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Without physical presence, there is no chance for cooperation. Interview with Ondřej Chybík

09 of June '22

We won't start working together until we meet. Central Europe's biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing, and its challenge is the climate crisis. Ondřej Chybík of the Czech office Chybik + Kristof talks about building bridges between the Czech Republic and Poland, architectural practice, participation and competitions.

Kacper Kępiński: The activities of Czech architects in Poland and Polish architects in the Czech Republic - why is it not working out? We observe in our countries the activity of large offices from the West, but not of our neighbors. Is the reason a lack of resources, capital, knowledge?

Ondřej Chybík: I'm afraid that in both Poland and the Czech Republic, there is not a single truly international studio that wants to be active abroad. And this is the main reason for our lack of presence in other countries - we are not interested in it. The exception might be more commercial offices, working with larger entities, but we don't have anyone here doing it individually, who would be a well-known architecture star from Central Europe. So far I haven' t heard of any such person in Poland, and maybe this is the reason. And there is no shortage of big international companies operating in our region - like MVRDV, SANAA or Jean Nouvel. Even now when we competed in a competition for a philharmonic in Prague, in which 20 companies took part, there was no one from Poland. Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as Robert Konieczny, who works in Ostrava, where the new headquarters of the PLATO contemporary art gallery was built. KWK Promes won second prize in the competition for this project, but in the end they were awarded the contract. The winner of the competition, I heard from rumors, refused to sign the contract on the grounds that it was too risky for the architect. So it is happening, but very slowly.


Lahofer Vineyard

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

Kacper: Have you ever worked in Poland or are you planning to do so? Have you participated in any competitions here or in the region?

Ondřej: We are constantly participating in competitions in the region, but so far only in one in Poland. I think it's not just about competitions, but also about physical presence in these cities, networking and mutual understanding. That's what we're trying to do in our studio - make contacts, meet people from the architectural community in Poland and get orders. We haven't signed any contracts yet, but a year of our efforts has already resulted in three potential orders. The key is presence, how to attract clients and gain their trust. It's also important to find the type of projects that are easiest to get into at this early stage. I think every architect should be a bit picky and choose projects not in terms of budget size or prestige, but try to pursue projects in topics that are of interest to the studio and can be a way to promote their own program. For example, one of the projects we are interested in in Poland is the conversion of an office building into residential, which is very interesting to us as an office. It's also a very contemporary topic that has development potential. I think the COVID-19 pandemic proved that these non-functional central business districts are the most hidden, abandoned and forgotten areas in any city in the world, and that mono-functionality is a bad thing. I feel that we architects have tried to convince city authorities, planners, developers and clients that this type of development, this type of construction that has its roots in the 1960s, can no longer continue. However, we needed such a devastating pandemic to prove it.


Lahofer Vineyard

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

Kacper: Continuing with the theme of residential architecture - the percentages of private and rented housing in Poland and the Czech Republic are similar. In the whole region, we have the highest rate of private ownership of apartments in Europe. In this situation, what is the role of the architect in creating affordable housing?

Ondřej: First, I think we need to distinguish between two types of rental housing. The first is commercial housing, which is the most common and is owned by large companies or individuals. I think there is no way to make them affordable, because these entities will always seek the highest profits and oppose any changes. The second type of rental housing are those owned and built by the state or the city. But there are very few of these in Central and Eastern Europe. Since 1989, our cities and states have not been building affordable housing, and this is the biggest problem. As architects, we have many private sector clients, and we often design and build for-profit housing together. We have only one publicly funded housing project, which won an architectural competition in Brno. In addition to the small number of such developments, the time it takes to complete a project is also critical. In general, the city administration, housing departments, and financial units work very slowly. We are working simultaneously on two housing projects that we won in competitions held at the same time. The first is public, and the second is for a private developer. We still have not obtained a building permit, although the third phase of design documentation for public housing has already begun. At the same time, we are already building the second project intended for the private sector, although it is much larger (88 apartments in the public and 300 in the private). It's a very different world, and as for the question of what the role of the architect is, I think it's mentoring city officials and raising awareness. Showing that somewhere abroad, not so far away, for example in Vienna, there are some concepts on how to achieve a very fast and very effective way of building in private-public partnerships and how to do it in the most efficient way. I think our role should be more proactive in communicating and promoting these topics.

Plac Mendela w Brnie

Mendel Square in Brno

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

Kacper: What is the competition and project solicitation like in the Czech Republic? Is it a transparent process? Who is involved in design and competitions?

Ondřej: I think it's getting better every year. I would say that 10 years ago there were only a few public buildings per year as a result of competitions. It's still not required by law, but there is increasing pressure from the public to use architectural competitions as a tool for selecting the best solutions. I think every city mayor in the Czech Republic has at least heard of the Institute of Architectural Competitions. Many of them use it to select architects for their projects, but it is a long and expensive procedure. There is also a serious risk that once all the submissions are published, there will always be something that can cause controversy. Such discussions sometimes lead to risky situations in which the political opposition in local governments tries to undermine the results of the competition and join forces with the authors of the second or third prize. Contests are sometimes very political in nature. In our office, we participate in about four or five competitions for public investors every year. We are about to start construction of our biggest project, which we won in an open competition - an ice hockey arena in Jihlava.

Kacper: What is the participation of the public side in competitions and architecture in general? Does it mainly involve public spaces? How was the public involved in the design of Mendel Square, for example?

Ondřej: The Mendel Square project in Brno is very specific, because it is a temporary project. There was a competition for a much larger space. What we are designing is what can be called "phase -1," which is the temporary layout of the square, which will then be transformed into the design chosen in the competition. Nevertheless, we had to consider the final design as one of our determinants. For example, the permanent location of all the trees has been designed according to the future location of the square, which will be slightly different from the current one. These changes can't be made now because of the traffic situation, but the city authorities don't want to wait until 2035, when the final reconstruction of the roadway system is due. There was not much time for public discussion, as the decision to implement the project was made and carried out very quickly.

Plac Mendla

Mendel Square in Brno

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

As for the competition to build a stadium in Jihlava, the brief was discussed in public, and the results of the competition were presented to the city's residents in great detail. There was a great discussion as to whether the stadium should be located in the center of the city or in a green area somewhere on the outskirts. The final conclusion was that it should be a much smaller and more sustainable facility built in the city, and our role as the authors of this arena was to communicate this project very transparently and carefully, not only to the neighbors in the area, but also to the public throughout the city.

Kacper: Did you make any changes to the design after the competition to adapt it to the conclusions of the public debate?

Ondřej: We made a commitment not to cut down any of the existing trees. To avoid this, we had to move the entire building more to the north of the plot. However, the brief on which the competition was based was very helpful. It was discussed with the residents, and we reviewed it and met their needs as much as possible.

Jihlava Arena

The arena in Jihlava

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

I have a slightly different example from Prague of how architects can influence public opinion or investors. Skanska is planning to build a new neighborhood with more than 800 apartments on the site of a former sugar factory. It bought the site from a very aggressive Israeli developer, who abandoned the project after fierce protests from residents and the city government, which blocked their project. Skanska decided to start from scratch because the previous project was not acceptable to the public. The developer launched a closed competition, to which we were invited along with four or five other teams, and we knew that by listening to public opinion we could get the best possible result. Since there had already been public presentations of the project's assumptions, we listened carefully to the voice of the residents and implemented almost all of their demands. Our own idea was to create a truly public space inside the neighborhood, which was not originally planned. We convinced the developer not to build apartments in the middle of the neighborhood and create a free space connected to the river, with public access not only for new residents, but for everyone. This made the public suddenly understand that an architect is not a devil's advocate, but someone who sincerely wants to think not only about new residents, but also about existing communities. By adding new values to the project, we gained public confidence in our work.

Dworzec autobusowy Zvonarka w Brnie

Zvonarka bus station in Brno

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

Kacper: Architecture and climate change - do you see it as a key factor in design? Do you consider possible weather changes, such as floods or droughts, when designing public spaces or buildings?

Ondřej: The first topic I'm always happy to present and discuss, which we always try to implement, is preserving existing structures and using them in the most efficient way. I see building new buildings to replace existing ones as creating waste. We should transform as much as possible, not rebuild from scratch. As Aron Betsky said - we have built enough and there is really no need to build anything new. We just need to find ways to use or reuse existing objects more wisely, which also means reusing materials or finding new uses for existing solutions. We have a furniture gallery in our portfolio, which we created using a very popular pattern of chairs from the 1990s for the facade. Implementing environmentally friendly architectural solutions is not a trend, it is mandatory and absolutely necessary, but on the other hand, green walls should not be put up everywhere, because this is not the most sustainable approach. This kind of gadgets mainly serving greenwashing in fact very energy- and water-intensive.

Pawilon z krzeseł

Gallery of Furniture

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

Kacper: Environmentally conscious design also means thinking about non-human inhabitants of cities. There's a debate that glazed skyscrapers are killing birds. According to studies, several billion of them are killed this way every year around the world. Did you take this into account when designing the skyscraper in Ostrava?

Ondřej: This is certainly a big challenge. I think what I care most about is biodiversity - not only birds, but also insects, other animals, bugs.... They help us survive in cities. Starting from the lowest level - bugs in the ground have a positive effect on the root system of trees, helping them grow properly. Of course, trees are essential for the survival of insects and animals. Adding as many green areas, green roofs and fields as possible to the project creates living space for them.

Wieżowiec w Ostrawie Wieżowiec w Ostrawie

Ostrava Tower

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

As for the Ostrava Tower project, we have just completed the architectural study - the first stage of the project. In further stages of the project, we intend to implement various methods to protect birds from collisions with glass. This aspect is very important, but it is often forgotten.

Kacper: thank you for the interview

philharmonic hall in Prague

Filharmonia w Pradze

Vltava Philharmonic Hall

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

Chosen to participate in the prestigious Vltava Philharmonic Hall design competition , CHYBIK + KRISTOF, in collaboration with Mecanoo, have unveiled the design for a new philharmonic hall in the center of Prague, which is set to become an important landmark on the cultural map of the Czech Republic. Offering world-class standards for music, the hall's design expands its function to become a cultural center and monument, while transforming the existing urban landscape. The competition, which included the offices of MVRDV, Varozzi Veiga, Sou Fujimoto, Ateliers Jean Nouvel and SANAA, won the proposal by BIG.

chybik + kristof

Ondrej Chybik

Ondrej Chybik

photo courtesy of Chybik + Kristof

CHYBIK + KRISTOF is an architecture and urban design studio founded in 2010 by Ondrej Chybik and Michal Kristof. The team consists of more than 50 people and has offices in Prague, Brno and Bratislava. Its goal is to create bridges between private and public space, crossing generational and social barriers. The studio works on a wide range of projects, from urban master plans to public and residential buildings. Recent projects include the Czech pavilion at Expo 2015 (Milan, Italy), the Lahofer winery (Czech Republic), the Zvonarka bus station (CZ) and the multi-purpose arena in Jihlava (CZ). The studio has received numerous awards, including the 2019 Design Vanguard Award from Architectural Record, and was recently among the winners of the European Center for Architecture, Design Arts and Urban Studies' 40 Under 40 Award 2019.

Kacper Kępiński

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