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Can a building tell a joke? Iwo Borkowicz is interviewed by Dominika Drozdowska

11 of July '22

The interview comes from A&B magazine 06/22

Iwo Borkowicz, winner of the2021Architectural Award of theWielkopolska Region in the Young Creator category,talks aboutbalance in creative life , matter and impermanence, and what cooperation teaches .

Dominika Drozdowska: You are a young architect. You studied first at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań and later in Ghent, Belgium. Didn't you want to stay abroad?

Iwo Borkowicz: I was given the opportunity to stay at the university and develop my master's projectas part of my doctorate. I even made such attempts: we formed a research team, found a potential investor, butunfortunately we were ignored by our Cuban partners. My goal was not a theoretical PhD, but to implement my master'sproject in a Havana setting.

Dominica: As part of your master's thesis, you proposed that housing should be financed through the resources of the tourism industry.

Iwo: This was a response to two problems that werevery evident in Cuba at the time, in 2016. On the one hand, we had a hugehousing shortage, and on the other, a tourism boom. The Cuban Constitution stipulates that housing is a fundamental right of the citizen, andthe state iscommitted to providing it. In practice, this means that adozen people are registered in a 70-square-meterapartment , and 30 percent of the population has nowhere to live. On theother hand, Cuba reopened to tourism -interest was huge, hotelswereshort ofplaces, prices were high andreservations weremade months ahead. So I proposed a model in which these two situations would be able tocomplement each other'sneeds and opportunities - tourism, which has alot offinancial resources, andhousing, which has a lot of rights. It'sa proposal for a certain symbiosis, which is why the name of my work is, translated as: "The symbiotic relationship of cooperative social housing and dispersed tourismin Havana Vieja ."

Theproject included analyses of how this would work socially, spatially,architecturally and economically. Their result was a unit of social housing that also included atourist unit, in a ratio of 4 to 1. According to our analyses, such buildings would be paid off in less than ten years, and the money recoveredwould allow theconstruction of more. In addition,residents of these quarters would derive direct income by providing services to thetourismindustry.In the 1990s, the Cuban governmentlaunched the Casas Particulares program, which allowed citizens to sublet rooms to tourists in response to a shortage of hotel space. It's a complex problem, because on theone hand it pushes residents out of their own homes, but on the otherhand itallows them toearn amuch higher income than what is regular and available locally. In the end,I did notcontinue working on the project as part of mydoctorate because there was a lack ofinterest from the Cuban side. Perhapsthey were concerned that if webuilt a facility functioning asintended with Belgianmoney , it could be said that an outside entity wanted to show what socialism in Cuba was supposed to look like. Failure ofthe project would be more convenient than success.

raca magisterska Iwo Borkowicza to propozycja symbiozy pomiędzy turyzmem i mieszkalnictwem (projekt „Symbiotyczna relacja spółdzielczego budownictwa socjalnego i rozproszonego turyzmu w Hawanie Vieja

Iwo Borkowicz's master's thesis is a proposal for symbiosis between tourism and housing (project "Symbiotic relationship of cooperative social housing and dispersed tourism in Havana Vieja").

Photo by Iwo Borkowicz

Dominica: How did you come to address such an issue?

Iwo: Between my first and second year of graduate studies, I applied to VLIRUOS, a research program in developingcountries .I chose the Cuban directionand managed to win a scholarship. For two months, in cooperation with the local polytechnicand Havana's El Cerro district, we conducted research. The university's proposal was that the students participating in the summerresearch should use it for their master's theses. I didn't choose todo so directly, because from theEl Cerro neighborhood I was researching, I shifted my interests to the oldest neighborhood, La Habana Vieja. Here I saw the confluence and synergy of the twoworlds of housing and tourism, and where such confluence occurs, appropriate solutions can be found in a more dynamic and better way. For El Cerro, with itsproblems of extreme poverty, c rumblingurban fabric and massive stagnation, it was difficult to find the potential to come up withproductive solutions.

Dominica: Today, six years later, are you still following what's happening in Cuba?

Iwo: Yes. However, after a year of trying andsearching for ways to further develop the project ,I reached a wall. I didn't see thepoint in continuing it theoretically, and the practicalpart couldn't succeed without theinvolvement and willingness of the local authorities. It's asocial housingproject , so it had to relyon local laws and economicmechanisms.

Dominica: That's unfortunate.

Iwo: I worked on this subject for two years and so humanly speaking I was quite tired of it. At some point I stopped fighting for it at all costs. I came to terms with thefact that it's the norm in the life of an architect that we won't realize all ourideas. Probably 90 percent of the projects I draw will not go beyond the folder in which they were created. A good example of this iscompetitions with hundreds of entries and one realization, if it happens at all. On the other hand, I'm glad that I managed to do an interesting, internationally appreciated master's thesis, which opened many doors for me and allowedme to meet many interesting people.

Dominica: What happened after that? After graduation you returned to Poland and set up your own studio with Adam Siemaszkiewicz?

Iwo: We actually founded while I was still studying in Belgium. Adam and I met in a rather funny way. I was looking for a room to rent on a local Facebook group and just heard back from Adam - also an architect, who helped me find a room at the time. Of course, I promised him a beer as a thank you, but when I arrived in Belgium - it fizzled out and we didn't meet.A year or so later, I was the one who offered a vacant room in a house we rented with friends, and then Adam was looking for a room. We lived under the same roof, likedeach other and decided it would begreat todo something together.

Iwo Borkowicz

Iwo Borkowicz

Photo by Iwo Borkowicz

Dominica: Where does HER come from? Is it a manifestation of amazement or admiration for the famous Korean island?

Iwo: We were wondering what to name the office, and it's a bit problematic. You give a name to athing that hasn't been created yet, and the verificationcomes only after some time. I once read about a project signed Jeju, and I thought someone had come up with a great name for an architectural office. However, it turned out that it was the name of the island on which thisproject was created. So since my reaction was so positive, and the name was free, we said we'll take it!

Dominica: Positive attitude! So I'll ask as you ask in the company bio: can a building tell a joke?

Iwo: Definitely. David Kohn - a Britisharchitect - once said that he looks at buildings as characters. The façade tells whether it is tired, dignified, angry, smilingor sleeping. And indeed such emotions can be recognized in architecture. They should be legible for very specificfunctions - court buildings, hospitals or kindergartens. It would be terribly boring if all buildings were to have one humor. It would be as if all people were laughing at the same thing. We usually take architecture in a very serious way and rarely allow ourselves tothink about it with a smile. And yet, if something is funny, it does not at the same time mean that it is frivolous. I don't know quite how totranslate this into the language of architecture, but I try to look for places where Ifeel that it is more than the result of drawingand counting. Recently, I've been fascinated by theKrakow townhouses designed by Theodor Talowski. He gave his designsnot only mannerist, quirky facades with elaborate tectonics, but also patrons in the form of, for example, a donkey, a spider or a frog. Thebuilding's move away from smiles pretty much coincidedwith the abandonment of ornament. Of course, the building is a very serious affair - it's tons of materials and carbon footprint, thoughtful construction and money spent. But when it comes to afacade, a detail, a mosaic on the floor,why not incorporate playful, fairy-tale, magical elements ? After all, Talowski's townhouse is functionally andstructurally no different from its neighbors. The only distinguishing feature is this donkeyand a few other details in the facade that refer to it. The function of these details is to please or entertain us. As asociety, we haven't done such things in architecture for a long time , so it seems rather strange. And besides, I think everyone would rather live in a donkey tenement instead of theusual nine.

Dominica: What else - besides the joke - is important to you at

Iwo: There are many values that arefundamentally important to us, from the typically pragmatic and functional to the environmental. Architectural craftsmanship is very multi-layered. Lately, however, I've been thinking that it wasn't the best step to startrunning a studio. I am intimidated by thevast amount of knowledge that still lies ahead of me. Learning while being responsiblefor every mistake is difficult. There isa song byCaroline Polachek, in which the artist sings: "to be both free and safe". For me , this is a good illustration of the ideal creative life, to be both safe and free at the same time . That's the direction I'm trying to go ,so that both aspects aresatisfiedin my professional life.

Dominica: Now with you there is more freedom than security?

Iwo: No, sometimes there is no freedom and sometimes there is security. In any case, there are not these two aspects at the same time. It's a bit like balancing on a scale or a swing.

Dominika: À speaking of balancing - what is it like to work at the intersection of different fields? Is it your conscious choice or a decision caused by the market situation?

Iwo: It's definitely not a matter of market situation. It's definitely a choice and a passion. I'm happy that I have the tools and capabilities to be able to convey what I have to say. In addition to architecture, I've also been involved in the arts, writing soundtracks for plays and giving concerts. Adam and I have always understood each other well, because we both treat interests and passions quite multifaceted and do not live only by architecture. This manifests itself in our professional lives - lately Adam has gone into computer science and artificial intelligence, so is now mainly run by me. The life of our studio is quite dynamic, so we'll see where we'll be next year.

Dominica: It also seems that what sets your studio apart is not a penchant for a particular style or material, but collaborations.

Iwo: Yes, this is my favorite kind of work. I collaborate with representatives andrepresentatives from the world of architecture, art, design. It's my way to constantly learn and grow. When I was a student,lecturers said that we would learn ¼ from them and ¾ from each other. Since I'm no longer a student, I had to create conditions for myself to develop further. These collaborations are meetings with fantastic people who are doing great things andwhom I admire. I'm happy tohave these opportunities.

Dominica: Most of the collaborations you continue, this was the case, among others, with Alicia Biala, with whom you did the famous "Totems".

Iwo: Yes, with Alicia we have done several totemic realizations together . We also collaborate with artist Ola Korbanska .We collaboratedwith Björn Steinar on furniture projects for a school in Ulyankulu, Tanzania, and now Björn has invited us todesign aspace for an exhibition by Icelandic artist Shoplifter in Reykjavik. It's an interesting project in that all the furniture and details were designed and produced from reused plastic by Plastplan, a company founded by Björn .Thanks to my collaboration with B jörn,I have had the pleasure of being a tutor at theannual week-long workshops at theAcademy of Fine Arts in Reykjavikfor several years . These
collaborations often begin withopenness and mutual curiosity. For example ,while reading another essay by Ola Korbanski, I was so fascinated by her way ofthinking that I asked if she would like to do something together

Dominika: You did the "Long Live the Palm" project together in Portugal.

Iwo: Yes. With Ola, so far we have been creating mainly using earth as a material. We are fascinated by theimpermanence and movement of matter in the ecosystem and society. Two observations emergehere .The first is the humandiscomfort with the impermanence of things, how difficult it is for us to accept that nature is also aprocess of decay, rotting, dying. Nature is a cycle, so if we wanted to cut out only the bits that are attractive to us, it simply wouldn't work. The second observation relatesto matter being in constant motion. If we see, for example, a mountain of sand at a construction site, we must realize that somewhere in the world there is a pit fromwhich this sand was pulled. Everything: from theglass I'm holding in my hand to the tenementoutside my window, is matter here, in this place, which means it has run out somewhere else. We tried to show this circulation of matter aspart of last year 'sMalta Festival in the installation "Nothing disappears, only changes its place." In Poznan's Wieniawski Park we dug up several tens of tons of earth, from which we formed a fortress, and invited artists were given 48 hours to cover the place with their actions.

We had very interesting discussions about soil, ownership, matter, and in the end , beforethe eyes of the audience, the fortress collapsed and this huge hole was filled in - we were back to square one.I also have this dream to startbuilding temporary architecturein a completely different way. There have already been many ideas - from modules to be efficientlyassembled and disassembled, to structures that can be recycled, to borrowed elements like People "s Pavillion by bureau SLA & Overtreders W. Together with Ola Korbanska, we would like to build a pavilion from materials found on site, which, after fulfilling its function,would return to thestarting point onits own, thanks toweather conditionsand time .

Dominica: Do you think we as a society are ready for this? After all, we have a problem accepting the circularity of nature and its degraded slices.

Iwo: Sure we are ready for it. I'm not saying that this is the way houses or aquaparks should be built, but as temporary construction on the borderline between art and architecture as much as possible. Although, on the other hand, when Ola and I watched as the sculptures we created from soil and seeds began to disintegrate - cracking as plants grew out of them - we also had mixed feelings. We should celebrate the moment when what we had planned began to come true, but on the other hand we were sad that this beautiful and labor-intensive installation was falling apart.

Wyspa Słodowa 7” we Wrocławiu, proj.: Wrzeszcz Architekci +

"Wyspa Słodowa 7" in Wroclaw, proj.: Wrzeszcz Architekci +

Photo by Iwo Borkowicz

Dominika: Another project by, more permanent than temporary architecture, is a school built in a refugee camp in Ulyankulu, Tanzania.

Iwo: This is a very challenging project, in which our role was initially defined quite differently from the final one, but flexibility was forced upon us bycircumstances. This project was initiated by theWayair Foundation, which is responsible for the organization and financing, our office was to be in charge of the project, and Tanzanian Caritaswas to be in charge of theimplementation. Unfortunately, the local Caritas did not fulfill its obligations. We didn't want theenormous amount of work and opportunities created tobe wasted, so together with the foundation we are carrying the investment through to completion. The foundationfought in the authorities for permits, I hiredworkers, ordered equipment and building materials, and Adam supervised theconstruction. Both we and the foundation's representatives did not have the necessaryexperience to pore over such an undertaking. Building in a refugee camp is very difficult. Even for entry you have to get apermit, you wait for weeks. In turn, the building permit we receivedwas revoked, so we had tofight for its reinstatement in the local court.

It later turned out that this was the result of settlements between the state and the Church over properties settledby the Church precisely. Ourinvestment was caughtin the clinch of unofficial political games. In any case ,the amount of work and commitment put into this project is amazing, and I hope the building will soon be officially received by the ministry.

Projekt i realizacja szkoły w tanzańskim Ulyankulu to wynik współpracy i WayairFoundation

The design and implementation of the school in Tanzania's Ulyankulu is the result of a collaboration between and WayairFoundation

photo by Iwo Borkowicz

Dominica: What did you learn from this project? Or is there something worth transferring from Tanzania or Africa to Poland?

Iwo: I wouldn't recommend it. But not at all because I am anti-African. Itwould be a manifestation of ignorance tosay that I know how tobuild in Africa. I know how to do it in this particular place, camp, community. This is a very young community - the third generation of refugees from Burundi - that has poor infrastructure and modest resources, and in thecontext of building, deficiencies in terms of knowledge, equipment and personnel. Therefore, we felt we would be useful there. I'm one of the co-authors of theproject, but the solutions we included, such as double roofs to blockvery high temperatures, ways toventilate thebuilding, using cold air from trees orevaporative cooling, are solutions we were taught or came from those regions. I think the most accurate way to put it would be that ,taught by the knowledge of many different people fromdifferent continents, we went to a place where the infrastructure was lacking and we wanted tohelp build that infrastructure.

Dominica: You can be proud that you survived and are reaching the end of this adventure.

Iwo: Yes, although this was largely due to our unawareness of howcomplicated and difficult this venture would be. Probably if we had known that, we would not have had enoughcourage to undertake it. This is aproject we're running pro bono. So if I were to decide to take on another such venture, I would either fail expectations or go bankrupt. Running anarchitectural studio, especially asmall office, is financially very difficult in Poland. Hats off to everyone who succeeds. I am still learning how to do it.

„Snow Guarantee” - instalacja z przekazem; stalowa, pokryta 23-karatowym złotem stacja meteorologiczna zwraca uwagę na problem zmian klimatycznych (okolice Bad Gastein w Austrii)

"Snow Guarantee" - An installation with a message; a 23-carat gold-plated steel weather station draws attention to the problem of climate change (near Bad Gastein, Austria)

photo by Iwo Borkowicz

Dominica: Your latest work on display is an extremely colorful and eye-pleasing installation for Panattoni 's 15th anniversary in Europe. Is it a result of thegrays and sorrows of the pandemic?

Iwo: We designed this setbefore the pandemic, and the first day of shootingwas canceled because thelockdownwas announced .When the lockdown was relaxed a bit, we were able to shoot the campaign. Why is it so joyful? Because it can be so . We co-created it with the fantastic people from the creative group, the director duo Kijek/Adamski and thedesign and production office Ferwor .We invited very young, talentedand award-winning athletes andartists to appear in the video. We wanted to show how muchthey have learned in these dozenyears - thus referring to the anniversary celebrated by our client.

Dominica: Concluding our conversation, I have to ask if you regret not becoming a musician?

Iwo: I plan to become one again. It seems to me that the most interesting musical projects arise either from teenage rebellion or from the deep maturity of older artists.I have already birthed my music outof youthful rebellion, and since this has not turned into my professionallife , I now have to wait until I become a wise old man.

Dominica: So architecture is just for waiting.

Iwo: It has to wait somewhere [laughs].

Dominica: Thank you for the interview.

interviewed by Dominika Drozdowska

Iwo Borkowicz
-Creates at the intersection of various fields, most readily collaborating with other artists. Co-founder of (together with Adam Siemaszkiewicz). Co-author of the installation "Totems" in Poznan (with Alicja Biala), "Long Live the Palm" in Agueda, Portugal (with Ola Korbanska), co-creator of the project for an educational center for Burundian refugees in the Tanzanian village of Ulyankulu ( and Wayair Foundation). Winner of the 2016 Young Talent Architecture Award from the Mies van der Rohe Foundation and the 2021 Architecture Prize of the Wielkopolska Region in the Young Creator category

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