Interview: Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme

Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture is a collaborative firm that engages in design at a variety of scales, participating in “an ongoing dialogue rooted in curiosity and play, generating innovative architectural solutions within modest budgetary constraints.” Their current and recent projects range in scale from the OMS Stage to multifamily housing, including the projects Bloc 10; YouCube; and Welcome Place [Immigrant Housing and Services]. Their exhibition, “Migrating Landscapes,” which examines how Canadians express their diverse cultural memories in the way they live and build, has been chosen to represent Canada in the 2012 Venice Biennale in Architecture. Sasa and Johanna were Architectural League Emerging Voices in 2012.

Gabriel Silberblatt: As an emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?

Sasa Radulovic: Do you mind if I ask you a question? How do you define “emerging” at the moment? Because everybody seems to define it differently.

Anne Rieselbach: It used to mean, “beginning to have a body of built work that’s getting attention.” We changed the wording a couple of years ago, to an “accomplished” body of work, because as with your colleague Jeffrey Inaba, not everyone is building, and everybody defines “building” differently anyway.  A “body of work” can encompass installation art and similar, more ephemeral work, which we’ve been highlighting for a while, but also, interesting mapping and other types of projects that don’t find themselves in built expression, but nevertheless are a way of finding form.

SR: Lateral Architecture did that last year, right?

AR: Right, precisely. So it’s a consistent view; it’s a vision, which is how we define the “voice.” The “emerging” part is sort of self-explanatory, although it catches different people at different points in their career, so it’s a good question. But, it’s a time where the work has begun to express its own kind of philosophy, so it’s more than one, cool building, but a body of work.

Johanna Hurme: I think the advantage would definitely be that one feels as though one has to really go after something. Because the work isn’t coming in freely, one has to invent something to make a go of it. It’s always a struggle to see what we can fit into the project, how we can make it interesting, or what we can extract out of it. That in itself breeds innovation in some way or another, or at the very least, the process provides a good ground for innovation. We’re constantly trying to find the right resources or trying to find ways of reallocating resources within the project parameters to, in our minds, create something worthwhile. That’s probably the advantage.

SR: The other aspect I would like to add to this idea of “emerging”…We’re very much a product of where we work, of Winnipeg. It’s a rather conservative environment—almost boring and beige. The architecture is really at the bottom of the cultural radar. It wasn’t like that in the 1960s and 70s; then, Winnipeg had a bunch of people that studied under Wright and Mies. They went up from the IIT and Harvard, and taught there. Faculty of Architecure, University of Manitoba was actually one of the best schools in Canada—when Winnipeg was the third largest city in Canada after Toronto and Montreal, I think at the time—it was bigger than Vancouver and Calgary. So it was actually a really good place to work, and a lot of modernist architecture that was constructed in Western Canada came out of Winnipeg, designed by people that had studied there. But since the 70s interest in architecture diminished, which had to do in part with different recessions. So we find that part of the reason we’ve started our firm was sort of a reaction to that gap, that lack of things happening. There were no start-ups in the city for 20 years before us, so it was really dead. Just dead. Nothing “emerging.” So a lot of our architecture is a response, if you wish…

JH: A reaction.

SR: A reaction, right. And we’re trying to figure out what it means. One of the things that we came up with is that it’s an attitude more so than a philosophy, if you wish. Many offices question, “What is [our] philosophy?”

JH: Are you answering the question though?

SR: No, no (chuckle).

GS: I’m interested to know how it is you define the difference between “attitude” and “philosophy.” Or how these words seem to have different charges for you.

SR: Well, a “philosophy” is something that can evolve, but seems to be, to a certain extent, firmly defined, while an “attitude” is something that actually allows you to change, based on what you eat that morning, right?

JH: …or allows you to have a different take on each project, I think, more so than the philosophy. If you’re trying to follow the same philosophy, then you’re always trying to extract the same thing out of every project, whereas attitude is somehow trying to demonstrate that, regardless of the constraints and regardless of the resources that are available, you really can do something interesting or you can do something that’s…

SR: …a “reaction,” no? We want to show that no matter what the budget is, no matter what the program is, no matter how bad the client is, we can do something.

JH: There is no excuse. You can’t just say “next time,” or “we’ll find a better client” or “we’ll find a better budget.” Every time we take on the project we as architects take on the responsibility of trying to make something out of it. And we know, of course that we can fail, and I’m sure we do—and we have—and we’re the first ones to admit that.

However, what we’re ultimately trying to do is not only produce work, but also trying to make architecture part of culture, because very often even in our context it’s left out. The visual arts is one thing; people understand visual arts and what the power of arts can be to any community. And yet, architecture is always looked at as a separate piece, and it’s never been understood as part of the production of culture, and that’s what we’re trying to talk to people about.

SR: There’s been a lot of things happening in Winnipeg in the last five years. For example, we actually do critiques of each other’s work once a month. Different firms present five projects and we get together for about five hours and we talk about them. There are usually 50 to 80 people to an event. Considering there are only 150 registered architects in the city, that’s pretty good!

GS: It doesn’t sound unlike the founding purpose of the Architectural League, which was to have conversations around design problems…

SR: And we’d like to start trying to do the studio visits, which the League has been doing, right? That’s still going on?

GS: Absolutely. So you have a monthly critique? How does one determine who is included?

SR: It’s an open call.

JH: It’s open to all architects. It’s called the On The Boards, so everybody who has a registered firm will get the invite.

GS: This is within Winnipeg?

JH: Actually entire province of Manitoba. When we all get together the idea is, that there’s actually time to give input into the project, so if isn’t complete, more work can be done. You’re not just presenting the finished project; you’re actually soliciting advice, soliciting critique and so on, and you present this within the peer group—and it’s confidential so it doesn’t jeopardize your client relationship.  The objective at the end of the day is that we somehow raise the bar of architecture in the city, and we get together and have this collegial relationship with each other. And I think everybody benefits—that’s what we’re hoping.

GS: This series emphasizes the “voice” of practitioners: how would you describe your voice as a studio? Or individually?

JH: Yes, I was just trying to say about the voices; I think that one thing that we’re trying to do as a firm, and this is nothing particularly new, is practice as a group as much as we can and really try to make a completely horizontal practice. And this is no easy task. We’ve been wondering, how does one keep a critical viewpoint on the work while practicing collectively as much as we would like? I don’t think anybody has a formula or a solution for that…

SR: We find it much easier to do that with an attitude as opposed to a philosophy to which everybody in the office has to subscribe.

JH: We have been interviewing people much smarter than ourselves, trying to get to the bottom of this question—do they have a philosophy when they sit down and talk about what their direction is and where they’re going? More often than not, they say that no, it’s a constant struggle to try to define what they are trying to say as a practice. It’s something that’s very difficult for us, too.  Right now we realize that we’re at some sort of critical point where we’ve “spewed out” work, but we’re being asked, “What’s your practice about and what’s your voice about?” And we do have some things that we find are common in the work, but if we sit here and pretend that we know exactly where we’re headed, I think that would be foolish.

SR: Right. I want to go back to the discussion we had this morning about one thing we feel is common in the office, as a part of this reaction or sort of attitude, is that our architecture is architecture against ambivalence. All of our projects reject a quiet presence. Whether you like the buildings or hate them, you’re going to be strongly affected by them. That is very much a part of that reactionary attitude towards our environment.

This doesn’t necessarily answer the question about what our voice is, but I think it is indicative of how our firm works: when our Bond Tower got the 2012 Progressive Architecture Award, we went to Zach, one of our guys, and said, “Good job, man. You designed this—awesome!” And he responded, “No I didn’t design this, Colin did.” So we went to Colin, and he says the same thing to us!  Since there was no real deadline for the design, every time there was a bit of a time in the office, a couple of people took it on, and it ended up being designed by seven people.

JH: …and nobody had any idea of who the author was; everybody thought somebody else did it, and somehow it came out of the office. So it’s one of the best examples that we have of our ideology at work. There are other examples such as the Centre Village Project. For that project, we had a Lego model sitting at the table, and the challenge was to extract 25 units out of it. At first the task of getting this many units out of it felt sort of impossible within the scale that we could build, which was a three-story walk-up. And yet, every time someone would walk by the table, they would move a couple of blocks, and it became a sort of geometric exercise.

Thinking back on our process, I would add that the one thing that we keep driving with every project is that there is a public element or that we are considering the public realm in some way. We’re always trying to tie the projects into the city. So even if it is for a private developer, there’s got to be some way to get that into the budget.

SR: We try to thread the city through our projects—or tie the projects to the city, both of those things.

JH: Right, but there is almost never a budget for that. It’s always the sellable square footage, rentable area, and that outside space doesn’t help the bottom line, in our developers’ minds. And yet, we try to weave it in every time.

SR: There’s no requirement at all in the city to do that, right? Though there ought to be.

JH: Part of that “collective idea” seems much more obvious to us than maybe it is to most North Americans, I don’t know…

SR: Well you come from a communist country; I come from a communist country so there…

(laugher)

JH: Well there you go!

GS: Actually that’s exactly what I’m interested in hearing more about. Not only are you both immigrants yourselves, but so much of the work being produced by your studio seems to engage issues of migration or immigration. What do you see as the most important challenges your country faces with regards to new arrivals?

SR: In Canada?

GS: Yeah.

SR:  The most important challenge I think we’re seeing right now is the possibility that the government might limit the openness that the country has had historically.

GS: It’s very open.

SR: It is very open. Having experienced this as a refugee, I’ve been through it, and at the time I immigrated to Canada, which was 1996, Canada was pretty much the only country that you could get into. And that has been very important to us. We’re exploring some of these themes in our Venice Biennale Project. Once you’ve come to Canada, you are very much encouraged to change the landscape of the country, which is a very open system. What it means, really, is that you’re not supposed to assimilate. Canada profits from your different background and experience.

JH: And I think we’ve always felt that, that we can offer a richness. I was very conscious when I first came over—Will I have to lose my accent? Will I be able to speak English properly?—And then people say, “No, no, no, that’s great.” When I hear that, it makes me so excited—it’s a richness to have a different perspective. I see that especially in architecture.

SR: One of my favorite stories that we encountered during our work on the Venice Biennale Project was about a panel of architects from Toronto who were flown to Holland about six or seven years ago, I think—to participate in a conference about immigration. The question that people had was, “How do we get our immigrants to speak Dutch?” which was completely baffling to the Canadians who said, “Why would you get them to speak Dutch?”

JH: “Why? Why do you care?” The attitude, is that you don’t have to; it’s fine—speak your own language. But in terms of architecture, I think the challenge that we’re seeing is that if you have a very strong sense of identity and very strong sense of your culture it is easier to produce work that you can somehow tie into, or you are able to say is Canadian in some definitive way. And yet, I think that we have very little idea of what Canadian architecture is! Canadian magazines are trying to define that all the time. But why try to define it? I think we’re better off just speaking our own accent.

This interview was conducted on March 2, 2012.