Escaping Efficiency

ML: When did you let go of all constraints, structures and expectations of being attached to an office or a place? As an architect it’s a usual choice to work for somebody and you seem to have resigned from that comfort in order to research your own interests.

RM: I guess it’s hard to point to a specific moment. At first I studied in Poland, and I found my education to be quite conservative. I was strongly questioning whether I really want to become an architect. Then I went to Denmark, and through researching various offices I discovered that there are many different ways to approach the profession. That’s when the expectations I had for my education grew. And I started travelling.

ML: You’ve lived in several countries by now, such as Poland, Denmark, USA, Netherlands, Russia, and Portugal. Did you experience the act of moving from country to country in itself as a constant process of letting go? I’m sure a lot of us students can identify with that.

RM: It’s dangerous, isn’t it? When you start, it’s very difficult to stop, it becomes easy. I decided to travel from office to office as a way of educating myself. That’s why I was actually travelling so much. But then at some point I jumped so much, not only from country to country but also from one office to another - you know, in total I worked in around 10 offices in 8 years. It was quite an intense period.

ML: Was there any place where you stayed for longer? I imagine there came a moment when you might just have wanted to give it a shot in order to see what happens. Test yourself in a challenging environment.

RM: The longest I survived was 3 years (laughs). And that’s when those constraints we talked about came. As a professional architect you need to work for someone longer. When I applied for jobs in Copenhagen someone told me “you’re not representing stability and faithfulness, it doesn’t look good in your CV”. I took it as a challenge to stay.

I ended up choosing BIG as my long term employer - I was quite privileged to start working there when it was only 20 people. I was exposed to top leaders of the office, working directly with Bjarke. In that context each of us had a lot of responsibility, so what happened to me is that after one year of experience I ended up leading a few projects. I was only 24.

I know it’s sad to say, but after a while I got bored. And I was relatively free - there was a big variety of projects and scales, and I was always asked what I would like to work on, sometimes changing every few months. And yet after 3 years I still couldn’t find myself excited anymore about coming to the office every day.

That’s when a good friend of mine told me “if you want to do research, you should come to OMA in Rotterdam”. And I went. And that was the moment when I understood that most offices have templates. When you come to OMA, there’s no such thing. They don’t tell you what to do, there’s no fixed positions or methodologies. They hire you to be creative.

Your creative process requires different tools. They don’t ask everybody to do models or collages at the same time. Your way of finding the concept is up to you and you can write narratives, you can make movies, you can research literature as a way to restore the identity of a place. You can really bring different inspiration from different angles. I analysed what is my creative process, what are my tools and methodologies. I felt like I should focus on that, so I decided to take a break. 

ML: Is that when the ideas came? For diving deeper into what it is that really fascinates you.

RM: I decided to go to Strelka Institute to do research in 2015, and I have never gone back to an office since then. In the end, each office that I went through had a pattern, a certain methodology they wanted you to follow. A well-structured template. And after 8 years when I went to OMA, they told me no, there’s no templates, no fixed methods.

Each project requires a different approach, a different representation or even just the way you think about it. Sometimes you come to a conclusion that perhaps you don’t need to do a project, but leave the space alone. And that’s something you need to ask yourself, whether you strictly follow the brief. That’s when it happened, and I never went back and started exploring.

What is my methodology, what am I interested in? I think that was the moment when I understood that I went through different profiles of offices, different 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.

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 companies?

RM: I’d agree with the latter, and I think that’s actually the beauty of academia. This is the time you’re being given tools and knowledge, but I really believe that the creative process of each mind can be different. There’s no rule. I really don’t understand this aspect of efficiency in architecture, the need to be productive. Ideas come in different moments, and you can get inspired in different ways. 

And it’s important to find your own way. Some people look at paintings, some at movies, because they want to talk about experiences. Others get inspired by form, by sculptures. I see that there are some trends being promoted, imposed on us, such as models or diagrams. Why is that suddenly the way, why do we need to present that? Why cannot we invent our own ways?

There’s a certain fashion in architecture in how we represent, but we’re not taught to think creatively in our process. I’d be happy if somebody explored with me how to come to ideas through writing, through painting. And universities want to introduce those new ways of looking at architecture - that’s also why I’m also invited more and more to teach filmmaking.

I think academia is the moment when you can really think individually, explore how you can discover. Be exposed to different tools, discover how you and your creative mind works. Because it’s different for different people, and I don’t understand when it’s being imposed in one way or another. It should never be. 

ML: How do you include that in your own practice? Considering that each person working for you has a different creative process.

RM: When people start their own studio, they often think they need to have their own identity, or their own, one methodology. I believe that it should evolve with each project. I don’t want to use the word brand, but it is often like that. I prefer to be surprised, so when I work with my team they tend to be really shocked, because I don’t come and sketch for them. 

I say, you come to me when you have ideas. And you find your way. They’re not prepared for that. If it’s a sketch, if it’s a collage, I don’t care as long as it’s your own way, because I want to be surprised. And I think that’s something we’re scared to risk, we’re scared to fail our projects, to be dissatisfied by them.

Perhaps when you did fail, it’s important to share those failures and why they happened. Whether it was the methodology, or you didn’t think it through enough, perhaps you didn’t challenge the brief or the client sufficiently. When we talk about architecture, it’s usually architects describing their ideas.

But what about the users of the space? What is their perception of that? I’m also interested in those things, because that’s when your learning process comes along with the failures of what you’ve done. I design a lot of public spaces in central Europe and the beauty of it is that you just go there and you see whether it’s working.

ML: Where does the architect’s ego stand in all of that for you? In terms of leaving the prestige and safety of a big office to start your own practice.

RM: I think it’s important to say that I never intended to have my own practice. It was never my ambition, I was never interested in business - I just wanted to focus on design. The aspect of having and finding your own projects was never an interest of mine. That’s why I tested myself by staying 3 years in one company.

I thought perhaps that’s the moment when I need to stay. But then I took a break - and I’m saying that because I really believe in healthy competition. You need to challenge yourself, be out of your comfort zone, I do think it’s really important to challenge yourself with the projects. That’s the beauty of architecture, that you’re challenged daily to solve problems that you cannot predict.  

I find it really beautiful in the architectural process, that you need to always be open-minded and creative about solving them. But when you have internal politics in the offices, you cannot avoid them. I thought I could, but then they start polluting your mind more and more, and it took too much of my energy. And I really consciously avoided them, but you cannot by staying longer.

They either interrupt your process, or the project, or the quality which you’re aiming for. That’s why I took a break, because it became more and more intense. At those big companies you have a really high concentration of really ambitious people. And they look to be challenged, but it became unhealthy for me.

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. And then I really stopped thinking about projects, I stopped thinking about the quality of those projects - different factors started occupying my mind. 

So then I took this break and I started thinking how I can still work on projects but not be a part of this structure. How can I be detached from it and just collaborate with them on projects but not be fully immersed in that internal politics. That’s when I started testing offices to perhaps be a consultant, to be an external support who only joined for the projects.

What happened was that they started contacting me more and more. I’m especially comfortable in projects where you really don’t know what to do, where there’s no brief. They’re the best projects, I would say. When I was in Strelka Institute, they sent me to commercial real estate for two months to see how they’re designing those briefs.

I sit with Municipalities, I also design briefs from a Municipality perspective and I really believe in them. Once they’re multidisciplinary, when you bring sociologists and economists to the table, those who understand the context and design with you. But those commercial briefs are quite speculative and you start to question whether they really know how to design them.

The programs are of course driven by capital, profits and excel sheets. Once I asked a real estate friend to draw for me what is the input of an architect in this process and he drew a tiny, tiny… (shows with hands) we’re maybe 10% and we come quite late in the process. I asked myself how I could come earlier and that’s how I engaged myself in strategies. I got approached by clients who had some ideas but were not quite sure what to do, and I loved it. 

At some point I got approached so much I started to have a team, which I never planned. That’s why it’s difficult for me to talk about ego, because it was never about the ego. I was just not interested in the safety of the projects which came towards me. I was not comfortable knowing that I would be doing another museum or another master plan, which fell into the pattern of an office I worked for. It becomes extremely repetitive.

Even now that I have a studio, I still invite a lot of people to collaborate with me. I try to not grow as a company, I try to grow my network of collaborators. And I’m really more interested in it. Having collaborators which are landscape designers, sociologists, economists, artists is extremely valuable and it challenges you in the way you look at your project as well as your tools. I find it more interesting than having a stable, defined 20 employees in the office.

Because that’s also when you start being invited for different projects. You wake up after 2-3 years and realise that you have a network of solid collaborators that are becoming your friends, you’re sharing values together. And I think that’s the beauty. We always question ourselves once in a while, how we look at architecture, what type of clients we want to have? Once you grow, it’s hard to control. When you base your company on such principles you can also choose which projects you want to do, and for me that’s really important.

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 is bigger now, especially since those big companies have been inviting me now for maybe 3-4 years as a sub-consultant. It’s hard to find studios which work from a small scale up to a strategic level. Because of having this expanded network of collaborators, I also changed my approach and expanded my tools, one of them being of course filmmaking. Recently I also started doing fictional stories to talk about architecture.

Now I’m also actually a research participant at Of Public Interest (OPI) at Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm where I work with writers and artists to rethink how to address public issues in urban interventions. How to talk to the public about issues as complex as land grabbing. I’m sure in one year I will speak much differently about those issues.

I think it’s important in general to expand your methodologies, to not stick to one. This way you can talk different vocabularies with different people. It’s a very complex process to solve those issues, but most importantly we should raise awareness and talk about them. You can also find thresholds to intervene of course, you can have that impact.

ML: Back to when people started coming to you. How did that work?

RM: When I took this break, a good friend of mine gave me a nice suggestion. You know, once you’re free from the social pressure, the model ways of being an architect, once you stop following, opportunities will come. By being a little bit free, by having more time, I started exploring what I am interested in. And I started reaching out to people, following people that have similar values to me and I 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.

And then I started working with some of them, especially municipalities in Ukraine, on developing an educational programme on how to design strategic planning. These were not lectures, we met day after day to design together. Education has a different power than a commission. People are much more open to adjust. And I was really impressed to see that.

I think once you free yourself from those traditional structures and you start exploring what you really want to be associated with, you discover many things. But I think it really has to come from you, from your own initiative. When I started seeing so many alignments with different institutions, I just had this internal desire to work with them.

Because once you work for someone, you need to believe in their approach. You need to align and associate yourself, and that’s something maybe you’ll find. And of course the fact 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.

Okay, of course we can sketch. But we sit in one room, in the same environment, being stimulated with the same things. Every single day. So where can your inspiration and creativity develop? Where? I don’t understand why we don’t take those breaks for creativity, because creative processes are non-linear. 

Maybe it should be tested that we work less days per week, or you can find different breaks between the projects. And that’s why I like collaborations, because we take breaks between projects, especially if they’re intense. I need those, to start refreshing, to travel, and to find new stimuli. 

That’s what I think is hard about committing to one office. One thing is of course that the projects are given, they’re being imposed on you. But also those routines, where you start lacking stimulation. And you need to find them. Otherwise you will be anxious and possibly burned out.

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 did have them in the offices but I don’t have them anymore. One day I’m really inspired to do this project and I have ideas, I need to stay long to not forget what I have in mind. I need to do this today. And the next day? Okay, I did it, I need to take it slow now. This balance when your mind wants to be creative and then when it doesn’t so how will it help me look at the screen?

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 outside, go running or swimming, visit an exhibition, go to a concert. You need to find that. 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 productive moments of creative thinking. I really like thinking about ideas when I go for walks or for a coffee. I always come to my team and say, I had this thought yesterday walking to the Dean.

ML: Do you feel like you’re all the time in it, immersed in the projects and ideas?

RM: I’m in it in different ways. One time I do a project, another time an exhibition, then a movie or an educational programme. 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 that’s also why I’m not very renowned, because I find ways to do architecture through a series of public programmes, exhibitions, interventions in public space or documentary movies. That’s where I feel like I’m in it. 

Honestly speaking if I would do architectural projects per se every single day, I’m not so sure whether I wouldn’t stop being stimulated. For me stimulation means that I need to do different things in order to be inspired. 

Even when I went to do a movie about those informal communities in the south of Portugal I learned a lot. I love interviews, for the sake of those informal conversations. I still can’t get some of the quotes out of my head. Once when we were trying to understand the atmosphere of that place before starting to film and getting people to be comfortable with our presence I sat down next to one woman. She looked at me and said not even asking who I was, so I believe that you came here to understand why we are here.

And I was like, yes. (laughs) If we’re being honest, yes. And she said let me just tell you, imagine me living in Lisbon. A single mother with two kids, travelling to work one hour in the morning, one hour in the evening and not having time for herself. Being alone and then spending two hours in the public transportation, then making sure that the kids come back safely home and they’re alone in the house. And then I had dinner with them for half an hour.

That made me imagine this routine as an architect, how could I change that by design. Because those are problems caused by urban sprawl. I try to translate those conversations into problems that we face as urban planners. They’re actually affecting us. Those informal conversations always make me think whether I can contribute and how I can rethink those strategies. After that conversation I started thinking about public transportation and how long it takes for people to travel. It stuck because of that conversation. 

Yes, as urban planners we often talk about urban sprawl and how much does it take from the municipality budget to introduce changes. Even those municipalities in Ukraine told me that in certain places they have only one bus per week. So I spent the whole week thinking how to redesign the route of the bus so that they could possibly have two and make it more efficiently and within budget. So that everybody could come to the city for events or to access the library. And we made it.

One interview already influenced the way I was designing strategies. And I find that very valuable, that somebody can just sit next to me and tell me how difficult their life is, and then I can share that responsibility by bringing it further into my designs. This woman was not searching for an alternative lifestyle, she just found it too difficult to live in the city. It came from affordability, that was the only way for her to have a life. And she shared the responsibility with others within the community. But it was not like she really desired it, it was just a need

ML: A lot of people try out for those big companies. But can you really develop your creativity in those big companies, or do you need to find another way?

RM: After OMA, when I took this break I was asked to join a strategy company to design briefs. I thought that I have no idea about it, I’ve never done it. Then I decided to just try something new and that was the moment when I learned so much in my life about the public sphere and designing public. You could give me thousands of lectures but staying for two years as a consultant and constantly helping made me completely forget about the desire to design details for example. Before I thought that I needed to spend time designing beautiful materials and details but when you design public spaces you have to go to the site every day and do a lot on the spot. It didn’t matter what I drew, I lost the preciousness of drawing. I had to go to the construction site and learn how to adapt because we understood that we don’t have tools, we don’t have enough budget or we missed something in our drawings. You know, when you’re designing 200 sqm of a boulevard you can’t have very precise drawings. But then you see the beauty somewhere else, in the ways of how people use that space. Suddenly you see kids playing in the fountain, someone running along the water. It doesn’t matter that there is a gap you forgot about in one of the details. It doesn’t matter at that moment. It’s also changing your perspective sometimes.

Even when I started becoming a part of the team somewhere, and they tried to give me a template I said, I’m not doing this anymore. I did different approaches, and they were shocked. They were surprised that I looked into different aspects. We don’t need a checklist, we have to understand what is needed. I did what was asked of me and I added upon it. Once I started collecting data from social media, because people associate themselves with the spaces they feel proud of. So your work is to look into those holes where they don’t take photos, as it indicates a lack of quality. After two years of such work, the company also started changing focus onto what needed to be done, instead of trying to systematise. Maybe some things cannot be systematised. Let’s grow on that and learn that each project has different needs. 

Because when you go to offices you think that something is expected from you, to meet this quality or to be good at model making or to do good renderings. You think that, but in the end it’s the quality of critical thinking that makes you a valuable team member. That’s something we can contribute, especially as young students coming out of academia. That’s why I love working with students, because they challenge me. Each generation has a different set of values and priorities, so you always bring different topics to discuss and pay attention to. Also how to think about architecture. Sometimes I feel like students underestimate their value when they go out of academia.

ML: Definitely. It really depends on the office, but sometimes people are hired as a source of fresh ideas, but it can also happen that they’re hired to draw in autocad. I think it should be like this everywhere, that students are treated as a source of new energy. 

RM: And exchange. Because you give new tools and approaches and you learn how to realise those projects. Because they have different practical knowledge. There should be this beautiful exchange of topics and values you’re bringing, not only ideas. Even to think about the materiality now in the face of climate change, something that is now really intense in academia. Now we’re trying to engage with this topic, but you’re already coming with that as a basic. It’s a given, it is not something that has to be questioned. And that’s important I think. 

ML: I think it's good advice for young architects to know your own value. That you’re supposed to be this person that is full of ideas instead of selling yourself to an office that maybe doesn’t appreciate that.

RM: It’s not only ideas, I think it’s really about those values you’re bringing. Even trajectories of what architecture should think about now and bring them into the conversation. Honestly speaking, I think if the office you’re in doesn't appreciate it, why are you even there, am I right? I think this hierarchy of the offices is very traditional and it’s made to oppress your creativity. Rather than to build upon it. 

I have to say I never had this experience. In those big companies they always were like (moves hands in big circular motions), enhancing this. You really got this thing about them waiting for you to do something. I was never in an office where someone sketched for me, I never had someone giving me sketches. I think that would be quite sad. It’s nice to sketch together but not to have this situation where somebody gives you their magic sketch to realise. I think I would never work for those companies, I couldn’t be just an extension of someone’s hand. 

Architecture especially is all about collaboration. One nice experience I had as a team member in OMA was that we all had to know everything about the project. It was up to you to engage in each part, because if anybody got sick or took holidays, you should know what that person was doing. That was the creative process, to discuss constantly and to know everything that was going on because that’s how you can challenge each other. Once you’re not being exposed to all components of the project, you limit how far the project can go. Once you know all the details you can just question them and bring new ideas that someone didn’t think about.

I think you can always find an office which will appreciate your work, and if it doesn’t, it’s just the wrong office. I know there are places with a certain prestige but there are also young offices which are quite interesting that you perhaps never heard of. I’m more and more interested in those and searching for those, because they’re also very open for collaboration. 

I find collaborating with different people extremely important, and after so many years nothing can surprise me. How to keep your mind open? To be really open minded and critical is so important. It’s something that has to be constant, it’s not something that comes once, you need to really work on that to really stay that open. To new ideas or problems which you haven’t thought of. 

ML: Definitely, it’s very easy to just get stuck and find yourself not knowing what excites you anymore.

RM: I think that’s my biggest fear as an architect. To follow one methodology or one way of thinking, that I will stop developing. As a studio, I think our identity is very changeable, the outcome of every project always surprises me.

In academia, it’s extremely important to test different scales and try different things to see what really interests you. When I studied, everybody was interested in museums, interiors and office towers. And I never understood why somebody would want to build that, it just wasn’t my scale of projects. So in a job interview, I would always say that I cannot do small scale interiors or huge towers, because it was something I wasn’t interested in. They thanked me for my honesty, but I thought oh yeah, I just really cannot do it. (laughs)

And it’s fine. If you’re not interested in something, why should you proceed with that? I met people who are quite beautiful and challenging in interiors and I know that I’ll never be able to design materials that way. I’m happy that someone can explore that, so I can get inspired from it. And that’s the value. To find the things that stimulate you. Which is not easy, I would say. 

When I was an intern or a junior I liked it that I always had a mentor. Someone to ask for advice. At some point I thought I needed to be an expert in one specific thing and my mentor said, don’t follow those rules. Because maybe you’re just good in concept thinking, why don’t you embrace that, why don’t you go with it and see where it takes you? You don’t need to be good at everything. And I think it’s always good to have someone to ask. 

For advice, for reflections, even such as this interview. Even about ego, is it important, does it exist or is it just the ambition of life. I think it’s always valid to have those explorations with different architects, to talk about those things. I feel like it’s missed sometimes. So I love when my students spend time with me and ask those things. I try to keep in touch with people who have a lot of meaningful advice for me and that I trust. We call each other once in a while and ask for advice. I think it’s important to find those professionals which you share similarities with. Because when you’re lost, you do have someone to call. We all struggle with similar questions after all.