"Corners surrounding the railroad are a burning issue." We interviewed the students and the heads of the Valouch-Stibral studio that won the Olověný Dušan
How did the semester go? Did you prepare the assignment quite loosely and everyone looked for the plot on their own?
Valouch: Students are in school to learn how to design a house that works and is beautiful. But at the same time, through their efforts, they can open their eyes, not just for themselves, but for us. We try to motivate students to go beyond the banal solutions.
In the previous semester, we dealt with the general topic of city lines with future graduates. We were interested in the long lines in the city. A railroad is a distinctive line that weaves through a city and determines its shape, often negatively. But the railroad also has a lot of niches and nooks and crannies, it has its own poetry. There is also a piece of history in the urban railway. At the same time, it offers today's city many opportunities for further development. For wider society, too, rail is now a hot topic – there are competitions for high-speed terminals that are of pan-European significance.
At the beginning of the semester, we assigned the general topic of unused places near Prague railways. We did not specify a plot or a programme. Of course, this was not always comfortable for the students. Even for teachers, open assignments are difficult, you have to keep many plots and features in your head. I think that is why we stay more on the surface in our proposals than in other studios, where they have a clearly defined site and program.
Stibral: We wanted to look for undiscovered and not fully exposed places. A large part of brownfields, such as Bubny-Zátory, are already developed projects that seem to be moving towards implementation. We tried to guide the students to the city outskirts, but in the end we also proposed in the centre. For example, Jakub Marek was converting the Slovan parkhouse, which is next to the National Assembly and the State Opera House, into student dormitories.
Have you had to contend with the standards, regulations and noise that quite often make building around railways impossible?
Valouch: We have invited an expert, Martin Vaňek, who deals with the development of the Railway Administration. We wanted to learn about the rules that limit development along the railways – the railway has a buffer zone from the edge of the track and various other requirements for the surrounding development, such as acoustic requirements. But today's low-energy houses have to be closed up almost all the time and ventilated by heat recovery. So with good quality windows and the use of controlled ventilation, we do not see the acoustic problem as being as significant. We reasoned that if a prospective investor would accept the higher costs in building, it opens up the possibility of incorporating previously neglected plots back into the city.
Finally, we set a rule that maintenance needs a clear space of five meters around the tracks. That freed up our hands considerably. Occasionally, we were criticized for not building enough on the track, that the proposals only addressed the vacant lots along the track.
Stibral: This semester we have undergraduates who are drawing out the structures in more detail and so far they can handle the limits of the railroad. For example, they are working with double structures and the anti-vibration interlayer during foundation.
Valouch: I live by the railroad tracks and I can tell you from personal experience that there is one major drawback. When you are watching a movie in the summer and open the window, it is good if the movie is subtitled.
Everyone is interested in some tips on how to win the Olověný Dušan next time. Tomáš, you have been through several studios at school, what is special here?
Vojtíšek: I think it starts with the assignment. That is what convinced me, I did not have references from others. The assignment must fit me. Everyone went to the studio because they were tempted to work on the track.
Do you choose participants for your studio based on portfolios?
Valouch: Yes, mainly through portfolios, we do not use interviews yet. And if a student comes back to us who has proven themselves, we are happy to take them on. Of course, sometimes we make mistakes. In general, the studio selection process is a tricky subject for us. As a student, you may find yourself in a team that does not have that kind of drive. It can easily happen that you do not build a strong portfolio and it is very difficult to get out of the cycle. That is a certain unfairness of the school.
Stibral: The second year, where you go after ZAN, is, with exaggeration, the key to your career, it launches you. If you get into a cool studio, you will meet mostly motivated students and find it easier to get a place in the next semester. In the final stretch, the school portfolio greatly influences your entry into practice. We think about how to make the selection of students fair to us. People are running around the school, they are stressed, an interview here, a meeting there. Some people have their portfolios sent to them in advance. We do not have a selection guide yet.
Munich operates a system that is computer-based and automated.
Stibral: That sounds pretty scary, but maybe there is something to it.
Valouch: And how do the students see it?
Vojtíšek: I have experience from a faculty of civil engineering, where you enroll in a studio as a course without any personal contact with the supervisor. You do not even send a portfolio, whoever signs up first has a chance. It is also unfair and odd.
Malinská: My whole freshman year I had distance learning, and at the beginning of my sophomore year I did not know a single studio, a supervisor, or see a single exhibition of work. I had no idea what to do. I went to the Valouch-Stibral studio because you were the last one to present the studio assignments.
And what were the milestones of the semester?
Vojtíšek: There was a deadline of about three weeks for the plot. And then we had a presentation during the semester with an outside critic. I thought it was great to have someone from the outside in the middle of the work.
Valouch: It was Petr Nacházel, a classmate of mine, who tried to meet the students so they could get positive feedback, not just the opinion that everything was wrong. And at the end of the semester we invited Ondřej Synek from re:architekti, who was also great and consistent, he went through all the projects and I think he gave constructive feedback to the students.
Stibral: I would like to mention another milestone in the semester, which was a weekend workshop in Slavonice, where we made a bigger presentation in the third part of the semester. Another joint event was a trip to Berlin for a few days.
How do you as students evaluate the feedback? What did your supervisors tell you during the semester?
Vojtíšek: I did an urban planning project, which is always difficult for the studio heads. Especially when every student has a different job. The assignment is always based on a broader knowledge of the area. I was working with the leftover space of the former Prague - Vršovice marshalling yard, where the high-speed line will run. When the supervisor does not know the site well, they get most of the information from the student and start to perceive the site through their eyes.
Architecture is simpler in this?
Valouch: I think so. When we design urbanism, we actually define the rules of future development – the spacing of buildings, the width of roads, how public and private space behaves. We remind ourselves over and over that we design more streets and less houses. But urban planning is a terribly difficult discipline. With houses, these things are more obvious.
Vojtíšek: I prefer criticism that raises more questions towards me. I have fun with the teacher and other things come up that I have not thought about. Moreover, with urbanism it is hard to say what is right and what is wrong.
Is it a good thing that at the faculty there are not only urban design studios and broader relationships are also explored where otherwise mainly houses are designed?
Valouch: Designing wider areas is part of our work. I prefer to jump in the water and try to swim. Even if you miss the first time, you usually get there. In practice, as architects, we encounter small and large-scale assignments. And the opportunity to look for broader rules that can shape the city is great. It is also a theme in today's society, which can be seen in the competitions that are announced – whole new neighbourhoods are being built.
Stibral: If planning does not count for anything, a nice house will not save anything.
But how to show all the ideas to people? When you walk through the fifth room at the faculty exhibition, you stop perceiving. Have you discussed the layout of the exhibition?
Stibral: The final presentation was locked from the top after joint discussions with the students. Our ambition was to make the installation have a clear, if possible simple spatial experience. The studio space is relatively small in relation to the number of students and we did not want one to be overwhelmed as soon as one enters. We specified the layout, unified the papers, printed in one printer,...
Valouch: We are quite loose in the assignment, but in the end we want the outputs to be consistent. Each semester we print a book in which we wrap all the projects. This tool has been very successful for us; the books help students figure out what to say, how to deliver it, and serve as an archive and tangible memory of past semesters.
Malinská: It helped me a lot at the end, I knew what to do and how to get a clear output. My friends at the show appreciated that they knew right away who was working on which assignment – by the colour of the portfolios – urban planning was grey, bachelor's projects were red. They knew what they were looking at without having to read it.
You have been doing a lot of unifying the form of the handover. But unlike other studios, you allowed yourself freedom in the graphic style of the visualizations. Did everyone create them the way they needed to?
Valouch: Rather, how they can.
Stibral: As with the models, where we unified the space and encouraged students to launch their design, making it out of, for example, sheet metal, brick, 3D printing,... We wanted to speak a common language, but allow each student freedom.
Vojtíšek: Which I think is the optimal ratio of what is unified and what is not. We have a unified format, there is a possibility to compare projects with each other, but the final form is up to everyone.
Stibral: Perhaps it makes it easier for the viewer to read. You are not burdened with a varied form of presentation, but you focus straight on the project. We did not do the classic long sails where all the data is accumulated, but we decided to let only some of the outcomes come out.
I wanted to take a closer look at your project, Petra. Were you reacting to today's plans proposing access from Karlín to Vítkov via an elevator inside the hill? You have chosen an elegant solution where the staircase is integrated into the house, which suddenly becomes a public space.
Malinská: I deliberately tried not to look at it, I knew there were suggestions, but I did not want to be influenced by them
Valouch: I think this urban linkage is so great that if there ends up being more connections, it will only be a good thing.
Of course, the design reminded me of the houses in Tbilisi, which is very much in the hills. There are footbridges leading from the apartment buildings and the landlady will take you up in the elevator for a few coins.
Malinská: I have not been to this suburb, although I have seen the photographs. But I have experienced the atmosphere of Georgia. And when you put it that way, it may have had an effect, but probably not consciously.
What other assignments are you working on now?
Vojtíšek: I am doing my diploma on affordable community housing in Vršovice near Bohemka. It is more or less on the same track, but closer to the centre.
Malinská: As a civic building I chose the LDN in Barrandov by Michal Kuzemenský.
And you as a studio?
Stibral: Now we are working on an industrial complex in Vratislavice between Liberec and Jablonec nad Nisou, we have mainly younger classes. It is different and we are curious to see what else will come out of us this year.
Valouch: Thanks to the past students for working all semester, not being in conflict with us. It was synergistic and they put in a lot of work.
Good luck for the next submissions!
The interview was conducted by Pavel Fuchs.
You can see the work of all students from the Valouch-Stibral studio HERE.