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Urban architects fight for better space

18 of March '24

The article is from A&B issue 11|23

The city's architect should give an opinion on zoning decisions or building permits. The problem is that formally he can't. A conversation with Professor Piotr Lorens, Architect of the City of Gdansk, and Janusz Sepiol, Architect of the City of Rzeszow.

Ewa Karendys:Is it possible to create good spatial policy in a city that does not have a city architect?

Janusz Sepiol:Precisely because I am able to imagine the effect of spatial policy without architects, I would prefer to have such urban architects in our cities. The models of functioning of this position may be different, so the consequences of both their presence and absence will be different. There are urban architects, let's call them "heavyweight" architects, who have stamps, because at the same time they are, for example, heads of architecture departments, issuing decisions on building permits and zoning. The position of a "lightweight" architect, on the other hand, comes from the trust the mayor has in him. Such a person functions mainly as an advisor, inspirer, organizer of certain processes and changes.

Janusz Sepioł

Janusz Sepioł - Architect (Cracow University of Technology), art historian (Jagiellonian University), urban planner. Marshal of the Malopolska Region (2002-2006) and senator of the Republic of Poland (terms VII and VIII), from November 2021 Architect of the City of Rzeszow. Author of many texts and several essayistic books. Curator of architecture exhibitions at home and abroad. Founder of the GAGA Architecture Gallery

photo: materials of the Office of the Architect of the City of Rzeszow

Ewa Karendys:And this is the case in Gdansk and Rzeszow.

Janusz Sepiol:I can say from experience that this model has some disadvantages. It would be good to have a slightly more specific authority, so I would propose the model of a "light-middleweight" architect. Through the hands of such an architect would pass all significant drafts of planning, urban planning and architectural decisions, and he would give an imprimatur: I have familiarized myself, I do not see any dangers in this project, it can be proceeded with. This would resemble the position of a legal advisor in an office.

Ewa Karendys:Do you envy these "heavyweight" architects' decision-making?

Janusz Sepiol:On the contrary. This model can work well in a small city, where not too many decisions are made. The danger is that one who has many seals also has an incredible amount of paperwork. In a large city, such an architect would turn into a clerk crushed by a pile of documents of varying importance. Yet he, after all, to some extent, must be a visionary, a leader showing new values, new goals. For this, time and a bit of freedom of action are necessary.

Ewa Karendys:And Gdańsk? In the face of today's architectural and urban planning challenges, the city's spatial policy could thrive if the local authorities did not appoint a city architect in 2020?

Prof. Piotr Lorens:For years Gdansk did not have a city architect and somehow it functioned. I won't say it was better or worse then. It was just different. For example, one of the vice-presidents had a degree in architecture and in a sense acted as such an architect of the city. I think that good spatial policy without this position is possible, albeit difficult due to time and organizational constraints. It is difficult to expect the director of the planning office to organize extensive participatory processes related to very different areas or issues.

I agree with Janusz Sepiol that a city architect who simultaneously issues administrative decisions is not the best solution. However, I believe that the city architect should give an opinion on decisions on zoning or building permits. The problem is that formally he can't. We can only give an informal opinion, and that's how it's done, at least in Gdansk. The mayor of Gdansk has issued an ordinance on the procedure for the city architect to give an opinion on more significant projects. If the investor insisted, de facto my negative opinion could not change much. This is what the Polish law states.

prof. Piotr Lorens

Prof. Piotr Lorens - Architect of the City of Gdansk, head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Gdansk University of Technology. After receiving his postdoctoral degree, he became head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the Faculty of Architecture at PG. In 2016, he received the academic title of professor. He served as president of the Board of Directors of the Society of Polish Urban Planners.

photo: Jerzy Pinkas /

Ewa Karendys: Investors are not tempted to take advantage of this gap?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: Investors and designers are even interested in working out acceptable solutions for their projects. This, frankly speaking, I count as my greatest success in my two-and-a-half-year career in this position.

Ewa Karendys:Is cooperation really going so smoothly? I would expect investors to treat the new position as an additional impediment to investment.

Prof. Piotr Lorens:Yes, relationships had to be built, at least in our Gdansk case. Except in a few cases, I have positive experiences.

Janusz Sepiol:The creation of the position of city architect involves the use of a certain capital. It's a bit like the name "national treasure," because both the word "treasure" and the word "state" have positive connotations. Similarly, the word "architect" is well perceived, while "architect of Gdansk" benefits from a certain portion of authority, value. I think that designers accept the comments of Piotr Lorens, because it means that this is how they were advised by the Architect of Gdansk himself, benefiting from the entire history of Gdansk, the tradition of the architectural profession.
In my experience, investors are ready to cooperate at the beginning, because they want to forge a good relationship for the future, while exploring how much depends on us. The conclusion is that a "light" urban architect may not be a good architect, because investors will start shunning him.

Prof. Piotr Lorens:This is why political support is of great importance. If the mayor tells the investor: "please go to the city architect and agree with him," it makes things much easier.

konsultacje w Gdańsku

consultations in Gdansk

photo: materials of the Office of the Architect of the City of Gdansk

Ewa Karendys:The authors of the report "Strengthening the social and substantive factor in shaping urban space" emphasize that in holding this office not only substantive competence counts, but also certain character traits. If only those that make it easier to work out compromises and defend good solutions.

Janusz Sepiol:In my opinion, it's important that he doesn't overestimate his design skills, doesn't have a ready-made idea for every issue. Because if the person in this position thinks he is the best architect in the city, it is a simple road to disaster. It is best if the city architect is open to different solutions, in some sense has "eclectic" taste.

Prof. Piotr Lorens:I fully agree. It's also good if he thinks more urbanistically than architecturally and doesn't focus on details, because these can be designed differently. He should not be the alpha and omega in design. There are such personalities, and not only on the side of architects, but also on the side of preservationists: they take a pencil in their hand and say it has to be this way or not at all. The trouble is that there is then no more room for discussion.

Ewa Karendys:"He should combine mediating skills with inspiring visionaryism, see conflicting interests, but also take into account different opinions, invite people with different views on the city, including those outside the circle of architects and urban planners." Such - according to the authors of the report - is the ideal city architect. Do you gentlemen agree with this?

Janusz Sepiol:Could we keep quiet on this subject? Either we fulfill these fantastic qualities, or we should resign, so actually I don't really know what to say....

Ewa Karendys:Please tell me what qualities would make it easier for a person in this position to fight effectively for a better space.

Janusz Sepiol:I think such a person should love the city in which he works and be truly fascinated by it. Any falsehood will be easy to catch. It should not be a promoted official who has previously issued administrative decisions, but someone who actually represents a new point of view with his experience, passion.

Prof. Piotr Lorens:A city architect is not only a person who negotiates specific solutions with individual investors. Among my competencies, the mayor of Gdansk indicated looking for new solutions and setting directions for shaping space, also with the participation of the local community. And it so happens that I very much enjoy organizing and conducting participatory processes.

warsztaty projektowe zorganizowane przez Biuro Architekta Miasta Rzeszowa w sierpniu dotyczyły zagospodarowania terenów publicznych przy al. Witosa w Rzeszowie

A design workshop organized by the Office of the Architect of the City of Rzeszow in August concerned the development of public areas on Witosa Avenue in Rzeszow

photo: materials of the Office of the Architect of the City of Rzeszow

Ewa Karendys:So one could say that the role of the city architect is also to raise the quality of consultations.

Janusz Sepiol:This is work to improve the quality of the entire planning system. Let me give an example. There is an ongoing discussion of the local plan for an important part of the city in the area of a strategic investment, which is a new large athletics stadium. The draft of this plan has been written in a rather routine, perhaps even trivialized manner. It's not very clear what comes out of it. Well, we decide: let's have a workshop among the members of the Municipal Urban Planning and Architectural Commission, let's think together how to develop this part of the city [cf. p. 98]. The members of the MKUA agreed, we still invited local activists, councilors, and employees of the Rzeszow City Development Office. We divided them into four teams, they took pencils, carbon paper. I was afraid that these serious designers would take offense at me for organizing such "common room" activities for them. Meanwhile, they proceeded with such commitment that their hearts grew. Most importantly, four different solutions emerged, each interesting, and one just great! And in this direction the local plan will be revised and, I hope, enacted.

Prof. Piotr Lorens:We have succeeded in creating a Gdansk brand under the slogan "Gdansk Design Workshops". We try to discuss every important topic first with experts, the local community, all key stakeholders. For example, right now we are working with neighborhood councils, investors, residents on an area called the Grunwald Avenue Strip, covering the city's main artery. We are working on drawings and on a large-scale mockup. Yes, it costs money, but it gives an incredible effect.

Ewa Karendys:The quality of space is also well influenced by architectural and urban planning competitions, but local governments are still reluctant to use them. Is it difficult to convince the local authorities of this procedure?

Janusz Sepiol:It is not difficult to convince the local authorities. But when we go to fellow bureaucrats, directors of finance departments, the stairs begin....

Prof. Piotr Lorens: These stairs mainly concern formal issues. In last year's competition for the concept of shaping the entrance area of the beach in Stogi, more than forty submissions were received. It can be said that we managed to develop material that was accepted by the local community. This convinced the mayor that this path should be followed. It is worth noting that the competitions we are talking about here are relatively simple and cheap to implement.

Janusz Sepiol:I recalled a conversation with a theater director who was looking for a project for a new development, but didn't want to hear about a competition. I asked him if he always chooses the actress who offers the lowest salary as Ophelia. The conversation ended. Where quality is involved, there must be a competition.

Ewa Karendys:What is the biggest challenge facing city architects in Gdansk and Rzeszow today?

Prof. Piotr Lorens:The biggest challenge is to fit with our activity and competencies into the formal arrangement in the office. That is, to trample a place for ourselves in the whole decision-making process, to arrange these competencies, to broaden the playing field.

Janusz Sepiol:I think the point is to maintain the dynamics of the city's development, while trying to raise the quality of the design processes. So that there won't be accusations that the city is slowing down or missing an opportunity because of the fact that some madman has come and is throwing a spanner in everyone's lap. This challenge has become incredibly complicated, especially in large cities that are under financial attack from the government.

Ewa Karendys:What legal tools do city architects lack to make the fight for better space more effective?

Prof. Piotr Lorens:Mainly the mentioned right to issue an imprimatur for building permit decisions and zoning decisions. I think this would be a significant change, because as I said, if some investor is stubborn and says "no, because no," what can we actually do?

Janusz Sepiol:Just now a new law on spatial planning is coming into force, we will wait for its effects. But what Piotr Lorens said provokes me to share a certain dream that I have had for many years, and it concerns the very essence, the meaning of the building permit decision.

Today, by issuing a building permit, the authority confirms that what the architect has drawn is in accordance with the regulations. My dream is that the building permit would be a decision on whether the object fits into the place or not. Probably immediately voices will be raised that this is impossible, that it is a matter of judgment and therefore cannot depend on the decision of an official. But, after all, already today such decisions are made by conservationists. They decide whether a project in a given context, place is acceptable. Similarly, the city architect should issue a decision on a building permit, taking into account whether a building in that location is appropriate. Each city would then have to have a city architect. But would there be anything wrong with that?

warsztaty projektowe zorganizowane przez Biuro Architekta Miasta Rzeszowa w sierpniu dotyczyły zagospodarowania terenów publicznych przy al. Witosa w Rzeszowie

A design workshop organized by the Office of the Architect of the City of Rzeszow in August focused on the development of public areas on Witosa Avenue in Rzeszow

photo: materials of the Office of the Architect of the City of Rzeszow

Prof. Piotr Lorens:Since such decisions function with regard to the conservator of historic buildings, why couldn't they function with regard to the city architect?

Ewa Karendys:This is a very correct direction. But making the decision on whether an investment can be built in the city or not dependent on one person, on his or her whim, is risky. This can be seen in the example of some inhibiting conservationists.

Janusz Sepiol:I will say a word in defense of conservators. Art historians, and I am one myself by training, often see some values that society has not yet discovered. Of course, this is not always the case. Sometimes it is a vision, but often it is a brilliant intuition based on a more developed sensibility and deeper knowledge.

Prof. Piotr Lorens:The architect of a city is a one-person position, but he can be equipped with various advisory bodies, and this is also the case with conservationists. In cities we have, for example, the Urban Planning and Architectural Commission, and one can also imagine establishing a new entity. In Gdansk, for example, we created the Gdansk Architecture Council, deliberately composed largely of people from outside Gdansk. We wanted to generate a slightly different view of shaping architecture than the one that has taken hold locally. Every city has its own architectural community, people know each other, you know who has opinions. After the establishment of this council, it suddenly became clear that there are completely different points of view on certain issues, and even if we do not agree with them, the very fact of having a discussion influences our assessments. Such a body, whether in the form of a municipal commission, the Council of Architecture, or any other entity, could review the decisions of the city architect. And then the field for discussion would be wider.

Ewa Karendys:Thank you for the interview.

interviewed by Ewa Karendys

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