Romea Muryń (RM) is a Polish architect and urban planner. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Copenhagen School of Design and Technology and master’s degree from the West Pomeranian University of Technology and, she worked for 8 years as an architect in practices such as JDS, COBE, REX, BIG and OMA. Romea completed the postgraduate programme 'Hybrid Urbanism' at Strelka Institute and worked as a leading architect and urban strategist in Moscow, Russia. In addition to design and academic practice, in 2015, together with Francisco Lobo, Romea established the research studio Locument that combines filmmaking with architecture together. In 2017, she established an interdisciplinary architectural practice ZIEMIA in 2017 together with Jakub Gołębiewski. At, she is also the Program Director of 'Creating Homes for Tomorrow' at CANactions School. The conversation is held by Maja Liro (ML) and Saartje Nibbering (SN).
ML: Can you pinpoint the moment in which you let go of all constraints, structures and templates associated with being attached to an office or a place? Of other people’s expectations, of societal canons, of what architects usually do in their careers. I’m sure there were many significant ones - even the act of moving from country to country is in itself a constant process of letting go, which I can also identify with.
RM: I went to Strelka Institute to do research in 2015, and I have never gone back to an office since then. In the end, each studio that I went through had a well-structured template, a certain methodology they wanted you to follow. After 8 years I understood that I went through various profiles of offices, several countries, different scales of projects, and I needed to find my own interest. What do I want to do as an architect and on which scale? Offices usually impose that on you.
ML: A lot of people try out for those big companies. But can you really develop your creativity in such environments, or do you need to find another way?
RM: After working for OMA, I took a break from those big companies. At that time I was asked to join a strategy firm to design briefs. I imagined I had no expertise in it since I had never done it. But I decided to just try something new, and it became a phase in my life where I learned so much about the public sphere and designing public. Staying there for two years made me completely forget about the desire to design beautiful materials and detailing. When designing public spaces you have to go to the construction site every day and do a lot on the spot. I had to learn how to adapt because we understood that we didn’t have the tools, enough budget or we missed something in our drawings. For example, when you’re designing 200 sqm of a boulevard it’s impossible to have very precise drawings. But then you find beauty in the ways people use that space. Suddenly you see kids playing in the fountain and someone running along the water. It doesn’t really matter there is a small detail missing. Those moments change your perspective sometimes.
After this experience, I became part of a team somewhere again. When they tried to give me a template I said, I’m not doing this anymore. I applied different approaches, and they were shocked. I said we don’t need a checklist, but we do need understanding of what is needed. Instead of trying to systematise, let’s grow and learn that each project has different needs.
SN: Was this process necessary for you to understand that you don’t want to be a part of the structure that comes with a big company and you want to discover your own methodology? Do you think it’s necessary for students, or do you think it’s better to develop your own methods before you start working for big offices?
RM: I’d agree with the latter, and I think that’s actually the beauty of academia. It’s the time you’re being given certain tools and knowledge, but I really believe that the creative process of each mind can be different. There’s no rule. That’s why I really don’t understand the aspect of efficiency in architecture, the need to be productive. Ideas come in diverse moments, and you can get inspired in a multiplicity of ways. There’s a certain fashion in architecture in how we represent, but we’re not taught to think creatively. I’d be happy if somebody explored with me how to come to ideas through writing or painting. And universities want to introduce those new ways of looking at the design process that’s also why I’m invited more and more to teach filmmaking.
The moment you start at an office, you often think that something is expected from you, to meet certain standards, to be good at model making or realistic rendering. You think that, but in the end it’s the quality of critical thinking that makes you a valuable team member. That’s something you can contribute especially as young architects coming out of university. That’s why I love working with students, because they challenge me. Each generation has a different set of values and priorities, hence you always bring different topics to discuss and pay attention to. Including ways to think about architecture. Sometimes I feel like students underestimate their value when they go out of academia.
Personally, I was never in an office where someone sketched for me. I think that would be quite sad. It’s gratifying to sketch together but not to be put in a situation where somebody gives you their magic sketch to materialise. Architecture especially is all about collaboration. One enriching experience I had as a team member in OMA was that we all had to know everything about the project, because that’s how we could challenge each other. Once you’re not being exposed to each component of a proposal, you limit how far the design can go. As soon as you know every detail you can just question them and bring new ideas that someone didn’t think about.
ML: How do you include that in your own practice? Considering that each person working for you has a different creative process.
RM: In general people often think they need to have their own identity, or standard methodology, when they start their own practice. Personally I believe I should evolve with each project, to be surprised every time. As a result, when I work with my team, they are frequently stunned, because I don’t come up with a sketch for them. Instead, I ask them to find their own way and come to me when they have ideas. They’re not prepared for that. Again, I want to be surprised. And I think that’s something they, and people in general, are scared to risk. We’re scared to fail our projects and to be dissatisfied by them. Perhaps when you did fail it’s important to share those failures and understand why they happened.
ML: What makes you strive forward? In the context of your career, resigning from the attachment and safety of prestigious companies in order to start your own practice(s) couldn’t have been an easy decision.
RM: I think it’s important to say that I never had the ambition to have my own practice. The aspect of finding your own projects was never an interest of mine - I just wanted to focus on design. That’s why I tested myself by staying in one company for 3 years. I really believe in healthy competition. You need to challenge yourself and be out of your comfort zone. That’s the beauty of architecture, that you’re faced with problems you cannot predict on a daily basis.
So you always need to be open-minded and creative in order to solve those issues. But when you have internal politics in the offices, it’s hard to avoid being distracted. I tried to consciously steer clear of them, seeing that they either interrupt your process, or the project, or the quality which you’re aiming for. Especially that at those big companies you have a really high concentration of immensely ambitious people. They look to be challenged and so did I, but it became unhealthy for me.
Once you work for someone you need to believe in their approach, you need to align and associate yourself. It’s a hard pill to swallow together with the reality of having to sit from Monday to Friday, believing that you’ll get inspired from Rhino. Or Autocad. (shares a pointed look) Because that’s the problem, here comes the boredom. I am a workaholic, I work long hours and I love being in that headspace, but it’s something that goes under your skin perhaps too deeply. I don’t understand why we don’t take breaks for creativity. Creative processes are non-linear, so where can your ideas develop if you’re in the same setting every day? That’s why I took this break and started to think how I can still work on a project, but not be a part of this structure. How can I be detached from it and just collaborate by design without being fully immersed in the internal politics? That’s when I started testing offices to become a consultant.
ML: How would you describe your impact? How much of it did you feel while working in big companies and how big do you think it is now? Perhaps by letting go of attachment, you left behind certain limitations, allowing you to expand and share your experience in different fields - academic research, filmmaking and architectural practice, all at the same time.
RM: I think it’s bigger now, especially since those big companies have been inviting me now for maybe 3-4 years as an external support. I also changed my approach and expanded my tools, one of them being filmmaking. Recently I also started writing fictional stories in order to talk about architecture.
When I took this break, a good friend of mine gave me a nice suggestion. You know, once you're free of the social pressures and model ways of being an architect, once you stop following, opportunities will present themselves. By having a little more freedom and time, I started exploring what I am interested in. I began reaching out to people, following people who shared similar values and wanted to learn from them. I was literally saying, this is who I am, this is what I do, this is my CV, I will be happy to join you in whatever needs you have.
I believe that once you step away from the old frameworks and begin to explore what you truly want to be associated with, you will discover many things. But I believe it must come from you, on your own initiative. When I started seeing so many alignments with different institutions, I just had this internal desire to work with them.
ML: I imagine that your work in the academic field eventually inspired the development of your studio(s) with a particular interest in, and study of filmmaking as an urban research tool.
RM: It’s important in general to expand your methodologies, to not stick to one. This way you can use different vocabularies with different people. Working with writers and artists as a research participant at Of Public Interest (OPI) at Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm has shown me how to rethink addressing public issues in urban interventions, and how to explain problems as complex as land grabbing. Those dilemmas are difficult to solve, but most importantly we should raise awareness by talking about them. We can also find thresholds to intervene in order to have an actual impact.
ML: Could you ever let go of architecture? Who are you without your profession, and how do you find so much passion and energy to do it? In TU Delft as well as in architectural practice in general, problems of burn out, anxiety and stress appear more frequently than they should. How do you manage to continuously add wood to the fire?
RM: I faced those problems in the offices I worked for, but I don’t anymore. There’s no efficiency in being creative. Of course you can find your ways, but you need to also understand that even those breaks are fruitful moments of creative thinking. How productive is it to look at the screen and rotate the model in Rhino, am I right? (laughs and winks) Maybe you’ll get an idea whilst running or swimming, visiting an exhibition, or going to a concert. You need to find that.
I do different things, and I don’t feel like it’s a war because I find various activities within the architectural context. I think my biggest fear as a professional is that I will stop developing by following one way of thinking. As a studio, I always try to keep my identity as changeable as possible, so that the outcome of every project always surprises me.
When I was an intern or a junior I always enjoyed having a mentor. Someone to ask for advice. At a certain point I thought I needed to be an expert in all possible skills, common among professional architects, and my mentor said: don’t follow those rules. You don’t need to be good at everything. Because maybe you’re just good at concept thinking, why don’t you go with it and see where it takes you?
We even talked about ego, does it exist or is it just the ambition of life? I think it’s always valid to have those explorations with different professionals. And I try to keep in touch with people who at some point gave me meaningful advice. We call each other once in a while and ask for counselling. I think it’s important to correspond with individuals you share similarities with. Because when you’ve lost your path, you do have someone to talk to. We all struggle with similar questions after all.