During a discussion following Joshua Prince Ramus’s 2008 lecture in Zagreb the issue of public competitions and private commissions came up. While the American economy was already showing serious signs for concern, the Croatian building boom and the unprecedented number of competitions associated with that boom was still in full swing. Interestingly enough Ramus was somewhat critical of design competitions, or to be more specific the kind of work that it encouraged, namely the production of a defined scheme early on in the design process. As most of his projects demonstrated, a high degree of architectural innovation only became possible through a research-like engagement with the client, the site, the programme, and the slew of other contingencies one encountered in the process of projecting. This sensibility, inherited from his mentor, Rem Koolhaas, a kind of surfing of market forces, is clearly not the usual subjugation of the architect’s own agenda to that of the client that happens all too often, particularly in commercial projects, but instead leverages the exchange between the two agents in order to generate a kind a degree of indeterminacy in what is a very deterministic endeavour, the production of architecture.
The degree of surfing and the level of indeterminacy in Studio Up’s most recent project, an office building for the Spectator Group on Radnička Street, would be impressive for a firm with a developed process of client-driven commercial commissions. It is an even more surprising project for this young firm when one takes into consideration that almost all of their work, including their award-winning gymnasium in Koprivnica, followed a very different model. As they explained in a previous interview, the architects have a sought a megaronic clarity to their project from the outset, partially because the public competition process demanded it and partially because it allowed then to then slowly experiment with and choreograph the potential programmatic and atmospheric occupations of these rigid structures, pushing the creative design process as far into the construction process as possible. This sensibility, unusual for the open competition process where the initial gesture is more or less locked, has reached a whole new level of articulation in the Radnička project.
Before discussing the unique design process and its subsequent product, it is worth discussing the phenomenon that is Radnička Street. This former conglomeration of factories and a few small houses has, over the last decade, transformed into Zagreb’s own fragment of the world wide Generic City, to the lament of many citizens. Dozens of clients and their architects have loaded the relatively narrow strip with masses of square metres and ‘mounds of building materials’, each individual expression simply adding to monotonous architectural white noise of the overall ensemble.
The difficulties of working in such a physical site were only exacerbated by the circumstances under which Studio Up received the commission, or to be more precise inherited a project fully designed and partially constructed. The Spectator group had purchased the site and project as a package, and had already constructed the foundations and underground garage, before approaching Studio Up to simply redesign the interior, adjust some of the non-load-bearing walls, and adjust the façade.
Studio Up saw an interesting opportunity in what at first seemed to be a limited project. In a conceptual move not so different to the design strategy they developed in their competition work, they articulated the existing project as a three-dimensional frame, a second site condition, to be occupied by thirty new cells, at once interior and façade. They referred to this strategy as cross-dressing, using a skin-deep transformation to entirely transform the very nature of the entire building. The transformation of the existing project’s structural grid into a site for further occupation not only provided them a fresh start and the opportunity to extend the design process from composition, to construction, and even to occupation, it also allowed for a unique collaboration with two artists, Ivana Franke, with whom they had previously worked on the 2004 Venice Biennale, and Silvio Vujičić.
The flexibility of the cross-dressing strategy proved helpful in addressing the 5300 m2 of office and supporting programme which would bring together a wide variety of Spectator Group’s commercial services, currently strewn about the city of Zagreb, under one roof in a micro-corporate campus, a mini-megastructure. The thirty ‘new’ cells inserted into the ‘existing’ frame allowed Studio Up to develop a hybrid work/open-office layout, ideal for the eclectic mix of activities. An ample oversized corridor provides maximum activity on one side of the bar while the cells, cantilevering past the edge of the building, provide a great degree of privacy on the middle three floors of the building, with a variety of scales of spaces on the ground floor and large open space defined by an extremely long conference room table on the top floor.
The thirty cells not only enable a work/open-office hybrid type, their material rendition, a combination of highly reflective linoleum flooring, reflective laminate cabinetry for the walls, and shiny Barrisol ceiling panels, provide a loft-like effect, expanding the single-storey spaces into two and three storey volumes. The cells’ asymmetrical loading position in the basic volume of the slab creates a double façade condition, bringing a sense of exteriority to the expanded hallway, which is carefully articulated using lighter grey carpeting, exposed concrete, and grey panelling, and a sense of interiority and life on to Radnička Street. The expansion of the façade, or to be more precise, the window sill, is reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s early houses, and like those projects, the Spectator Group building does not simply erase the distinction between inside and outside, it allows one to occupy a continually shifting boundary, to literally live on the edge. Following another frequently misunderstood Miesian move, the deepened transparent, reflective, and projective façade modulates and choreographs the context of scrubby landscape and lobotomized façades, instead of ignoring or accepting it.
Studio Up’s cells, tenaciously perched between the inherited concrete frame and the space of Radnička Street, are only the first move in an indefinite process occupation. In addition to closely collaborating on the concept of the cells, Ivana Franke and Silvio Vujičić each contributed works that occupy various spaces of the project. Ivana’s work, Light Carpet, virtually extends the space of the vestibule, echoing the logic of the office cells themselves. Silvio’s work has been focused on the VIP salon, where he is developing a floor panel system consisting of engravings of found images as well as custom curtains that will divide this enormous space. These initial provisional occupations may only be the beginning of a creative project that will extend well into the occupation of the building, with the clients expressing interest in the design team’s further involvement in the firm’s future branding through product and graphic design as well as the staging of various cultural events in the building. In the thoroughly privatized and mono-functional space of Radnička Street, these future projects suggest the potential for the formation of some semblance of a public or at least semi-public realm.
In retrospect Studio Up’s design process for what is one of their first direct private commissions in many ways builds on the unique design process they developed through their open-competition trial-by-fire. The clear megaronic-frame-volume developed by them leading up to a competition in their previous projects was in this case replaced by a professional-circumstance-turned-physical-framework to be occupied in this project. A highly open-ended and indeterminate testing of possible occupation scenarios, one that extends design into the construction and now even occupation process, has remained and may have even benefited from the more direct relationship to their clients. One can only hope that the decline of public competitions in Croatia will be counteracted by a growing number of sophisticated or at least adventurous clients, willing to experiment in collaboration with architects like Studio Up. We shall see.