the desire to learn a new field and the passion for skateboarding.

I was certainly helped by the fact that design for any medium is similar. It comes down to understanding the user, his needs and conditions, the context. That's why at one point I thought that building a square for various activities might be an interesting project for the vacations. It turned out to be a much more serious challenge than I had anticipated, and we have been working on the subject for more than a decade.

Complementing new assumptions with properly designed public spaces creates places around which the local community is formed

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: Then how did Urban Sports Square actually come into being?

Grzegorz: The whole story began with an article in a local newspaper that described a plan to demolish pavilions on Zielna Street in downtown Warsaw, right next to the then planned intersection of the subway line. I decided that this was the perfect place for a multipurpose plaza. I organized a meeting, which was attended, among others, by Monika Wróbel, with whom we established the foundation. Monika suggested preparing a workshop, and was joined by architects from the offices of BudCud, Headquarters, MFRMGR and WWAA, as well as our friends from the DSK Family and Parkour United teams. That's how we came up with our first project, the Seven Years Stadium, whose concept was based on the idea of an inverted stadium. The traditional stadium surrounds the auditorium, and the show happens inside. In this project, the grandstands, in the form of hills, were inside, and the show was going on all around. By reflecting the idea of sports space in this way, the stadium glued itself to the city. Bringing sports closer to the city has become our hallmark and a growing social trend at the same time. The early notice of this trend, the strength of the first project and the positive energy around the initiative helped us spread our wings.

Tying new developments into the transportation network allows for more efficient use of infrastructure

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: Well, that's right, you firmly embed your projects in the urban fabric. What values guide you?

Grzegorz:The key value is interdisciplinarity - a decade ago it was less obvious than it is today. If you put skaters, architects, social scientists and a few other specialists in the same room, suddenly something new and unusual can emerge. Professor Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that differentiation is the only common element in mainstream theories of innovation. Creating an environment for people with different backgrounds to come together is the foundation of our work.

The second ingredient is wellness support. This term is mainly associated in Poland with spas or swimming pools on a luxury estate. Meanwhile, the concept of wellness refers to well-being that translates into the quality of a person's life. For us, in a simplification of the 1960s model, wellness is four factors: a friendly environment, good relationships with other people, physical activity and healthy food. It is these four ingredients that are the axis of our projects.

It is also worth referring to Jan Gehl. He talks about a four-step process that should be the answer to the excessive proliferation of cars around cities. In urban space, firstly, conditions should be created for walking, secondly for sitting, and thirdly for eating and other forms of extended stay. The fourth step is to create conditions for diverse activities - this is the element we focus on. We study forms popular among different age groups and in different places. Thanks to this, we create a catalog of solutions useful for investors and architects, whom we support in designing.

Filling "holes" in the physical and functional fabric of the city, improving the cohesion and efficiency of the urban ecosystem

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: Architects understand city-making mainly in terms of buildings, the spaces between them, squares, squares - quite a strong material fabric. Of course, a city has many other layers at the same time. How do you understand the concept of city-making?

Grzegorz: I understand it productively, that is, first of all, I start from an understanding of what a city serves. What needs it responds to, why we live in it. I also believe that our needs haven't changed that much over these few thousand years, and the answer to many questions is provided by history. So the basis was trade and increasing the quality of life. You can see that social interaction is a source of prosperity. A few years ago MIT conducted a study of American cities that analyzed the relationship between social activity and wealth. It turned out that the more social interaction and greater mobility, the higher the level of wealth.

Therefore, I understand urbanism as fostering interaction and inducing conditions for the creation of good social relationships in which various forms of exchange can take place. Even if combining many groups in one place carries the risk of conflict, ways can be worked out to reduce it. The city is a place of constant negotiation, so it is worthwhile for it to take place in a good atmosphere, and for the result to promote a high quality of life.

New buildings complementing existing urban assumptions and inscribed in the language and scale of the surrounding development positively affect the spatial order of the city

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: You also mentioned interaction in the context of web design. A large part of your professional experience is developing online platforms, also in terms of user experience design. How does this influence your thinking about public spaces?

Gregory: I think it's the experience of working on building extensive, commercial web platforms that has strongly shaped my perception of public spaces. In both cases, we're talking about producing just these interactions. However, the Internet is definitely easier to measure than public space. There are, of course, tools to measure urban spaces, but they are difficult to access. Urban analytics is, in effect, much less sophisticated than web analytics. It is also much more difficult to create consistent design patterns that underpin our interaction with digital systems.

At the beginning of our activity, we tried to introduce such solutions so as not to say what we think, or even worse - what we like. We wanted to know measurably how something works and what consequences it has. Especially since the responsibility during such a design is much greater than during an online one. The digital space is much more flexible than architecture - everything there can be changed after launch, in architecture corrections take years. Unless we are talking about prototyping, which allows you to learn through practice and is an extremely valuable tool.

Exploiting the identity of the existing fabric by using important buildings, adapting and revitalizing them or referring to the history of the place

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: You mentioned the commercial approach.

Gregory: Mikael Colville-Andersen, author of the book "To be like Copenhagen," says there is value in copying the strategy of large companies operating in urban spaces. He cites car companies as an example. Let's leave aside the fascinating history of the industry, suffice it to say that the car has been identified with freedom and many other values close to our hearts. From the beginning of our business, we took a similar approach, intuitively thinking about the reach of our ideas, reaching users. Hence the idea of developing over the subway line and around transportation hubs, where there are the most pedestrians. This allows us to reach out to customers with our design, as well as increase the attractiveness of the public transportation product.

Alexander: It's very interesting to see these connections between web and spatial design. I would like to go back for a moment to the analysis of the product resulting from the project. You said that urbanity is much more difficult to calculate. Nonetheless, at Urban Sports Square you analyze public spaces. For example, there are urban researchers at the Foundation. What tools do you use?

Gregory: Very helpful research tools were created by Professor Gehl's studio. They are described in the book "How to measure public life" and in working toolboxes available on the studio's website. The studio also ran a very interesting, unfortunately abandoned project called "Public Life Data Protocol." It was supposed to be a way to collect data on activity in a space, which would allow comparison of different places.

The key question in any project - physical or digital - is: when is success? If ten people gather somewhere, is that a success, or should those people be five hundred? How many of them should return regularly? Keeping such metrics is very valuable and allows you to go from the level of opinion to the level of facts.

I mentioned computer analysis. But there are also traditional methods, underestimated, such as conversation or structured observation in the field. These are simple ways to gather information. That's why we listen a lot and create spaces together with these people. We create the conditions for them to be comfortable expressing themselves. In public spaces, it's convenient because each one has its own manager. This steward can suggest which people might be interested, and help reach them.

Properly designed first floors activate the surrounding public spaces and make them safer. Services allow building residents to live more locally

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: Well, exactly how do you combine the needs of different stakeholders? Your clients are usually local governments, investors, but the user often becomes someone else.

Grzegorz: Every architectural project has many industry stakeholders. We operate similarly, only we involve other specialists. That is, we use the knowledge of not only an electrician or a fire protection specialist, but, for example, a sportsman and a social researcher.

At the same time , the most interesting, and creative, connections are the unusual ones. Two competitions for which we prepared guidelines are interesting examples: for the park under the Warsaw Uprising Mound and the park named after Cichociemni Parachutists of the Home Army. Two serious topics with a large participation of veteran communities. It is widely believed that monuments should be places of remembrance, reverie and wreath-laying. On the other hand, residents expect recreational offerings. When we started talking to the foundation named after the Cichociemni, the veterans said that this is what they fought for during the war, so that we can now enjoy freedom. Besides, they were the ones who wanted physical fitness to be seen as part of overall human development. A bit like the Bauhaus, where it was a necessary ingredient for achieving maximum creative potential. In the end, the concept that emerged was to create a utilitarian monument that refers in shape to the gyms and bars on which the Cichociemni trained in Scotland before the airdrop into Poland. The message of this project seems to me to be of great value in the context of discussions about modern patriotism.

The city should be accessible to pedestrians, creating open passageways and clear connections allows people to use the space more fully and comfortably

© BBGK Architects

Alexander: An interesting combination. Finally, I'll ask you more about how your approach to design has changed over the years of your business, and what direction do you think it will take in the future?

Gregory: This is a question the answer to which could turn into a week-long symposium. Our approach has changed a lot. In the beginning, no one saw a problem with a green square in the city center being mostly concreted over. Now we're thinking a lot more about how to combine physical activity with climate change and other challenges of today - the crisis of confidence, polarization, aging populations. For example, we are focusing on transportation projects, landscaping under bridges. They create a natural roof that not only extends the ability to use the space during the cold months, but also provides plenty of shade. We have a growing problem with the scorching weather than not so long ago, and we are feeling the heat islands and urban heating more and more strongly. We are seeing climate change with our own eyes. There are many indications that the future we were debating just a decade ago is now the present. Unfortunately, we are still not reacting with enough determination.

Currently, our main directions are the issues described above and the gradual convergence of digital entertainment and public space - various forms of augmented and virtual reality, cyber-physical systems. These are fascinating, rapidly developing fields. The future with so much instability is unknown. It is possible that the idea of a beautiful, shared space for all generations will turn out to be a utopia in a world torn by conflicts over basic resources. What is certain is that as long as we have physical bodies, we will need physical activity to live longer and enjoy this life. Our mission is to provide solutions that can be implemented on a large scale, tailored to the needs and capabilities of the cities in which we live.

Interviewed by: Alexander MACIAK

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