An interview with Hugo Kowalski
appeared in A&B 4'2021
About the opportunities offered by architectural competitions, and how the design-build process can be like an adventure film. About the thought in the project, which is more important than the realized object, about working on one's own account and about healthy competition, talks about Poznań-based architect Hugon Kowalski.
Hugon KOWALSKI - double winner of the Architecture Award of the Wielkopolska Region, awarded in the categories Private Interior and Young Creator. He founded his studio during his studies at the Poznan University of Arts. The architectural bug, which he caught at the university, he tries to pass on to the students of his Alma Mater. Fan and active participant in architectural competitions. And... a very nice person.
Hugon Kowalski: I would like to ask you something first: for what reasons do you conduct such interviews?
Dominika Drozdowska: Talking and learning about different points of view is interesting.
Hugon: I ask out of curiosity precisely because I learned the most by talking. The architects I had the opportunity to work with shared their thoughts with me. I may have interpreted them in my own way, but not only was it instructive, but it also allowed me to gain distance.
Dominica:Tell us, please, more about the people from whom you learned the most.
Hugon: I graduated from the University of Arts in Poznan. Quite fortunately, in my second year I ended up in a class with Mr. Andrzej Kurzawski, who instilled in us the basic principles of logic and rationalism in design, but also infected us with the desire to look for different solutions. This desire to know as much as possible was the first important point. The second important issue at the university was competition. This may not sound quite right, but from my experience as a student and instructor, students drive themselves and develop themselves through this element. I'm not talking about unhealthy competition, rather cooperation with an element of competition. I remember when I was in college, a friend and I were considering whether to take a driver's license course or 3ds Max. We chose the latter, which paid off rather quickly. Thanks to this competition in college, we also began to participate in many competitions, and between the second and third year I managed to get a three-month internship at Foster + Partners. It turned out that the advantage of offices of this type is not a famous founder, but intelligent specialists in teams. I worked with a designer who was probably from Venezuela and taught architecture in Tokyo. Where will I meet another such person? Learning from the designers and partners in the office was very inspiring. Also amazing was their ability to quickly and efficiently draw conclusions at points I hadn't even thought of because I didn't have that approach and experience yet.
Local Activity Center in Podjuchy, competition entry prepared in collaboration with Anna Szczepaniak and Paweł Furmanowski, 2017
© UGO Architecture
Dominika:Don't you regret not staying there longer?
Hugon: I even got such an offer, but it was between the second and third year. It was definitely a shame to leave there, because the atmosphere of the place was built in a unique way. From the entrance all the way to the view of the Thames. You could feel that you were part of the story. At the same time, I feel that such offices are factories that benefit from the creativity of their employees. The number of sleepless nights, the ingenuity, the struggle that the designers employed there fight - all this goes unnoticed. Such a path, however, does not suit me very well. Instead, an internship in the Foster + Partners office showed me that it is possible to approach architectural competitions in a different way, that presentation, form, building a narrative around the project are as important as the idea itself. Here everything was fine-tuned: the quality, the composition of the images, the type of paper and so on. Even a sketch found on a London street and created in the Foster + Partners office would have been easily identified thanks to these special marks. I think this is a value worth taking care of.
Dominica:Thanks to Foster + Partners, you've learned to approach competitions a little differently.
Hugon: Yes, for me it was something completely new, kind of an awakening. Since then, competitions prepared in three or four days have ended. I realized that in order for a project to have quality, you need to spend, for example, a month on it, not a few days. At apprenticeships, including with Mr. Andrzej Kurzawski, I learned that in order for a project to be understood by the contractor, it must also be well drawn and clearly described. Back then, many conversations with architects took place in cars, on the way to the construction site. I remember that during my internship with Mariusz Wrzeszcz I was driving with him to some construction site, he was saying how annoying it is that architects think they are participating in some kind of race. When we understand that we don't have to compete with each other, envy each other or get wound up that someone designed something better, we can finally do our own thing. To be ourselves, to represent some thought, aesthetics, values.
Interior of Bonbon confectionery in Opole
Photo: Tomo Yarmush
Dominika:So you take part in architectural competitions not only for the sake of competition?
Hugon: For me, such competitions are always great - I think that in each of us there is at least a minimal desire to compete and prove ourselves. At first I entered competitions only to show my point of view. Only recently it occurred to me that the formalities and rules and regulations are also important. Through competitions, you can gain wider opportunities, which is especially interesting for a small office like ours. Besides, you can also design in a variety of conditions, locations and functions. Experience in this field gives an additional sense of confidence - no matter what order the client brings, we will always manage. We have the background to build ourselves a good design path, and the solutions we propose will make sense.
Dominika:Winning a competition is never a sure thing - is it even worth it?
Hugon: It is true. There have been times when we have done thirty contests and nothing. But the value of such a venture always outweighs the cost. We get the opportunity to show our thoughts and compete with larger, more experienced offices. We can see where we are in comparison with the competition, but also make our mark in the architectural world. It's a bit like swimming at the edge of the pond.
The interior of the Odette confectionery in Warsaw
photo: Tom Kurek
Dominika:According to you, are competitions more important than realizations?
Hugon:There are some architects who will say that if you haven't built anything, you are not an architect. I understand that, but I think otherwise. I myself remember the thought in the design better than the completed building. Such an iconic example is the walking city of Archigram. One sketch, drawn sixty years ago, not only made everyone have it in their heads, it also showed that architecture can go in a different direction. For me, such interesting ideas are much more inspiring than finished buildings. That's why showing thoughts in competitions is so important. I was certainly lucky to be able to afford it. After graduation, I became an assistant at the university and for the first year of my office's operation I had no commissions. The following year I got an order for the interior design of a confectionery shop in Warsaw. At first I didn't take it seriously, during my studies it was made clear that interiors were something inferior to architecture. However, I found that there was nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of being pigeonholed, as many architects start that way. It's a much smaller scale and responsibility, faster implementation, which allows you to maintain your office and give it a framework to function.
Coming back to the issue of competition - in the third year of our studies we noticed that in architecture it is not the aesthetics that is important, but the idea. We discovered the eVolo competition, to which skyscrapers designed anywhere in the world are submitted. Our internal competition was not about who would design the prettier building, but who would have the more interesting idea. That was the clou. It also meant that you had to have a broad knowledge, and not at all in the field of architecture. You had to be interested in the world. We followed CNN, the BBC, National Geographic, various titles on science, sociology and economics. At that time I developed many ideas, my project, for example, was to resolve the religious-social conflict in Sudan, where at that time an underground lake was discovered; for a competition in Milan I proposed concrete made from rice husks that purified the air. In this way - looking for problems - I also found my graduation topic.
Dominika:You could say that you surfed the wave of junk*.
Hugon: A bit like that. At our university we had to choose a tutor for a diploma project. Initially I wanted to do my diploma under the guidance of designers from the Barozzi Veiga office. Fortunately, Ms. Agnieszka Suchocka, a Pole who worked there at the time, made me realize that this was not the best idea. And in fact already the commute to Katowice to Robert Konieczny, who became my guide, was quite tiring. Compared to that, flying to Barcelona for consultations would be even more complicated and difficult to organize. Robert Konieczny pointed out from the beginning that the project had to be done rationally, with an emphasis on logical solutions to issues of financing, use and so on. This largely shaped my project. It should also be said that I did not propose any extravagant solutions: I designed a simple reinforced concrete structure and prepared a description of the building's operation. Rather, this work points to a problem - the sale of land, on which almost a million residents live, to a developer. I tried to find a rational solution to this abstract situation.
Bronek - a private apartment, which was honored with the Architectural Award of the Wielkopolska Voivodeship
Photo: PION Studio
Dominika:Today, a few years after graduation, do you still shell out such problems to solve?
Hugon: Unfortunately, no. There is a little bit of no time for that, and I also decided that maybe it is not worth getting down to the problems of the world, but to focus on Poznan or Poland. Because there are problems to be solved here too, only sometimes we don't see them or don't want to see them. Maybe it's worth starting to fix the local space, not your ego. Sometimes we do projects in the office for the drawer, but which we share publicly. We want to show that change in the city space doesn't have to be expensive, and we try to get the city hall or neighborhood councils to cooperate.
Dominika:You design pro bono.
Hugon: We designed, among other things, a slide on the floodbanks in Poznań, but unfortunately we didn't get permission for it because it could limit the capacity of the Warta River during floods. It kind of clipped our wings. It's projects like this that I love, which bring fun, well-being and humor to the spaces of our cities. The Palm in Warsaw is a great example of how small actions can change the urban face.
Dominika:One can certainly smile at the sight of the Jordan Garden space in Poznań, designed in your studio.
Hugon: The design is defended by the graphics, which have not been changed, but I'm sorry to say that the number of elements that were removed at the execution stage was huge. We designed a lot of funny objects, for example, a lighting mast based on a carousel, or benches on wheels that could be hooked together.
Reconstruction of Jordanian Garden No. 1 in Poznań, 2019.
photo: Dawid Majewski
Dominika:So your ideas have been trimmed down.
Hugon: Yes, this place could have been much better. It saddens me that the budget does not include tens of thousands of zlotys for interesting, enriching equipment. Cushions, ping-pong tables and other items create a user's memory and stay there - and the cost is not big at all. I also think that when you have those five or six, years, such elements allow you to survive difficult moments. This is an amazing role and opportunity to subliminal information to users of the space.
Dominika: And prevent trauma.
Hugon: Yes, I also think that when we spend money, it's worth taking a moment, and thinking about whether it can be spent even better, and thus better defining the space and its elements.
Dominika:Jan Mencwel, for example, writes about spending money in his book "Betonosis." Many Polish cities and towns are funding the cutting down of trees and pouring concrete over local squares while residents object.
Hugon: In the Jordan Garden, where we designed the recreational spaces, I was irritated by the mess we found there. Spruce trees, pine trees, thuyas, chestnut trees, rowan trees. We came to the conclusion that everything deciduous should be preserved, and the rest, planted haphazardly and illegally over the years, should be removed. By doing so, we could bring more cohesion to the ecosystem and raise the profile of the space. However, during meetings with greenery officials, it became clear that cutting down trees must be avoided due to the drastic reduction in water levels. An argument as understandable as possible. At the same time, we found out that eight fine chestnut trees should be removed due to their poor condition, as the city has taken care of them for the past twenty years. In such situations one wants to inwardly shout.
Compact summer house designed in Sierakow Landscape Park
© UGO Architecture
continued conversation on next page