/ 19 August 2018

Architecture is a Layered Cake

Interview with the architect, Bika Rebek

Bika Rebek is a young, inspiring architect who was born in Ljubljana, grew up in Vienna and is currently living in New York. Her work is focused on exhibition design and ephemeral architecture. She is a founder of an architecture studio called Some Place and works as an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia GSAPP. Currently she is developing a software for exhibition design named Tools for Show, that will manage all exhibition information in one digital model.

You are working on so many different projects – what is architecture to you?

The way I see architecture, it is divided into three strata: There is the meta dimension, which includes writing, intellectual speculation and critique. The second strata consists of drawings, concepts and proposals with a speculative quality, so-called “paper architecture.” The third level is what people commonly refer to when they talk about architecture: The business of building and creating environments and buildings. For me, architecture is a layered cake made of these three types of practice. They are all part of architecture: Discourse, speculation and building.

So how would you describe your architecture practice?

I made a conscious decision, when I started my practice, to focus primarily on building in the third, practical sense. That desire to be anchored in the physical world came about while I was still holding a full-time job. During that time, I started a series of events, including design fairs, art openings and installations, modifying existing spaces through simple interventions. Collaborative, fun and low-budget, these projects were an opportunity to test spatial effects very quickly. Evolving out of this, our projects became bigger and more permanent, yet I believe that this legacy of very quick iterations and ephemeral design is still influencing me today.

In our architecture studio called Some Place we also started off by focusing on designing exhibitions. It is something we enjoy doing, as it allows us to work with ever-changing content, wrapping our heads around particular topics for a limited amount of time. Exhibition design, as compared to architecture, allows for a project to be completed within a few months, as opposed to years. At the same time, when we see an opportunity to create architecture, we go for it. We are currently building an office building in lower Austria and have completed a series of interior renovations.

Did the interventions you mention start as spontaneous actions or were they commissioned?

They were self-initiated actions with tiny budgets. It really came out of a desire to create something on our own in full scale, instead of working with representational methods. We started off by going to the hardware store and looking around to see what we could buy that was cheap and interesting-looking.

For the first installation of that kind we settled on foam insulation pipes that we connected with a few cable binders. The object we created out of it grew over the course of a couple of months, with people adding to it when they came to the rooftop where it was installed. This installation gave me the liberation to create something hands-on without digital pre-planning, an eye-opening process for me.

Was this like “testing grounds” for bringing in new spatial forms?

I think I was not fully aware of it at the time, but basically what we were doing was a form of agile design for architecture. With extremely fast iteration cycles, we tried so many materials, forms and approaches in very short production times. Later moving into exhibition design, which is a much more formalized form of temporary design, I think I definitely kept some of this ad-hoc quality in the work I created.

Are you approaching the short-term and long-term projects differently?

In terms of approaching the projects initially, it’s very different to be proactive than to be reactive. Architecture culture is still based on the idea of a service model, where architects are executing the vision or brand of a particular person or institution. In competitions, several architects compete to best fulfil an existing brief. I find it to be a very confined mode of creativity. With a client, half of the work is understanding their brief, their problems and challenges and then convincing them of the ideas you develop for them. In that sense short-term, self-initiated projects can be very liberating.

However, you were part of a team that was working for quite a while on designing the Living with Water installation, the Slovenian presentation at this year's Biennale of Architecture in Venice. What was your contribution to opening the question of water politics?

The Biennale for me was definitely a continuation of these other participatory experimental projects, but on a completely different scale. We had a very diverse team but we all agreed that we wanted to make a participatory installation, rather than a traditional exhibition. We took Jože Plečnik’s unbuilt parliament and created an abstracted version of it. The parliament was just a foil, a classicist form that allowed us to build a contemporary parliament that would act as an open platform at the Biennale. Together with Miloš Kosec and Marta Vahtar, I worked on conceptualising the installation and then primarily worked on the design and interaction elements of the piece.

Talk a bit about results and spatial effects of this installation.

The Biennale was definitely a great case study, with very different kinds of people coming through. I realised that the group that most actively engaged with the installation was of a particular kind. This group explored all aspects of the installation, playing with the fountain, pressing all buttons multiple times and generally seemed to have a great time. Many of them had to be forced to leave. That group were kids! To me, that is a compliment as it speaks to the immediacy of the installation. There is an intellectual level and often adults become really engaged once you explain some of the ideas behind the installation, but the kids just immediately get it.

This was your first experience of collaboration with Slovenian colleagues, but probably not the last?

Even though I was born in Ljubljana, I haven’t really had the chance to do much work there. I studied in Vienna and later in New York, so many of my professional connections are there. Working on the Slovenian Pavilion was a kind of homecoming for me and I absolutely hope to do more work in Slovenia. My grandfather, Branko Rebek, was an architect in Ljubljana, so working there feels like continuing a family tradition.

Right now, at Some Place we are designing an exhibition at the MAO, Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana, opening in October. The exhibition explores the topic of water and the built environment that we presented at the Venice Biennale on a more local level. I am also on the advisory board of the Future Architecture Platform, which meets in Ljubljana yearly. Now that I am more connected to the community, I am excited for what more is to come!