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I try not to fall into any frameworks or patterns

26 of September '23

Marlena Wolnik, owner of MWArchitekci studio, talks about architecture with great passion, though not necessarily in superlatives alone. Among other things, she talks about her professional path and vision for architecture, the difficulties architects face in Poland, and her two projects that were awarded in the first edition of the Saint-Gobain Glass Design Award.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

How would you describe your projects and your style?

Marlena Wolnik: I try not to fall into any frameworks or schemes, although it is probably possible to find a common denominator for all the projects of my studio (MWArchitekci). In my opinion, the determinant of the style and value of architecture is its timelessness - I always strive to make sure that the project is not passé after a year or two. My projects are diverse in terms of assumptions or materials, while their common feature is the idea - for space, function, even for detail. The context is extremely important to me - the project must fit into it. The building can be changed, rebuilt, but we have little influence on the surroundings. We have to respect them, which does not necessarily mean repeating what is around.

Photo by Bartek Barczyk

These assumptions are perfectly reflected in two projects of yours, which were awarded in the first edition of the Saint-Gobain Glass Design Award.

M.W.: That was their intention. The headquarters of the Zagłębie Chamber of Commerce in Dąbrowa Górnicza, thanks to its polished sheet metal covering, reflects its surroundings, which are of great value. The city plans to adapt the post-industrial buildings into a cultural and business center. In order not to compete with these surroundings, we used polished sheet metal on the facade, which like a mirror reflects everything that is around. Not only the buildings, but also the people - the Chamber's task is to bring entrepreneurs together, to integrate, to interact in business - the reflections are a metaphor for justifying the existence of this building, and encourage interaction.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

In the second award-winning project - the House under the Forest - both the investors' wish and the building's background were direct reasons for using wood as cladding inside and out. Wooden, three-layer boards were used on the straight walls of the facade and debarked, larch planks on the curved walls. The wood has naturally grayed and resembled the tree trunks around it, and the house looks like it was cut from a giant baobab tree. The glass is an elegant addition that accentuates the rawness of this wood, while not disturbing its atmosphere.

Photo by Bartek Barczyk

Also in this project we have a mirror effect - the surroundings are reflected in the huge glass.

M.W.: Yes, this further emphasizes the relationship between the building and the surroundings. This house resembles a bit in its principle a camera, with a viewfinder as an entrance and a wide-angle lens, which - when you are inside - shows a panorama of the forest. The reference to film terminology can also be seen in the glazing of the first floor - the glass is like a cliché woven through the building, showing images both from the outside to the inside, showing individual rooms, and from the inside to the outside, from where we see frames of the garden and forest.

Photo by Bartek Barczyk

You often use glass in your projects - where does your passion for glass come from?

M.W.: Glass is present in almost every space, we commune with it from the earliest years of life, it has become something so common and natural that it is practically impossible to create a functional and comfortable building without glass. I value the skillful use of glass and showing other than standard variants of the use of the assets of this material - what we can gain in a building thanks to it, what space, effect, impression. I'm fascinated by working with a material that is both there and gone at the same time. It's a bit like Andersen's fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes" - he was told he had a robe, but in fact there was none. Glass is this "robe", allowing us to show buildings in a completely different way - to use this invisible plane to show the penetration of the interior with the exterior while protecting us from the temperature difference. The impression, the view, the light - all this remains undisturbed.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

Is that why you became interested in the Saint-Gobain Glass competition?

M.W.: I was helping one of my students prepare an application for the international Saint-Gobain Architecture Student Contest, which has been organized for more than twenty years, and then I saw on the company's website information about the first edition of the competition for architects. Since I often use Saint-Gobain Glass products in my projects, I thought it was worth showing them to the world and the jury. It is the composition of the jury that is always one of the main factors on the basis of which I make the decision to enter - it also determines the quality of the competition. In this case, the jury consisted of people I value and respect, who are valuable architects and people - this determined my participation.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

During the presentation of awards in the competition, you mentioned that the installation of glazing, was your most stressful moment during construction.

M.W.: Yes. At that moment the tensions in the glass and the tensions in me are enormous, so in order not to duplicate them I avoid being on the construction site during its installation (laughs). My presence then doesn't help at all, and when I'm not there, the professionals have one less viewer. When installing large-format panes, they are lifted on suction cups and put into frames, so sometimes an inappropriate, even minimal movement can lead to the destruction of the entire glass.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

Nevertheless, the effect is probably worth the nerves ?

M.W.: Absolutely yes, both in the House under the Forest and in the headquarters of the Zagłębie Chamber of Commerce the glazing is glasses, lenses to the outside. Glass goes well with polished sheet metal - both materials reflect the surroundings in different ways, but the block covered with them is homogeneous. Systematicity, or repetition, was very important in this building - the simple act of shifting three modules made it possible to obtain an entrance arcade, and a piece of terrace on the other side, so that the offices could be accessed from outside. I had concerns about how this block, quite bold for this place, would be received. It is known that there will always be negative reviews, but mostly the positive ones are reaching me - I saw a video of a local dance group filming their music video against the background of this building, people are taking selfies against the building and even photos for their company websites. This place has also become a landmark on the city map, which makes me very happy. The building, although designed as a temporary one, maybe it will settle in for good? (laughs).

Photo Bartek Barczyk

In this project, the interaction of the viewer with the building takes on an even broader meaning.

M.W.: These are the "flavors" of design - we never quite know how the building will "behave". How it will enter into relations not only with its surroundings, but also with time, with previously unforeseen situations. In one of the projects of my office - the Center for Local Activity in Rybnik - a shed was created, which was supposed to perform only additional functions for the whole complex. However, during the pandemic, when restrictions were imposed on staying indoors, distance, etc., it was the shed that took over the main function - it was where the kids met, ordered pizza, spent time together. It was a very pleasant discovery for me that the building had adapted to the times we faced and previously unimaginable situations. This, in my opinion, proves that the facility was well designed. I'm always most pleased when the users - both of private homes and public facilities - simply like the buildings and feel comfortable in them.

Photo by Bartek Barczyk

The projects we are talking about have won numerous awards. Do you often send submissions to competitions?

M.W.: There are two types of competitions - for realizations, where we submit existing, already built buildings, and for design. Participation in a competition is a financial and time investment that you never know if it will pay off, so first of all you can't always afford it. In spite of this, however, it is a very valuable experience because even if you don't win - you can learn a lot, see how other participants have solved the problem and responded to the competition's objectives.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

As a competition judge for the Association of Polish Architects, you also have the opportunity to judge the work of other architects.

M.W.: I enjoy judging competitions. The judge not only evaluates, but first of all has to get to know all the projects, check whether they have answered the given problem in accordance with the rules, regulations, norms. Getting to know the multivariate solutions to a given topic is a very valuable lesson for the evaluators, but also for the ordering party, which thus has the opportunity to look at the given problem in a completely different way.

I am a board member of the Katowice Branch of SARP, which organizes many competitions. I am always pleased when we manage to convince the city authorities to hold a competition instead of a tender, in which, unfortunately, the most important selection criterion is price, so the cheapest project wins. When city officials go through the entire competition process with us, they discover the value of such a way of selecting creative works.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

You talk about architecture with real passion - has architecture always fascinated you and that is why you decided to choose this profession?

M.W.: Architecture was always my mother's desire to study, unfortunately, for various reasons she did not succeed. I began to think about this direction only a year before matriculation. I started attending drawing classes, being convinced that I wouldn't get in, because practicing for such a short time I thought I didn't draw very well. After the exams, however, it turned out that I got in, and in first place! This was the first sign of a good decision for me. Admittedly, I narrowly missed quitting after the first year, because I did a project in a more accurate scale than the head of the department wanted and had to revise it. But later I entered a group of people who took part in competitions - which was not very popular in those days - and more than once with success. This also gave me further confirmation that I had chosen the right direction. I was fascinated by the possibility of creating reality, space. I will not forget the feeling at the occasion of my first project "to implement" - still during my studies - when I walked into a sports store, the interior of which I was designing. I saw gentlemen hanging on the walls the elements I had drawn in the project, and I thought that something from those pieces of paper had just materialized, that the drawing had become flesh! (laughter)

photo Bartek Barczyk

Later, together with Robert Konieczny, we founded the KWK Promes studio, which I actively co-founded until 2005. We did ambitious projects and competed in many competitions. Then I went to Ireland for three years, where I worked in several design offices, and after returning to Poland I established my own studio.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

Are there big differences between practicing architecture in Ireland and Poland?

M.W.: The difference is huge, especially when it comes to respect - in Ireland, an architect, is a profession of public trust, just like a doctor and a lawyer. When, during a conversation about renting an apartment, its owner learned that I was an architect, he decided that a contract was not necessary. For the three years and two months of my stay, he came to see me on the appointed day of the month, collected the fee, wrote it down in a notebook, and that was our contact. There, shaking hands is extremely important, it's a completely different mentality. The respect for architects also stems from the fact that in Ireland it is the architect who has the budget received from the investor. He is the one who divides, decides and manages. The minimum price for a project is also top-down - it is a specific percentage of the value of the investment. The situation is similar in Germany and Austria, where at one time there were objections that this leads to monopolization of prices. This was dropped in Austria. The effect was that in a very short period of time there recorded an increased number of reports from construction sites to insurance companies due to errors on the site. Documentation prices went down, but a cheaper project is a project on which you can spend correspondingly less time, which means it is automatically less refined, and with that comes inferior workmanship, which leads to defects. I'm not sure, but I think this decision was reversed and again returned to the top-down minimum price for documentation, which guarantees a solid design - the basis of the entire construction process.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

And what does it look like in Poland? Do we have top-down guidelines in terms of budgets and project values?

M.W.: No, in our country there are tenders and the project with the lowest price wins. In Germany this is well solved - the cheapest and the most expensive bid are automatically dropped from the tender - this ensures that no one under- or over-prices. These middle bids are very close to each other. I don't know what the problem is with the introduction of such a simple provision in Poland, after all. I guess mentally we are still used to faults from the communist era - it doesn't matter how many there are, what matters is that someone will do something cheaper.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

Since we're talking about problems, please tell me, is it more difficult for women to work in the architectural profession than for men?

M.W.: When I'm on a construction site, I'm just an architect, the fact that I'm a woman doesn't matter to me at this point. But it happens that men, the vast majority of whom are on the construction site, have a problem with a woman telling them what to do. If it doesn't impinge on the entire cooperation, I don't bother with it.

Over the years, the gender ratio among architecture students has changed 180 degrees. It used to be that this profession was mainly chosen by men, when I studied - it was half and half. Today I teach myself and I see that the vast majority are women. We wondered what this was due to - was it women who believed that in architecture they could realize their career plans, or did men come to the conclusion that this was not the profession for them and went, for example, towards computer science? I don't know. In any case, the change, in terms of the proportion of men and women in architectural studies, is astronomical. Even if half of the female graduates drop out of the profession, there will still be more women in it. This is already evident even at the media level - in expert debates, the press, television. Sooner or later there will be more and more of them on construction sites, too. And that's great, because eventually it will become natural that it's not gender that matters, but knowledge, experience, skills, competence.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

Despite the fact that I tied my professional life to architecture, when someone asks me, especially girls, whether to go into architecture - I advise against it. This is a very difficult profession. Our tasks are multifaceted - from, for example, sociology and the specifics of human behavior through the abstract thinking of creating space, functions to knowledge of the law, regulations and standards as well as strictly technical topics such as construction or material science. In addition, convincing officials to be right, convincing the client, "fighting" with contractors. To see the result, we have to "pass" our project through many stages and hands. This is very difficult. We regret that the profession of architecture has been devalued in our country by people who do not realize how important it is, how space is being destroyed by the lack of proper laws. Winston Churchill said that we create architecture, and architecture shapes us. There is a reason why some neighborhoods are criminogenic, while in others people live well. Willing or not, we are in contact with architecture all the time. We live in houses, run errands in offices, drive along streets where buildings stand. It constantly affects us. I've read studies about how the size of glazing in hospitals, for example, affects patients' recovery. The larger the glazing, more contact with greenery, views of nature, the faster people recover. The cost of increasing windows by a dozen or tens of percent is incomparably less than the profit the state has as a result of someone being in the hospital for a shorter time and recovering faster. When choosing a project, one should not look only at the price of the implementation itself, but analyze the gains and losses, its impact in a 10, 20 or 50 year perspective.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

Coming back to your projects - what are you working on now?

M.W.: I have the pleasure of working once again with Marcin Jojko and Bartlomiej Nawrocki from the Jojko + Nawrocki Architects studio - co-authors of the Saint-Gobain Glass Design Award-winning design for the House under the Forest. The opportunity to work with them is insanely important and valuable to me, because I have exceptional respect and appreciation for them. At the moment we are working on a major project, I can only reveal the secret and say that it is a sports facility. In addition, I am finishing several projects, including the remodeling of a tenement house and a house in which I have applied quite bold solutions with glass.

Photo Bartek Barczyk

And do you have a dream project, an object that you haven't had the opportunity to work on yet?

M.W.: In the third year of my studies we were given a residential building to design. We had a choice of one of four types of multifamily buildings, namely a cage building, a point building, a gallery building or a corridor building. Everyone threw themselves into the most popular topics, and I waited to see what would be left. Then the instructor of the class, my mentor, Professor Henryk Zubel, seeing this, said that it is not so much the topic that is important, but how it is solved. I agree with this. So I focus on good solutions regardless of the topic and type of project we are working on. What I dream most of all is that the entire design and construction process is streamlined, that the relationship between the investor, architect, official and contractor is better, focused on cooperation, not fighting. So that we don't look at each other as opponents in the ring, but a team that strives for the same goal - the best possible result.

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