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An interview with architects from Karpiel Steindel Architects

03 of April '20

They had long been well known in the world of architecture, but they became really famous in the media when in January this year Wojciech Szczesny, the Juventus Turin goalkeeper, and his wife, Marina Luczenko-Szczęsna, auctioned off the design of a single-family house by them for the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. Marcin Steindel and Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr. talk about the history of the Karpiel Steindel Architekci studio and combining the regional traditions of Podhale with modernity in an interview with Dawid Hajok.

Without tradition, modernity is nothing

We are consistent, we do not bow to the weight of criticism. We design contemporary with the principles that are the essence of the region's traditions, regardless of the place where we carry out the project - a conversation with Marcin Steindel and Jan Karpiel-Bułeckajr. of Karpiel Steindel Architects.

Dawid Hajok: Your story begins in the Podhale region. That's where you realized your most famous projects. Through them you have become popular at home and abroad. How deeply rooted is the highland tradition in you?

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: Marcin's great-great-grandfather, Wincenty Witos, bought land from mine in Zakopane and built a guesthouse there, "Przystajń" for his daughter. This is the same building where we have an office today. After almost a century, the two families' paths crossed again to cultivate the traditions of the Podhale region. We began to write the continuation of this history in our own way. I've been a native highlander for generations, and I can't imagine not continuing the family traditions, the mission that my father instilled in me.

Marcin Steindel: We have a chance to fulfill ourselves in architecture and, like our great-grandparents, leave something of value behind. We do what we can to ensure that local creativity is not lost, so we work with the best craftsmen and add contemporary scenarios to tradition.

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: An important part of our office's mission remains the development of Zakopane's contemporary architecture and the popularization of the traditional buildings of Podhale. We want it to penetrate the consciousness of audiences around the world. We want the buildings of Podhale to become recognizable and appreciated, just like the regional architecture of the French Alps, Switzerland or South Tyrol.

Dawid Hajok
: What features testify to the quality and character of buildings maintained in the so-called Zakopane style?

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: The proportions of the buildings and the precision of the details, the outstanding craftsmanship of the Podhale people and their craftsmanship. This is what we try to cultivate in our projects. When Stanislaw Witkiewicz, later creator of the so-called "Zakopane style" in construction, appears in Zakopane in 1890, he turns a traditional highland cottage into a grand villa. But not the kind erected in many places by so-called Podhale developers. A very stylish one, artfully decorated in accordance with tradition and surroundings.

Marcin Steindel: The Zakopane style, which is perhaps a bit of a surprise today, originally arose from national motives. Witkiewicz's timing was good, as this was when the mad fashion for Zakopane broke out. Visitors, tourists and the elite from all over Poland rented Highlander chambers and even entire cottages, and things began to get cramped. The shape of the houses erected at the time referred to local inspiration.

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: Witkiewicz very quickly determined the characteristic elements of the Zakopane style: high foundations, a lot of bends, faults and risalits, decorative terraces, porches, exhibitions and appearances, quills on the ends of roofs, lace along the ridge or ornamentation in the shapes of lynxes, dogs and suns.

But the Zakopane style did not appear only in construction - furniture, household appliances, clothing, porcelain products and musical instruments were also created in accordance with it. Contemporary design in this style still abounds in careful finishes and numerous sculptural decorations. It abounds in such motifs as crosses or six-pointed stars, as well as floral motifs of Tatra and Podhale nature - leluias, poppies, ferns, limbas.

Willa Frame, proj.:
Karpiel Steindel Architekci

Villa Frame

© Karpiel Steindel Architects

Marcin Steindel: These are beautiful pieces of architecture that represent the spirit of our region. We ourselves, more and more often, in addition to modern villas that are a contemporary reworking of the language that Witkiewicz wrote down in the Zakopane style, undertake conservation projects or completely new ones that meet today's functional needs, but are typically regional in the architectural sense; so that the building tradition of those times is not lost along with the old cottages.

Dawid Hajok: Is it a difficult task to combine modernity with the region's well-established traditional style?

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: When you look at many of the new developments in Podhale, you get the impression that it is. There is still a lack of awareness in Podhale that an architect is helpful. That's why we don't often design for residents from the region. If we do, they are usually people who really know what they want and why they come to an architect. But criticism and misunderstanding of what we do is still common in Zakopane. Fortunately, outside the region we are appreciated for what we do, for the consistency with which we carry out the office's mission. That's why the awards we've won, most notably the Stanislaw Witkiewicz Award, which was not infrequently criticized for its activities, are particularly meaningful to us.

Marcin Steindel: In 2016, we received the top prize in this poll, which gave us the wind in our wings. In 2018, we received a special award from the Marshal of Małopolska, and we take this as a clear indication that we are consistently keeping a level and moving in the right direction; regardless of what criticism and misunderstanding we have to face on a daily basis.

Dawid Hajok: The context of place in your case is, as you say, the foundation of design. What elements do you catch, what do you rely on in your initial analysis?

Marcin Steindel: Of course, each project, due to its conditions, is slightly different. Usually, however, the way to get there is similar. It's a thorough analysis of local traditions and an attempt to reinterpret them in a contemporary way. Whether it is a house in Orava, a hotel in Zakopane, a villa near Krakow or in Alicante, we always listen to the context of the place. It is not always in accordance with the context, sometimes we even take a perverse polemic if what is around is, in our opinion, inappropriate in terms of quality and impact on the surroundings.

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: This was the case with the house project in Tarnow. The neighborhood of the plot on which we had to design was formed by catalog houses. We made our own interpretation of their form, defined admittedly by the provisions of the local plan, but we showed that it is possible to do things differently, that a house based on the same assumptions can be different, fully modern. For this we got the main prize of two chambers of industry: civil engineers and architectural engineers. This is very nice," he said.

Dom w Tarnowie,
proj.: Karpiel Steindel Architekci

House in Tarnow

©Karpiel Steindel Architects

Dawid Hajok: You mainly design houses, apartments and hotels. Which of these facilities carry the greatest challenges? Especially in such an environment - competitive and with a demanding clientele?

Marcin Steindel: These are completely different worlds. Different goals of investors, different needs of users different assumptions. One thing they have in common. Each of them requires the same sensitivity to local conditions, the context of the place, the nature of the architecture. All of them, at the concept stage, give great fun to design. In the case of houses it is easier for us to maintain control over the effects of implementation, because we build them ourselves. In the case of office buildings, most depends on the goodwill of the investor. Hotels or large boarding houses are somewhere in the middle.

Dawid Hajok: Your love of Zakopane architecture and craftsmanship results in the fact that you even designed the Biedronka based on regional canons.

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: Yes, Zakopane is a special place for us. Sentimental, but also, like Krakow, requiring special sensitivity to historical context, local traditions and materials. Biedronka is already a very distant project, but thanks to it our studio became known. We convinced the investor that if he wanted to erect a retail pavilion in this location, he had to set it in the local context. Shingle seemed to us a natural solution. Wood and stone are the basic building blocks of highlanders. We are eager to use them, combining them with state-of-the-art construction technology. With this project we managed to show that combining tradition with modernity even in economic projects, which usually do not operate sophisticated architecture, is possible.

Marcin Steindel:This clipped the avalanche and opened the way to villa projects that at first glance look thoroughly traditional; however, they have a solution that allows us to use huge, two-story glazing (Willa inKoscielisko or Willa z Jodły) or fully glazed walls (Dom w Tatrach, Dom Panoramiczny) impossible to achieve in the past in houses built of wood. Today, we combine modern technology with the art of local carpenters or stonemasons, ensuring the uninterrupted course of tradition.

Dawid Hajok: Your ambition is to promote the Zakopane style abroad. With success. You have won awards, including the European Property Award. How did you manage to break through?

Marcin Steindel: We are consistent, we do not bow to the weight of criticism. We design contemporarily with the principles that are the essence of the region's traditions, regardless of the location of the project. For this, the "House in the Tatra Mountains" was named the best house in Poland in the 2017 European Property Awards poll. In turn, the conservation project of Folwark in Chorowice, near Krakow, received five stars, the highest possible rating in Europe, in the same plebiscite in 2018. Our office also took home the top award from the Chamber of Civil Engineers and the Chamber of Architects, and this year also the European Award for Best Practices 2018 from the Lausanne-based European Society for Quality Research.

Dom w Tatrach,
proj.: Karpiel Steindel Architekci

House in the Tatra Mountains

© Karpiel Steindel Architects

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: This year brought a real breakthrough. We were invited to the prestigious edition of the PrefaRenzen realization catalog. This is a kind of yearbook, subjectively selected by a group of critics, of the best realizations from all over Europe. At a gala in Vienna there was a gala presentation with the participation of the architects responsible for these projects. Each was preceded - prepared by the organizers - by an introduction about the region, its culture and traditions. To our surprise, our native Zakopane architecture was recognized and acknowledged by this noble group. It was a sign that we had broken through that glass ceiling through which we looked at the architecture of Alpine regions with admiration. We have finally made our way into the consciousness of audiences outside our country.

Marcin Steindel: All these awards and prizes brought us closer to this moment. Today we are designing for a multinational company that manufactures timber-framed modular houses. The company approached us to design a house for them to sell to customers in Switzerland, Austria and France. That's how the Modular Chalet project came about. When they saw it, they ordered three more. In this way, the traditions of our region are penetrating the commercial market and are being spread further. This is already happening mechanically.

Modular Chalet, proj.:
Karpiel Steindel Architekci

Modular Chalet

© Karpiel Steindel Architects

Dawid Hajok: Does this mean that your mission has come to an end? I've noticed that recently you've been strongly emphasizing your activities in the area of contemporary projects unrelated to Podhale. Villas and guesthouses are scattered around the country, including abroad. What are you working on today? What direction have you taken for the future?

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: We are certainly not abandoning the chosen path. Of course, a certain goal set for ourselves more than a decade ago has been achieved, but there is still much to do in Podhale. The period of barbaric, unsentimental activity of local developers has left great havoc in the space of Zakopane and Podhale. On the other hand, the iconic, historic buildings of hotels and guesthouses today are in need of thorough renovation. These buildings, which are important to Zakopane, need to be adapted to modern standards while preserving their atmosphere. Without proper sensitivity to the genius loci, it is impossible, even with significant financial outlays and good intentions, to preserve their spirit.

Marcin Steindel: Our activity has also been very much focused on the Krakow and Warsaw markets, as well as Rzeszow. There we are currently developing most office and residential projects. In our Krakow office, we have managed to form a very strong team, which has been active there in recent years on projects that have already managed to make it into the wider media. This makes us very happy. We also dream of realizing a public utility project in Zakopane or Krakow, meanwhile we are expanding into new markets, including foreign ones.

Dom na Podkarpaciu,
proj.: Karpiel Steindel Architekci

A house in the Podkarpacie region

© Karpiel Steindel Architekci

Jan Karpiel-Bułecka jr: One of the more anticipated projects is a majestic villa in the Podkarpacie region. A house on a scenic plot with a completely modern form. A distinctive element of the building's detailing is formed by, made in concrete, an imprint of natural wood, coming from densely planked formwork. Ultramodern, yet still having distant echoes of wooden buildings. What contributes most to its perception is the large glazing with huge, overscaled frames framing the undulating landscape of the Podkarpackie region. Another of such projects, which significantly deviates from traditional building forms, is a villa in Alicante. Glazed facades reinforce the architecture's sense of connection to place. Depending on the need, large exterior electronically controlled curtains will be able to be slid in and out, controlling the permeability of the space. When the glass panes are pulled apart, all divisions disappear, making the house part of the context created by the earthy landscape and Mediterranean nature.

Marcin Steindel: As you can see, in each of these cases - although completely different, from what we have done before - we remain faithful to the methodology of the work, and as much as possible, we look for a method to imprint our character in them, the values that have shaped us as architects, through which our work has become recognizable and with which we want it to be associated.

Dawid Hajok: Thank you for the interview.

Material and illustrations courtesy of Lemonade Creative Agency

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