Ekaterina Gren: “Architecture is a jigsaw puzzle that consists of tasks and limitations”
- contemporary architecture
Ekaterina Gren, the chief architect of GC «OLIMPROEKT» Ltd., speaks about the formative years of her division, the importance of a dialogue with the developers, and about the architect’s mission.
Firm:Bureau of Architecture GREN.
The architectural and project division of the company was launched relatively recently – in 2013. Can you please share how you went about organizing your work in the conditions of the cutthroat competition on the market? What was your strategy?
The strategy was based on the high quality of execution, quick response time, and the professionalism of the decisions that we made on every level: from conceptual ideas to actual implementation. Regardless of where my project is situated, however big or small it is, I treat it as the most important and interesting one in my career. I always try to think out of the box and come up with unconventional architectural and town planning solutions. And, of course, an important factor in our company’s establishing itself as an “architect” is our special kind of relationship with developers and marketing experts that we have when we work on our projects. From the very start, we go to the bottom of things to understand what our task is about, find out who they are building this project for, and discuss the budget. A correctly organized dialogue, in which the client and the architect are both hearing each other out, is the unmistakable key to success. It is important to solve the problem that the developer has, and do this with a unique architectural solution, too. You can create an interesting housing project using very simple solutions, and as for uniqueness, it’s not only about expensive façade or interior decoration materials; uniqueness can consist in the organization of space, both on the level of the master plan, and on the level of each of the apartments.
However, I think that our main key to success is our team. I try to foster in our every specialist keen attention to detail and overall quality. My pet phrase that I use when we discuss this or that issue with my colleagues is: “Think of this project as you would think of your future home. Imagine yourself living in this housing complex, walking around it, parking your car here, being surrounded by these façades... Would you want to live here? And if your answer is no, then we will have to search for the solution that will make you answer yes”.
Yes, there are indeed plenty of architectural firms out there, and designer companies, too, and the competition is tough. But I just don’t squander my energy on these thoughts – I don’t even have the time for that. And this is why I never thought about any company as my competition. I just start working and I get involved with the project, I treat it as my child that I have to bring up and to whom I have to give the best of me.
What experiments are developers ready to make in terms of you proposing unconventional architectural solutions?
You know, the more you work on housing stock projects, the more interesting it gets. Due to the fact that there is also a tough competition among the developers as well, the architects have been getting their hands on the tools they once could not get – meaning, high-quality decoration materials, unconventional planning solutions, interesting landscaping ideas. And if the developer is knowledgeable about the market situation, he understands the value of these tools and he is ready to experiment, for example, in the field of landscaping because he realizes that you cannot just “sell an apartment”; what you ultimately want to do is create a comfortable living environment, an important element of which is the yard territory. And currently there is a demand on the market for designing the yards as local public spaces with an opportunity for using various kinds of greenery, custom-designed hardscaping objects, modern European equipment, sport fields and playgrounds.
And it is also important to note that the developers quite willingly make experiments in the area of façade decoration materials and landscaping. Sustainability is the hot trend of today: wooden boardwalks, clinker brick and natural stone are replacing fiber cement and ceramic granite.
What other new trends in architecture can you name in terms of market promotion of housing projects?
Today, developers, designers and architects alike are paying more attention to the pedestrian accessibility and transparency of the environment; more attention is paid to the façade design, plastique, and materials, they try to work with every project on an individual basis. Well, there is nothing exactly groundbreaking about this approach but the very attitude towards the details of a master plan and the volumetric and planning solutions has become more responsible. The competition is ultimately won by the projects that put people’s interests above everything else. It is important for an architect to be able to get across to the developers and their marketing team which solutions will be the best for the future residents.
Today, your company’s portfolio consists chiefly of high-rise housing projects. How do you solve the problems that usually accompany the typology of mass housing?
Most people associate mass housing with prefabricated houses, standardized planning solutions, high density of population, and lack of parking space.
Our projects, on the other hand, are all about the diversity of the floor plans of the apartments. People will be getting an opportunity to choose the housing that fits exactly their tastes: some people like more intimate confined spaces, some people love open space – we all are different, and our preferences are different. And as for the problem with the parking space, including the parking places for the guests’ cars – well, it has long since been solved by the underground parking levels. This makes it possible to create clean and cozy yards that are completely vehicle-free. Such solutions go a long way to make each of the residents of the complex and their families to feel comfortable. Because everyone remembers very well the yards, sidewalks and playgrounds all clogged up with cars, when you can’t get rid of a feeling that you live in a parking lot – no place to take a walk or just go outside and read a book.
And the greater the construction density of this or that specific land site, the more interesting the architect’s task is! There are various ways to solve this task: you can make it visually lighter by making units with different numbers of floors, gaps in the façade line, different stylistic solutions and the colors that you use.
What does the term “comfortable environment” mean to you?
To me, this is a certain atmosphere that the architect creates for the resident: starting from his way home down to his apartment. The feeling of complete harmony when nothing causes you any discomfort, when you feel satisfaction from the sheer fact of being inside this place… The project must be comfortable for living and at the same time be at peace with the surrounding nature. And “harmonious environment” is not just about the choice of the façade design and floor plans – it is a sum total of various architectural solutions. For example, the territory must be functionally structured in a smart way: the entrance zone to the residential complex and the yard space must be separated from the public zone. The public level must be filled with public functions, and a developed social infrastructure must be there.
Does your company have any plans for going beyond the confines of your “specialty” on multifunctional residential complexes, and, if you do, what direction would be interesting for you to develop?
Our company doesn’t have any “specialty” in residential complexes – rather, this just has to do with the current trends of the real property market. Housing stock is something that is currently being built in tremendous amounts, and there is more demand for it than for offices or even shopping malls. Currently, we have public buildings being designed as well, and I hope that we will have more of such projects, including sports facilities. It is more interesting for an architect to experiment with curvilinear volumes, large grid spans, and everything that you just cannot use in housing projects. But, again, a true professional is inspired by any typology.
Do you use any BIM technologies?
Today, BIM modeling is being developed in every single company. Both designers and developers need it. In our case, BIM facilitates our work with side specialists and divisions. When you’ve got a single model, all of your solutions can be processed quickly and with no mistakes. At a certain stage, the model is handed over to the client, and further on it helps to operate the building more efficiently.
We use BIM in every project but not always 100%. The development of utility lines and a construction set, and the underground part, for example, which is generally the most difficult part, is always done in Revit. We also do some things in AutoCad but there is a general task to switch completely to Revit within one year.
How would you define your signature style?
The term “signature style” doesn’t mean much to me, and it’s not up to me to define its presence or absence. When I start working on a new project I try to forget everything that I saw before and come up with a solution that I haven’t yet come up with. This is what the creative process and the creative search are all about. I think that each of our projects must be unique, and I definitely don’t want to develop any “signature style”. This is just like a jigsaw puzzle that you have to put together from the limitations and the tasks that are posed to you by the city, the client, and society. The difference is that when you do a jigsaw puzzle you always see the end picture in front of you, and in our profession the real ultimate outcome is only seen in the final stage of construction.
And every time I set for myself a task of making the urban environment more comfortable and interesting, and the city people’s quality of life higher. Becoming a better person and making a positive difference wherever you can is what our life as humans is about. I set for myself this specific task because the work of an architect has a direct influence on the organization and quality of people’s lives.